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08.19.10

The Ann Coulter You Don't Know

The flap over Coulter’s speech to a gay Republican group shows that the right’s provocateur is a heck of a lot of more complicated than she’s made out to be.

“Wait until you hear what Ann Coulter did now” has become a cable news era cliché—up there with “fair and balanced,” “we report, you decide,” and “can I please get a word in edgewise, Mr. Carville?” So upon learning that Ann has found her way into another controversy—a sadly overused word when applied to Ms. Coulter—the natural temptation is to brace oneself. This, after all, is the woman who mused—in jest?—that perhaps America would be better off if women couldn't vote.

One of the carefully guarded secrets of Ann Coulter world is how much she is not hated and—dare one say it—even liked by many within the dreaded liberal elite.

No doubt to the surprise of Coulter haters—and "hate" is not too strong a word here—the supposed Bellatrix Lestrange of the Republican Party recently took a stand that the more rational among them might even applaud. When informed she could not participate in a political conference if she kept a commitment to speak to a group of gay Republicans, Ms. Coulter told organizers just what they could do with their conference. Noting that she speaks to all kinds of groups whose views she does not necessarily agree with—“the main thing I do is speak on college campuses, which is about the equivalent of speaking at an al Qaeda conference”—Coulter, in her own style, stood for something that conservatives are supposed to believe in: the free exchange of ideas. Few, of course, have exercised that particular privilege with more vigor than the woman who famously labeled Katie Couric “the affable Eva Braun” of the liberal movement.

Lately, in fact, Coulter has been making a habit of getting on the bad side of the right’s Dwight Schrutes, even at the risk of alienating some of her book buyers and website subscribers. She was, for example, an early and outspoken opponent of the Obama birther movement, calling its adherents a collection of “cranks.” And in response to commentator Bill Kristol’s haughty demand that Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele resign because Steele criticized the military surge in Afghanistan, Coulter turned the tables. “Bill Kristol Should Resign,” she wrote, thus fearlessly taking on one of the Grand Poobahs of today’s GOP and provoking a needed debate within the conservative movement over the dangers of supporting every military action at every time under every circumstance.

Tolerance for differing viewpoints…a willingness to stand up to the GOP’s titans…is this the Ann Coulter that liberals loathe and Republicans love? That is exactly her. But you’re not supposed to tell anyone. In fact, one of the carefully guarded secrets of Ann Coulter world is how much she is not hated and—dare one say it—even liked by many within the dreaded liberal elite. Well-credentialed members of the mainstream media privately extol her. Among her friends is the decidedly unconservative talk show host Bill Maher, on whose cable program she frequently appeared. “Unlike so many people in America, she was not afraid to get booed,” Mr. Maher once said of his pal. But at a quasi-debate with Maher, Coulter showed the limits of her affection. “Bill wants me to behave like a wife who laughs each time she hears her husband tell the same story,” she told her audience. (Predictably she did not oblige.) To the shock, awe, and dismay of many on the left, Coulter even has dated a number of liberal acolytes, including a one-time aide to Joe Biden and the former president of the New York City Council. There are even anecdotal cases of—brace yourselves—actual kindness.

I can attest to this unsettling phenomenon. Some years ago, a geeky political nerd from Michigan came to Capitol Hill with grandiose dreams and a debilitating shyness. Few among the great potentates and perennial climbers of the United States Senate had much time for the lugs at the bottom. But Ann did. Though a senior aide to a U.S. Senator, she took the time to get to know the rest of us, ask our opinions, share stories, and be a friend. Even then I knew that Coulter would not be long for the dreary rituals and bloviating self-absorption of Capitol Hill. Instead she became a media star.

More than a decade later, when I wrote a book about my experiences in Washington I asked my publisher if Ann could read it. I figured she wouldn’t remember me and expected a polite rebuff. Instead Ann got to it quickly and wrote a generous blurb. When the book received criticism from prominent Bush aides and some conservative friends waited out the deluge from a comfortable distance, Ann Coulter stood by with her support, even appearing on Fox News to lend a hand and correct the facts.

I jokingly told her that from here on out I’d punch anyone who attacked her in my presence. “You’re going to be pretty busy,” she instantly replied.

None of this is to say that Ann Coulter hasn’t deserved the animosity or opposition she has received over the years—and which she sometimes has shrewdly cultivated. She knew well what she was doing when she boldly criticized the 9/11 widows or poked fun at Senator John Edwards before that particular sport became a national pastime. And most likely she wouldn’t take back a single offending word she has ever uttered.

But there is a reason why all the latter-day Coulter imitators on cable news channels have been about as cutting edge as a J.C. Penney commercial. People—at least those who matter—usually are more complicated than their caricatures. It’s too bad that politics doesn’t allow us to see more public figures that way.

Matt Latimer is the author of the New York Times bestseller, SPEECH-LESS: Tales of a White House Survivor. He was deputy director of speechwriting for George W. Bush and chief speechwriter for Donald Rumsfeld.