A review of Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism, by Ann Coulter

Arrived in Montreal, I put aside Ann Coulter's book, and descended the gangway. At the baggage claim area I spotted a newsstand. I was drawn to the headline featuring—Ann Coulter.

That day's copy of the National Post boasted Coulter at the top of the page in full color, her long blond hair southbound, interrupted only by a news headline. Alongside her picture the text was, "ANN COULTER: New York Times publisher is a traitor to U.S. Comment. A10."

Her advertised finding certainly warranted immediate examination. But I did of course wonder, as I turned the pages, whether the lure of textual tabloidization had taken over in the Post, the straight Toronto daily founded only five years earlier (and sold in 2001) by the conservative Conrad Black, now Lord Black. And I was curious to know whether Ms. Coulter had sharpened her taxonomic tools since writing the book I was reading.

She wasted no time passing sentence.

"During my recent book tour, I resisted the persistent, illiterate request that I name traitors. With a great deal of charity—and suspension of disbelief—I was willing to concede that many liberals were merely fatuous idiots. But after the New York Times's despicable editorial on the two-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack, I am prepared—just this once—to name a traitor: Pinch Sulzberger, publisher of the Times."

What followed was two ad hominem references to Sulzberger (he allegedly hadn't made it into Columbia University) embedded in a boiling-mad 600-word account of the offending New York Times editorial. She paraphrased its meaning: "When General Pinochet staged his coup against a Marxist strong man [in 1973], the U.S. did not stop him—as if Latin American generals were incapable of doing coups on their own. And—I quote [the editorial]—'It was September 11.' Parsed to its essentials, the Times's position is: We deserved it."

I dug up the editorial in question. It was titled, "The Other Sept. 11," and undertook the dark comparison without mincing words. "Death came from the skies," it began. "A building—a symbol of the nation—collapsed in flames in an act of terror that would lead to the deaths of 3,000 people. It was September 11."

Get it? Coulter certainly got it. The overthrow of Salvador Allende on 9/11/73 had led to 3,000 deaths—the same death toll as in 9/11/01. Not immediately dead, the Chileans, but dead in the weeks and early years ahead of the military dictatorship.

So here we Americans found ourselves, on September 11, 28 years later, confronting our own tragic loss of life. The Times was calling on us to reflect that for all the apparent differences between the two 9/11's, a blood line ran from Santiago, 1973, to New York, 2001. The preacher's apocalyptic simile had poetical and material weaknesses. 

The Chilean building in which Allende died did not, in fact, collapse in flames. The flames were doused. A random act of terror in 2001 is not the same as a coup d'etat in 1973. The staging of the Chilean coup did not call for "death from the skies." It was in fact conceived as a bloodless coup.

But all of that is by the way in an inquiry into the Coulter thinking machine, which is my mission. What she wrote was that 1) the publisher of the newspaper that 2) printed an editorial that 3) reiterated the old historical argument that denounced U.S. acquiescence in the removal of Allende, was 4) engaging moral equivalence and therefore, 5) a traitor. We don't need to come up with the weaknesses, or even the depravities, in the Times's reasoning. But even as Ms. Coulter clearly intends to shock, why shouldn't her reader register that shock? By wondering whether she is out of her mind, or has simply lost her grip on language.

What except that prompts her to come up with (or the Post to publicize) her syllogism? The man who heads the paper that employs an editorial writer who dangles the proposition that a thought given to moral equivalency is appropriate and humbling on September 11, 2003 is a "traitor"? That end-of-the-road word, bear always in mind, is hers. Coulter is a law school graduate and isn't using the "T"-word loosely. The opening sentences of her article reject any such explanation. She means to charge that Sulzberger is engaged in traitorous activity. That, after all, is what traitors engage in.

* * *

The thought-process used here is everywhere in evidence in her best-selling book, Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism. The book's central contention is that liberals critically situated on the American scene aren't fatuous asses—that's baby talk. They are enemies of the United States and of American freedom.

As expected, much of the book is devoted to rejecting commonly accepted charges against Senator Joe McCarthy. She gives the reader the names of a dozen indisputably traitorous actors who worked in government while concealing their ties to the Soviet Union. Quite properly, she lists Alger Hiss and Owen Lattimore as prime examples of liberal obstinacy, and she wonders very much out loud whether that obstinacy arose because these liberals were concerned with due process and the presumption of innocence and all that, or whether they were, in heart and mind, on the Soviet side in the Cold War. McCarthy simply made up the charge that Lattimore was the "top agent" of the Soviets in the United States, but that exaggeration did not mean that the evidence against Lattimore, Communist agent, was less than overwhelming.

