I have always admired Ann Coulter’s satiric skewering of liberal pieties and her bravery under fire. Not many conservatives can fight back with as much verve and venom as she can, and if politics is war conducted by other means, Ann is someone I definitely want on my side.
I began running Coulter columns on Frontpagemag.com shortly after she came up with her most infamous line, which urged America to put jihadists to the sword and convert them to Christianity. Liberals were horrified; I was not. I thought to myself, this is a perfect send-up of what our Islamo-fascist enemies believe – that as infidels we should be put to the sword and converted to Islam. I regarded Coulter’s phillipic as a Swiftian commentary on liberal illusions of multi-cultural outreach to people who want to rip out our hearts.
Another reason I have enjoyed Ann’s attacks on liberals is because they have been so richly deserved. No one wields the verbal knife more ruthlessly than so-called liberal pundits like Joe Conason, to cite but one example. I have been the subject of many below-the-belt Conason attacks. If people Joe Conason admired were the objects of acid Coulterisms, so much the better. If Conason was outraged, I was confident that justice had been done.
But now to my dismay, I find myself unable to find such satisfaction in Conason’s reaction to Ann’s new book Treason, or in the responses of other liberals like The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen (who has also attacked me in the past). In a review in the Post, Cohen dismisses Ann’s book as “Crackpot Conservatism,” reflecting the fact that their responses are not so much yelps of outrage as cackles over what they view as an argument so over the top that only true believers will take it seriously. It is distressing when someone you admire gives credibility to liberal attacks. But that, unfortunately, is what this book has done.
Here is the opening of Treason: “Liberals have a preternatural gift for striking a position on the side of treason. You could be talking about Scrabble and they would instantly leap to the anti-American position. Everyone says liberals love America, too. No they don’t. Whenever the nation is under attack, from within or without, liberals side with the enemy. This is their essence.”
As polemical satire this passage may work. But what if is not satire? Is it the case that liberals like Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy sided with the enemy? Of course not. They were anti-Communists, hated by the left as “cold war liberals.” And they were not alone. There were many liberals – Scoop Jackson and Jeanne Kirkpatrick among them – who were just as worthy defenders of America and prosecutors of the anti-Communist cause. Until 1963, Ronald Reagan was a pro-Kennedy, anti-Communist, cold war liberal. In Coulter’s book, Democrats (whom she inexplicably conflates with liberals) come under blistering attack for their perfidious role in the so-called “McCarthy Era.” A lot of what she says about Democrats is true, but nearly half the members of McCarthy's own Senate Subcommittee on Governmental Operations were Democrats (as were members of the later-demonized House's Un-American Activities Committee). Bobby Kennedy was a McCarthy staff lawyer. Not all Democrats were liberals and not all liberals sided with the enemy. In 1968, Tom Hayden – a radical supporter of the Communist cause in Vietnam -- organized a riot at the Democratic Party convention in order to destroy the presidential candidacy of Humbert Humphrey. The reason? Humphrey was an anti-Communist, pro-Vietnam War liberal.
By failing to draw a clear line between satirical exaggeration and historical analysis, by refusing to credit the laudable role played by patriotic, anti-Communist liberals like Truman, Kennedy and Humphrey, Coulter has compromised her case and undermined her attempt to correct a record that desperately needs correction. Liberals have – just as she charges – distorted postwar history to protect the guilty. Franklin Roosevelt did laugh off the information that Alger Hiss -- one of his top aides -- was a Soviet spy and did -- despite the warning -- elevate Hiss to be his one of his chief advisers both at Yalta and at the founding conference of the UN.
Democrats did allow the Communists to penetrate their party and their administrations in the 1930s and 1940s. The Truman Administration did dismiss Republican charges of Communist influence as partisan politics and was lackadaisical before 1947 in taking the internal Communist threat seriously. But in 1947 all that changed. Truman instituted a comprehensive loyalty program to ferret out Communist influence in government. It was the Truman Administration that prosecuted Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs. In fact the decisive battles of this era took place inside liberalism. It was Walter Reuther – a socialist – who purged the Communist from the CIO and it was Truman’s anti-Communist policies that provoked the Communists into leaving the Democratic Party and forming the Progressive Party to oppose his re-election in 1948.
By ignoring these complexities – or dismissing them -- Coulter makes her case seem indefensible, even when it is not. It is true as Coulter maintains, that the accusation of “McCarthyism” has been and still is used as a cover for treachery by the political Left. To pick a contemporary example she does not mention, leftwing groups like the ACLU, the American Association of University Professors and the National Lawyers Guild are currently defending the terrorist Sami al-Arian as a victim of “McCarthyism.” Al-Arian is one of three founders of the terrorist organization Palestine Islamic Jihad and responsible for the murders of 99 innocent people. No one familiar with the facts can doubt this. But the Left has chosen to defend al-Arian and put John Ashcroft and the Justice Department on trial instead. The anti-McCarthy Left did provide aid and comfort to the Soviet enemy and its agents inside the United States and is still doing so.
