Ann Coulter and I were well into a bottle of white Bordeaux--and I believe she was chewing her fourth piece of Nicorette--when it happened. From what little I knew of her--mainly her propensity for declamations such as "liberals love America like O.J. loved Nicole"--I thought it impossible for Coulter to blush. Many of her fans would later tell me it was her fearlessness they admired, her fully unburdened sense of outrage against liberalism, against anyone left of Joseph McCarthy (whom Coulter flattered in her best-selling book Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism).
But in person, Coulter is more likely to offer jokes than fury. For instance, you might ask her to name her historical antecedents in the conservative movement, and she'll burst forth, "I'm Attila the Hun," and then break into gales of laughter so forceful you smell the Nicorette. "Genghis Khan!"
So finally, I asked that she be serious. I wanted to see the rancor that allegedly is her sole contribution to public discourse (that and being a "lying liar," in Al Franken's estimation, as well as a "telebimbo" [Salon] and a "skank," according to a blog kept by Vanity Fair's James Wolcott). Why, I asked, did she enjoy attacking others and being attacked?
She composed herself and offered a very Ann Coulter answer. "They're terrible people, liberals. They believe--this can really summarize it all--these are people who believe," she said, now raising her voice, "you can deliver a baby entirely except for the head, puncture the skull, suck the brains out and pronounce that a constitutional right has just been exercised. That really says it all. You don't want such people to like you!"
The couple at an adjacent table--which, this being Manhattan, was a handsbreadth away--visibly stiffened, and the man groaned. The woman looked at Coulter with white-hot hatred, and Coulter ... blushed.
"You're blushing," I marveled. As she continued to pinken and covered her mouth with a delicately thin hand, she giggled and protested, "I am not. I'm laughing. Maybe I'm a little drunk. There are a lot of things that would make me blush. Viciously attacking liberals would not."
"No, you are."
"I am not! 'And she had had several glasses of wine,'" she told me to write.
O.K., she had, but whether she was truly embarrassed, what I saw of Coulter in that moment was a personality far more labile and human than the umbrageous harridan I had expected. After all, one of her most voluble critics, writer Eric Alterman (What Liberal Media?) told TIME, "The idea that she doesn't coarsen our culture and make it more difficult to speak complicated truths is nonsense."
But while Coulter can occasionally be coarse--she's not one of those conservatives who won't say "f___" two or three times over dinner--she doesn't seem particularly uncomplicated. When I spoke with her friend Miguel Estrada, an attorney and onetime White House nominee for a judgeship (Estrada asked President Bush to withdraw his name in 2003 after a Democratic filibuster targeted Estrada's conservatism), he said Coulter's appeal 15 years ago, when they met, was "the same as it is today. She was lively and funny and engaging and boisterous and outrageous and a little bit of a polemicist ... Most of the time, people miss her humor and satire and take her way too literally."