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In February Coulter went to Washington to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the premier annual event for movement conservatives. When she arrived, the Atrium Hall at the Ronald Reagan Building was hot with anticipation. Activists occupied every inch of available floor space; hundreds stood in the back. Wearing an ankle-length fur and a wide-eyed expression, Coulter had to be pushed through the crowd by a team of handlers. When she swept past the spot I was wedged into, the young men near me went aflutter. "Ann Coulter should be staying on our floor!" one said lasciviously. During a Q&A at a private reception later, another guy raised his hand and asked her out.
Coulter's speech was part right-wing stand-up routine--she called Senator Edward Kennedy "the human dirigible"--and part bloodcurdling agitprop. "Liberals like to scream and howl about McCarthyism," she concluded. "I say, let's give them some. They've had intellectual terror on the campus for years ... It's time for a new McCarthyism." Curtain.
Liberals who believe that Bush's is the show-no-weakness, make-no-apology presidency see Coulter as its Ur-spokeswoman. That is a facile insult both to Bush, who constantly professes a desire to unite the country, and to Coulter, who wouldn't mind if much of the country moved to Canada. But unlike Bill O'Reilly, the Fox News star, Coulter has never wobbled on Bush's signature deed, the war in Iraq. "The invasion of Iraq has gone fabulously well," she wrote last June, a few weeks after O'Reilly suggested the U.S. might need to pull out. Her only argument with Bush is that he isn't more like President Reagan. "'Compassionate conservative,'" she says, "carries the same negative implications as 'articulate black.'" Coulter believes not just in less government but in almost no government. She would eliminate the departments of Education, Commerce, Agriculture and several others. She opposes abortion rights and has written that court-ordered school-desegregation plans have led to "illiterate students knifing one another between acts of sodomy in the stairwell."
Coulter conveys an aura of privilege, wealth and--above all--certainty. "Would that we all could have the political and moral clarity that seems to come so effortlessly from Ann Coulter," wrote an admiring Lisa De Pasquale of the Luce Policy Institute last year in the conservative publication Human Events. But can it be effortless? One theory about Coulter is that she is less Joe McCarthy and more a right-wing Ali G, acting out a character who utters what the rest of us won't. ("That led him to masturbate into [White House] sinks?" she asked in 1999, when President Clinton's rough childhood was mentioned on Rivera Live.)
"This isn't a game," Coulter said at CPAC. "The fate of our troops isn't a game. The fate of the victims on 9/11 is not a game." But she told me several times that, as she put it in an e-mail, "most of what I say, I say to amuse myself and amuse my friends. I don't spend a lot of time thinking about anything beyond that."
So which is it? Is she a brave warrior or a shallow hack? Or is Ann Coulter that most unlikely of conservative subspecies: a hard-right ironist?