It is a shame that Coulter mars her case with claims that cannot be sustained. In making McCarthy the center of her history, ironically, she has fallen into the very liberal trap she warns about. It is the Left that wants McCarthy to be the center of (and in effect to define) the postwar era so that it can use his recklessness to discredit the anti-Communist cause. In fact, as Coulter herself points out, McCarthy began his anti-Communist crusade after the decisive battles of 1947 and 1948, surfacing only in 1950, after the onset of the Korean War. By then, even Henry Wallace, the Progressive Party’s presidential candidate, knew he had been duped. This is why McCarthy did not unearth any Communists in government or out (all they had all been previously identified by the FBI), and why FBI officials engaged in counter-intelligence work despised McCarthy for damaging their efforts. Hopefully, Treason will not have a similar effect.
On the other hand, there are many apercus in this book that are memorable. It was only in reading Coulter’s text that I realized what a fraud Joseph Welch -- the hero of all anti-McCarthy histories – was, and how his moment of glory in “exposing” McCarthy was a hypocritical sham. Coulter reminds us that one of McCarthy’s great “sins” was to have identified Owen Lattimore as Stalin’s chief agent in America. In fact, Lattimore was a supporter of Stalin’s and Mao’s political agendas and a willing tool of their policies, and that having been identified as such, he was hired by Harvard.
It is indignantly reported that McCarthy exaggerated. His claim that Owen Lattimore was a Soviet agent – as opposed to behaved like a Soviet agent – is hyperbole deserving of a hundred-year condemnation. [But] liberals’ threshold for outrage dropped when it came to McCarthy. In fact, McCarthy’s rhetoric was mild by the standards of his time. In President Truman’s 1948 campaign, he railed, ‘If anybody in this country is friendly to the Communists it is the Republicans.’ [Coulter]
Yet even the fact that Lattimore behaved like a Soviet agent is somewhat different from McCarthy’s claim that he was the chief Soviet agent. How did McCarthy’s mis-identifying Lattimore this way serve the anti-Communist cause? In fact, it served to discredit the anti-Communist cause. But Coulter wants us to think of McCarthy as the anti-Communist hero of the era: “In his brief fiery ride across the landscape, Joe McCarthy bought America another thirty years.” Quite the opposite has been argued by many anti-Communists, whom Coulter brusquely dismisses:
"Lost amid all the mandatory condemnations of Joe McCarthy’s name – he gave anti-Communism a bad name, did a disservice to the cause, was an unnecessary distraction – the little detail about his being right always seems to get lost. McCarthy’s fundamental thesis was absolutely correct: The Democratic Party had fallen to the allures of totalitarianism.” But, if this was true, why did the totalitarians abandon the Democratic Party en masse in 1948? The answer is that McCarthy’s thesis was incorrect, and Coulter is just wrong about his political impact. He exploited the anti-Communist sentiment that was already the popular wisdom of the time, and by giving flesh to the fears of open-ended witch-hunts allowed the Communist Left to regroup, and ultimately – in 1972 to be precise – return to the Democratic Party fold.
Many of the inaccurate generalizations of Treason are indeed the hyperbole of Coulterian satire, but unfortunately the most crucial ones are not. I realized this when I saw Ann defending her claims on Chris Matthews’ Hardball:
Chris Matthews: What do you mean by the cover of this book?
Ann Coulter: What I mean is that the Democratic Party, as an entity, has become functionally treasonable, including what you’re talking about, turning over documents to the enemy….
Chris Matthews: Well, should they be prosecuted?
Ann Coulter: I wish it were that easy a problem, but that trivializes the point of my book, which is not that there are just a few dozen traitors out there. It is that the entire party cannot root for America.
Chris Matthews: Well, let’s talk about the leaders of the Democratic Party over the years. Was Jack Kennedy a traitor? Was he guilty of treason?
Ann Coulter: He was not as strong a president as a Republican would have been. But I’m referring, as I say again, I’m referring to a party that is functionally treasonable….
Chris Matthews: Was Jack Kennedy a traitor?
Ann Coulter: No, he was not a traitor.
Chris Matthews: Was he guilty of treason?
Ann Coulter: His heart was in the right place but he was surrounded by bad policymakers and he harm[ed] the country and its national security.
This exchange made me extremely uncomfortable. When somebody as smart and as gutsy as Ann Coulter equivocates over so direct a question – Was Jack Kennedy a traitor? -- you know (and they know) – that something is very wrong with the position they are defending. Equally disturbing was Coulter’s use of the phrase, “functionally treasonable” – as in “[the Democratic Party] has become functionally treasonable.” This is a problematic phrase on several counts. In the first place, “treasonable” is not a word but seems to suggest “capable of treason,” which is different from being actually treasonous. The distinction is important.
