The Gonzo of Coulter

The conservative pundit is as misunderstood as her true forebear, Hunter Thompson.

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“There is no way to grasp what a shallow, contemptible, and hopelessly dishonest old hack Hubert Humphrey really is until you’ve followed him around for a while on the campaign trail.”
                                        —Hunter S. Thompson

“[Jodie] Evans is the founder of the ‘grassroots’ anti-American group ‘Code Pink,’ which is funded with the multiple millions of dollars she got in her divorce from billionaire Max Palevsky. . . . However much Max Palevsky paid to divorce Evans, he got a bargain.”
                                        —Ann Coulter

His name is Floyd and he drinks Maker’s Mark bourbon, and as midnight approached on Nov. 28, 2007, I was buying Floyd’s whiskey at Shelly’s Backroom Tavern on F St. in downtown Washington, D.C.

Floyd is a handsome man about six feet tall, with gray hair and a passing resemblance to Richard Gere. Unlike Gere, however, Floyd is neither a Buddhist nor a liberal. He’s a former New York City policeman, and his business is security. A few feet from where Floyd stood quietly enjoying his bourbon that November night, his client sat on a sofa drinking a glass of white wine (also my treat) and laughing with her admirers.

Ann Coulter doesn’t routinely hang out and socialize with her fans, but this was a special occasion. The National Journalism Center that evening had held its 30th anniversary dinner where Coulter, perhaps the center’s most famous alumna, had been the featured speaker. Afterwards, investigative journalist Richard Miniter (also an NJC alum) had suggested that Coulter join us as we adjourned across the street to Shelly’s, a cigar bar where D.C.’s smoking ban does not apply.

So there we were, a couple dozen of us including Coulter’s NJC classmate Washington Times copy editor Peter J. Parisi, relaxing at Shelly’s when, about 10:30 p.m., I thought to place a call to Washington Times deputy national editor Victor Morton. “Victor, you’ve got to get down here—Ann’s here.”

Victor and I sat next to each other at the national desk, and at some point every Wednesday evening, after first-edition deadline, Victor would say to me, “Stacy, it is Wednesday.” Then we would both go online to read Coulter’s latest column and laugh at her jokes. It became a weekly ritual for us, and I knew that Victor wouldn’t want to miss the chance to meet Ann in person.
That night in November, however, Victor was very busy on the national desk. It was the night of the Republican presidential debate in St. Petersburg, Florida—the CNN/YouTube debate—and it was Victor’s job to edit the final story for the second edition, which didn’t clear the desk until midnight. If Victor was to meet Ann Coulter, I’d have to find a way to keep her at the bar until he could get there. So I went to Floyd and explained the problem. He said it was getting late already, that it was unusual for Coulter to stay out so late, and she had appointments to keep the next day. However, if I’d buy Ann a Pinot Grigio, he’d see if he could get her to hang out until Victor arrived. I ordered the wine, and bought Floyd a Maker’s Mark for his troubles.

This proved an excellent investment, for when Victor at last arrived and was introduced to Coulter, he mentioned that he had been editing the debate coverage and instantly became her new best friend. She invited him to sit down and tell her all about it, and for the next hour-and-a-half they sat side-by-side on that sofa, chatting amiably as if they’d known each other all their lives.

We closed the bar that night and forevermore, when Victor and I meet for drinks, he’s buying.

“A sense of humor is not considered mandatory for those who want to get heavy into presidential politics. Junkies don’t laugh much; their gig is too serious – and the politics junkie is not much different on that score than a smack junkie.”
                                        —Hunter S. Thompson

The most important thing to understand about Hunter S. Thompson (and not even most gonzo fans seem to get this point) is that he never planned to become a journalist. As a teenager, he dreamed of becoming a novelist after the model of his heroes Fitzgerald and Hemingway, and later stumbled into journalism as a way to pay the bills. That fact undoubtedly accounts for Thompson’s flagrant disregard—indeed, his towering contempt—for all that J-school crap about Ethics and Objectivity. You see this even in his first book, Hell’s Angels, in which Thompson dismisses as “hired bullshit” the misleading coverage that the national press corps provided about the bike-gang menace.

Politically, Thompson was a man of the Left, to whom Republicans symbolized the respectable, conformist instinct he scorned as “Rotarianism.” But he also despised as inauthentic such typical postwar liberals as Hubert Humphrey and Ed Muskie, so when he finally decided to get into political journalism—back then, the idea of a campaign correspondent for Rolling Stone was shockingly radical—his commitments were clear. In late 1971, the conventional wisdom peddled by the “hired bullshit” journalists was that Muskie was a cinch for the Democratic nomination. Thompson didn’t believe it, didn’t want to believe it, and from the outset lined up solidly behind George McGovern. The result was some of the most fantastically un-objective journalism in history, and arguably the most readable account of a presidential campaign ever written.

Given the Newtonian opposition of their political loyalties, and their vastly different literary ouevres, the fans of Hunter S. Thompson and the fans of Ann Coulter are very near to being mutually exclusive sets. A Venn diagram would show an almost infinitesimal overlap between Set A (those who admire the drug-addled king of gonzo) and Set B (those who admire the acid-tongued right-wing blonde). Yet as one of the few occupants of Set AB, I find striking parallels between the two, and wonder why others don’t also see these parallels.