But as one reads along, one gets used to exaggerations—not McCarthy's, but Coulter's. She is carried away. Yes, the Rosenbergs were justly and correctly executed for treason, but get a load of the language that flows from it, in the hands of Ms. Coulter. She is talking about the famous Army-McCarthy contest and focusing now on the army dentist. The McCarthy committee spotted Major Irving Peress, a Communist, who had been kept on in the army and even promoted. "When were they [the army] to learn? Thanks to the Army's incompetence in dealing with the Rosenbergs, nearly 300 million Americans would spend the second half of the 20th century under threat of nuclear annihilation." That is something of a stretch, for-want-of-a-nail compounded to the 10th power. The Coulter reader, impelled by the momentum of Coulter, Historian, might wonder why, in high pitch of wrath and anger, she let the army off merely with the charge of incompetence. Why not make the army traitorous, too?

She writes with scorn and derision of the critics of McCarthy and of the lengths to which many of them went, and still do. The late Brent Bozell and I spent 18 months attempting to distinguish what McCarthy had said and charged in the years we examined, and where (not often) he was indefensible. Our book was titled McCarthy And His Enemies, because we sought to make the point that many enemies of McCarthy had earned a derision and contempt that they nevertheless never had experienced in the cooler, reflective chambers of historical criticism. Coulter's rejoinders to many of McCarthy's critics are well aimed, and the offenders eminently vulnerable. In an introduction to a new edition of McCarthy and His Enemies, in 1961, I wrote that "The McCarthy business of course was deadly serious, and if it was not, there surely was no excuse either for his activities or his enemies'." I was under the mistaken impression, in 1961, that the totality of such as Richard Rovere expressed in his book Senator Joe McCarthy, would bring a critical reaction: "Can it be, indeed, that we are coming out of it?" That is, out of hysterical anti-McCarthyism? The terminal extremities of the Rovere book, I judged, "may prove to have been the great disintegrating thunderclap that shattered the storm cradle itself. Perhaps this volume [McCarthy and His Enemies] can now be read in the grayish light that augurs the dawn of a national composure on the subject of McCarthyism. There are already those who are embarrassed by the lengths to which McCarthy's enemies went in prosecuting their myth. Lord Bertrand Russell actually said that McCarthy had made it unsafe for Americans to read Thomas Jefferson."

Arthur Herman's Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America's Most Hated Senator, published in 1999, sought to be balanced. Coulter goes in the opposite direction, sounding sometimes like Roy Cohn, whose defenses of McCarthy were in the language of biblical inerrancy: "If he said it (did it), it was the right thing to say (to do)." But as we have seen, Coulter is much, much more extreme in her judgments than McCarthy ever was, though from one particular passage of McCarthy she takes explicit encouragement, ending up on the road to Pinch-as-traitor.

Senator McCarthy, I wrote a few years ago (in my novel, The Redhunter), here and there gave evidence of being the prototypical John Bircher—the man who believes that the objective consequences of a man's deeds reflect his subjective designs. Coulter approvingly recalls the sentence from McCarthy's speech against General George Marshall that makes exactly that point. "If Marshall was merely stupid," McCarthy said, "the laws of probability would dictate that part of his decisions would serve America's interests." That sentence declares, in a word, that George Marshall was in fact a Communist agent. One pauses, if only for a tiny moment. Could Ann Coulter really believe that? Naw. She is just making rhetoric, as in the Pinch-is-a-traitor column.

* * *

Yet no mention of Ms. Coulter's work should omit acknowledgment of her adroit wit in treating of political correctness. She has a lovely passage on PC's fatuity:

In early December 2001, "60 Minutes" host Steve Kroft interviewed [Transportation Secretary Norman] Mineta about his approach to securing the airlines from terrorist attack. Kroft observed that of twenty-two men currently on the FBI's most-wanted list, "all but one of them has complexion listed as olive. They all have dark hair and brown eyes. And more than half of them have the name Mohammed." Thus, he asked Mineta if airport security should give more scrutiny to someone named Mohammed—"just going down a passenger manifest list: Bob, Paul, John, Frank, Steven, Mohammed." The secretary of transportation said, "No." In fact, Mineta was mystified by Kroft's question, asking him, "Why should Mohammed be singled out?" The Federal Aviation Administration had a computer profiling system on passengers, but it actually excluded mention of passengers' race, ethnicity, national origin, or religion. (What does it have?)

There was the dogged New York Times defense of the so-called Lackawanna Muslims, brought in by the FBI and interrogated. The Times expressed deep sympathy for the detainees, and reported the dismay of their neighbors. "It was just like the Times's man-on-the-street interviews on Bush's tax plan. For the Times, an ordinary American is a sociology professor in Oregon whose wife teaches tantric sex at the community college." Coulter accosts the defense of the detained Yemeni-Americans to the effect that they were no more suspicious than the man next door with some of the data the FBI had come up with. "The prosecution's case, at least in part, is that a terrorist can be the kid next door. Yes—if the kid next door trained with al-Qaeda. Mohammed Atta lived next door to somebody, too. Don't all criminals live next door to somebody? What was the Times's point?"

There is a lot of such fun and shrewdness as this in Ann Coulter's book, but there is also mischief, which of course can be fun. Especially mischief about the other guy.