But “functionally treasonable” is also disturbingly reminiscent of the old Stalinist term “objectively fascist.” This was how people who swore their loyalty to the cause were condemned (often to death) if they deviated from the party line. Stalinists defined all dissent as “objectively” treacherous. This is not a path that conservatives should follow. When intent and individuality are separated from actions in a political context, we are entering a totalitarian realm where Ann Coulter does not really want to be.
Why is she equivocating about Jack Kennedy, anyway? Kennedy was not only not a traitor, he was not even a weak anti-Communist, as she claims. He was arguably stronger than Eisenhower or Nixon in prosecuting the Cold War. His politics were that of Ronald Reagan. He was a militant anti-Communist and a military hawk, authorizing the largest defense buildup in peacetime history. What can she mean when she says that Kennedy was “surrounded by bad policymakers” – i.e., policymakers who were presumably liberals and therefore harmed the country and its national security? Kennedy was surrounded by Republican policymakers. His secretaries of State, Defense and Treasury – the three key foreign policy posts – were all Republicans. He launched his administration by declaring that America would pay any price to defend the cause of freedom. He tried to overthrow Castro by force. It’s true that he bungled the invasion but Dwight Eisenhower failed the Hungarians in 1956, while Nixon and Kissinger betrayed the Vietnamese in the infamous truce of 1973. In 1961, Kennedy stood the Russians down in Berlin – risking nuclear war to do so – and a year later he again risked nuclear war to force the removal of Soviet missiles in Cuba. He put 16,000 troops into Vietnam rather than write that country off to the Communists. Why is Ann equivocating on the question of his loyalty and commitment to the anti-Communist cause?
It is important for conservatives to make distinctions between those on the Left who were (and are) traitors or self-conceived enemies of the United States, and those who were (and are) the fellow-travelers of enemies of the United States, and those who are neither traitors, nor enemies, nor friends and protectors of enemies, but are American patriots who disagree with conservatives over tactical and policy issues. It is important, first because it is just, but also because it is a condition of democracy. Citizens will disagree over many issues and matters. In order for the democratic process to survive, all parties must refrain from attempts to de-legitimize those who disagree with them, provided they have legitimate concerns and dissents. If every Democrat is a traitor, if “the entire party cannot root for America,” we are left with a one party system.
The final reason for making these distinctions is that this charge – that no Democrat, apparently including Jack Kennedy, can root for America -- is obviously absurd, and if conservatives do not recognize that it is absurd, nobody is going to listen to us. That is why Conason and Cohen are cackling rather than yelping. That is why Conason doesn’t even think he has to answer her claims, only list them:
“Whether they are defending the Soviet Union or bleating for Saddam Hussein, liberals are always against America,” according to [Coulter’s] demonology. “They are either traitors or idiots, and on the matter of America’s self-preservation, the difference is irrelevant. Fifty years of treason hasn’t slowed them down.” And: “Liberals relentlessly attack their country, but we can’t call them traitors, which they manifestly are, because that would be ‘McCarthyism,’ which never existed.” (Never existed? Her idol gave his 1952 book that very word as its title.)
Fortunately, Conason’s bad faith is also showing in this passage, which underscores why a defense of the anti-Communism of the “McCarthy Era” (but not McCarthy) is in order. Of course McCarthy titled his own book “McCarthyism.” Liberals had made the term an issue. Is Conason really suggesting that McCarthy’s book is a defense of the liberal caricature of himself? Does Conason really think that the tactics of guilt by association and prosecution by committee – the hallmarks of “McCarthyism” – are exclusively the vehicles of anti-Communists and not weapons of choice deployed by liberals themselves?
If liberals abhor “McCarthyism,” why are they such worshippers of Hillary Clinton who is the unrepentant author of the most famous McCarthyite smear since the Senator’s censure fifty years ago? In fact, liberals like Joe Conason were eager abettors of her lie that a “vast right-wing conspiracy” invented her husband’s affair with Monica Lewinsky in order to destroy his liberal good works. Liberals like Conason indulge in related “McCarthyite” tactics like “guilt-by-association,” gleefully linking political opponents (myself for example) to those they have demonized like Richard Mellon Scaife -- the alleged kingpin of the alleged conspiracy – with the express purpose of discrediting those they have so linked.
Where was the liberal opposition to prosecutions by congressional committee when Col. Oliver North and others were in the dock? Who on the Left objected when Senator Inouye, chair of the Iran-Contra investigating committee, in true McCarthy fashion condemned North as a “traitor” before a national television audience and without the protections of a court proceeding? The only difference between the Iran-Contra victims of Senators Kennedy and Inouye and the Communists who were pilloried by Joe McCarthy was that the Iran-Contra witnesses were patriots and the Communists called before McCarthy’s committee were not.