Coulter never planned to become a novelist, but she actually tried to avoid a career in journalism. In her speech to NJC’s 30th anniversary banquet, she explained how her mentor—conservative journalist M. Stanton Evans, the center’s original director—had been disappointed that, after her internship in the spring of 1985, Coulter decided to go to law school at the University of Michigan. There followed a clerkship with a federal judge and a stint as an attorney in New York before Coulter returned to Washington in the mid-1990s as a Senate Judiciary Committee staffer. That position led in turn to her becoming a featured commentator on MSNBC, the perch from which she sprang to national prominence. She got herself axed from MSNBC just in time for the Lewinsky scandal—her free agency permitting her to expand her audience bouncing between appearances on CNN and Fox—while she finished her first book, High Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Case Against Bill Clinton.

Here, then, is one of the biggest misconceptions about Coulter. When she made her debut as a controversial TV “pundette”—a coinage that was applied in the mid-90s to a group of female Republican commentators that also included Monica Crowley and Kelly Anne Fitzpatrick (nee Conway)—she was already in her mid-30s, and was 36 when she published her first book. One nowadays encounters College Republican girls who aspire to be The Next Ann Coulter, but seem to imagine they’ll attain national fame as commentators by age 24. Coulter herself sought to temper such unrealistic expectation during her NJC speech, telling one young questioner during the Q-and-A session: “Nobody cares about your opinions when you’re 24. You don't know anything when you’re 24.”

Similarly, many young admirers of Hunter S. Thompson think that all they need is a colorful vocabulary, an obnoxious attitude and a penchant for substance abuse to attain precocious gonzo glory. In fact, Thompson paid some serious dues before vaulting to national fame. Joining the Air Force at 18, he managed to land an assignment as sports editor of the base newspaper at Eglin AFB in Florida, meanwhile moonlighting under a pen-name for a local civilian paper. After being discharged, Thompson bounced around through several short-lived jobs (including a stint as a copy boy at Time magazine) before spending a year doing freelance journalism from Latin America. He was married and living in San Francisco with a young son, eking out a meager existence on occasional freelance assignments, when he did a story about the Hell’s Angels for The Nation that led to his first book, published in 1966.

Thompson was then 29 years old and had been a working journalist for a full decade, and yet today it seems that every college sophomore who’s ever done a record review for a crappy “alternative” weekly thinks himself on the verge of full-blown gonzo fame. This is absurd, as I heard Thompson’s widow explain at a book-signing a couple months before Coulter’s speech at the NJC.

Anita Thompson was 30 when she became her husband’s second wife in 2003, after working four years as his assistant. Since his suicide in 2005 at age 67, his widow has struggled to come to grips with the loss. Her book, The Gonzo Way: A Celebration of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, attempts to distill the larger meaning of the writer and his work. At her September 2007 book-signing in Washington, Anita took dead aim at how Thompson’s admirers misunderstand his legend: “A lot of young people are under the assumption that if you do a lot of cocaine and drink a lot of Wild Turkey, you, too, can write like Hunter S. Thompson.”

Binge drinking won’t make you gonzo, just as being blonde and opinionated won’t make you a cable-news celebrity, but these are the superficial notions harbored by the wannabe admirers of Thompson and Coulter—and also by their critics. There was a certain high-wire performance-artist ethos to Thompson’s outsized persona, just as it often seems that the entire purpose of booking Coulter on TV is the producers’ hope that she’ll finally utter the outrage that ends her career. Beneath these superficialities, however, the reader encounters writers of unquestionable talent. Thompson was capable of detailed and insightful reporting, and Coulter’s books are based on prodigious research—Guilty provides 34 pages of endnotes for a 264-page book. But in both cases, their reputations precede them, so that those who abjure the drug culture can’t get past Thompson’s stoned image to appreciate his reporting, and those who despise Republicans can’t get past Coulter’s right-wing image to appreciate her research.

Likewise, neither Thompson nor Coulter neatly fit the pigeonholes into which hostile critics would cram them. Thompson may have been a drug-addled lefty, but he also had the chivalrous charm of a Kentucky gentleman whose courtesy and hospitality endeared him to friends. Coulter is widely viewed as particularly venomous right-winger, but she is also a fan of the Ramones and the Grateful Dead who used to date Spin publisher Bob Guccione Jr. And if it’s impossible to imagine them agreeing on anything else, Thompson’s fierce enthusiasm for the Second Amendment is something Coulter would appreciate.

What I appreciate about them both is their ability to make me laugh. I was a teenage dopehead (and a Democrat) when I first encountered Thompson’s fiendish wit, and still laugh when I re-read my tattered paperback of Fear and Loathing On the Campaign Trail ’72, with its hyperbolic putdowns of Humphrey, Muskie, and Tom Eagleton, the “harmless, Catholic, neo-liberal Rotarian nebbish” whose hidden psychiatric problem finally doomed the McGovern campaign, assuming it wasn’t doomed from the start.

More than three decades later, no one remembers how serious it all seemed back then, just as no one now seems to recall that John Edwards was once considered a serious contender for the 2008 Democratic nomination—even as he was secretly cheating on his cancer-stricken wife. Coulter had provoked outrage in February 2007 by dismissing Edwards as a “faggot,” and in Guilty, she clearly relishes his exposure as an adulterer, describing his fateful Los Angeles hotel encounter with reporters for the National Enquirer:
Edwards fled from the reporters and blockaded himself in a hotel bathroom until hotel security came to rescue him. Even more suspicious, while Edwards was barricaded in the bathroom, no one reported hearing sounds of a blow dryer. If only Republican Larry Craig had been in that bathroom, NBC might have covered it!

With Barack Obama now safely ensconced in the White House, perhaps even Democrats can now laugh with Ann Coulter at the foibles of Edwards, and wonder how anyone ever thought him to be presidential timber. But her enemies are mostly political junkies and junkies don’t laugh much, do they? Maybe they’d laugh if she called Obama a “shallow, contemptible, and hopelessly dishonest old hack”—but Hillary Clinton has claimed dibs on that.

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