The fact is that if so many liberals and Democrats had not covered so assiduously for Communists and Soviet spies like Alger Hiss and Harry Dexter White, there would have been no “McCarthy Era” -- no wave of loyalty oaths and no congressional investigations. Derelictions like Roosevelt’s, the sense of insecurity created when the public realized that there was an enemy within who had thoroughly penetrated the Democratic Party and which was indeed controlled by the Kremlin, and the refusal of Democratic leaders to take the threat as seriously as they should have -- created the demand for investigations and made the exploits of demagogues like McCarthy inevitable.
The problem with Coulter’s book is that she is not willing to concede that McCarthy was, in fact, demagogic in any sense at all, or that his recklessness injured the anti-Communist cause. Ron Radosh, Harvey Klehr and John Haynes have distinguished themselves as historians by documenting the Communist menace that many liberals discounted. But they have also documented the irresponsible antics of McCarthy, which undermined the anti-Communist cause. Coulter dismisses such conservative criticisms of McCarthy as caving in to the liberals. She is wrong.
But the fact that she is wrong should not obscure the way in which she is right in the larger argument about whether McCarthy and McCarthyism have been used by the Left to cover its own indefensible tracks. Here is a way to assess the merits of that argument: As a quick Google search will show, there are two periods in American history that have become known as the era of “The Red Scare” – the so-called McCarthy period and the period of the Palmer Raids, when anarchist radicals were rounded up in the 1920's as “subversives” and “terrorists.” This first “Red Scare” provides a good yardstick for judging the one under review because it is free of the presence of the controversial Senator and his antagonists, yet involves parallel claims by liberals that an anti-radical “hysteria” led to an assault on civil liberties and the persecution of individuals “for their political beliefs.”
In fact, the Palmer Raids were triggered by a massive domestic campaign of terror conducted by anarchist organizations. It involved a hundred mail bombs and an attempt to blow up the Attorney General of the United States (Mitchell Palmer) and J.P. Morgan among others. One anarchist bombing killed 40 people – the biggest terrorist atrocity in American history until then. Another plot -- to poison 200 members of the Archdiocese of Chicago who were attending a dinner party -- failed when the guests only became sick.
Given these facts it would be more reasonable to designate this episode as the Era of the Red Threat than a red “scare.” It is not so designated because the institutions that make the cultural record – the academic history profession and the high brow media – are dominated by the political left which is protecting its own. That is also why the New York Times – one of Coulter’s justly favorite targets – has spent so much newsprint promoting contemporary terrorists like Kathy Boudin, Billy Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, and why it has fudged the guilt of Alger Hiss and played down the significance of the Venona decrypts.
The McCarthy Era has been written into college and high school curriculums and even government history standards as a time of “witch-hunts” instead of a time of fifth column treason for the same reason. Coulter is right to emphasize this point. The opening of the Soviet archives and the release of the Venona decrypts have established beyond any reasonable doubt that McCarthy’s so-called victims – with few exceptions (James Wechsler would be one) -- were people who either served the intelligence agencies of the biggest mass murderer in history or supported the despotic empire he built, or were fellow-travelers of the same. The remedy for preventing such injustices as occurred through the hearings of McCarthy’s subcommittee and the House Committee on Un-American Activities would be to close congressional hearings to the public. But no one to my knowledge – liberal or otherwise -- has ever proposed this.
Today the same “liberals” (I have in mind those liberals who are really leftists in sheep’s clothing) are busy whipping up hysteria about a government threat to civil liberties in regard to incarcerated terrorist suspects. Here is Coulter’s take: “[After 9/11 liberals] wailed about ‘McCarthyism’ and claimed to be ‘very very concerned’ -- not about terrorist attacks on America but about ‘civil liberties.’ Liberals’ idea for fighting domestic terrorism was to hold folk-song rallies with Muslims. When they aren’t complaining about alleged threats to civil liberties, they are complaining about us. Two days after the [9/11] attack, novelist Norman Mailer, whose last successful novel was written fifty-four years ago, said the crumpled World Trade Center was ‘more beautiful than the building was,’ and America was ‘the most hated nation on earth.’ As Mailer saw it, the terrorist attack was retaliation for the Happy Meal: ‘We come in and we insist on establishing enclaves of our food there, like McDonald’s.’”
Not all critics of Ashcroft should be put in this category however. There are many genuine patriots who are concerned about the balance between liberty and security. William Safire is one from the Republican side; Nat Hentoff is another from the left. Making such discriminations is important, and to the extent that she hasn’t made them. Ann Coulter opens herself to the criticisms that have been leveled against her. But in the long run, this will turn out to be a lesser fault than emphasizing the wrong problem or promoting America’s enemies as America’s victims – which is what her liberal antagonists have done.