recently found out that I was denounced as a “liberal” in Ann Coulter’s soon-to-be remaindered collection of columns, How To Talk to A Liberal (If You Must). You may have seen the book at your local bookstore, HEB, Target, or anywhere else books are sold these days. It’s hard to miss: Ann is standing in front of a chalkboard, hands on hips, and wearing a form-fitting blue leather bodice. It’s eye-catching, in a dominatrix/schoolmarm kind of way, and one wonders how the designer justified that choice of outfit—one that Ann would not likely wear to a job interview, a congressional hearing, or even an appearance on The O’Reilly Factor. Ann’s outfit is relevant only because I was blissfully unaware that my name appears in the book until my brother-in- law, an English teacher at a Jesuit academy in Houston, mentioned it to me. A friend of his, a Jesuit priest, had told him about my denunciation in Coulter’s book. What the priest was doing looking at the book is another story. Apparently, while waiting for someone, he picked up the book and idly flipped through the pages. When he got to page 200, he spotted my name. Why, in a book that no doubt contains an illustrious roster of more than a few hundred “liberal” targets, would this particular priest happen to take note of my name? Well, he was the man who performed my wedding ceremony. “Of course,” added my brother-in-law, our mutual friend claims no particular political affiliation and protested that he “never read those sorts of books.” I wonder what kind of books he meant exactly? Political, gossipy, slanted, pandering books, or just books with political pundits posing in form fitting leather on the cover? (Are there more out there that I don’t know about?) So, you may be asking yourself at this point why Ann Coulter would take the time to out me as a liberal when there are so many bigger, more meaningful targets. Well, we have a history, you see. Late in 2003, when I was working as an editor for Publishers Weekly, the trade magazine for the book business, I conducted a Q&A interview with Al Franken that ran in an online newsletter that was sent to booksellers across the country. Franken’s book, Lies, and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, was gaining traction at the time and it seemed an appropriate moment to talk to him. Franken lobbed a few criticisms at Ann during the interview, and shortly after the piece ran, Ann’s publicist wrote to say that Ann also wanted to be interviewed by Publishers Weekly in the interest of striking a political balance. While most of the booksellers I knew were yellow-dog Democrats, there were more than a few libertarians in the bunch, as well as the odd Republican or two. So, it seemed reasonable that I try to oblige her. At first, I tried to talk to her by phone, just as I did with Franken. No, the publicist replied. Ann doesn’t have time. I was told to e-mail her the questions. E-mail interviews are fraught with problems. They have a history of burning journalists, even relatively harmless literary critics. In one well-known incident, David Kirkpatrick, who was then covering the publishing industry for The New York Times, conducted a disastrous e-mail interview with David Eggers, the then very hip and in-demand author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Eggers felt that Kirkpatrick had misrepresented him, so he posted a 10,000-word rebuttal on his web site, including the entire e-mail exchange between the two in which Eggers accused Kirkpatrick of sucking up to him, using off-the-record quotes, and writing with a sneering, skeptical tone. It was ugly and a little sad on both ends. When I sat down to compose my questions for Ann, the Eggers-Kirkpatrick exchange was in the back of my mind. I noted page references to the source of every comment or question and tried to limit the scope of questions to the same ground covered in my interview with Franken. One of the lines of questioning I had pursued with him was to ask who, in his opinion, should take responsibility for errors in a book—the author, the editor, the publisher? It remains an important question for an industry where more and more writers play fast and loose with facts and where there are fewer and fewer editors to vet for accuracy. In a book like Coulter’s, in which there appeared to be numerous glaring, let’s not call them errors, but rather, misinterpretations of reality, shouldn’t the editor be held responsible at some level? sent my half dozen questions to Ann and received a 2,000-word response. She began by pointing out my obvious liberal bias:
In your interview with Al Franken, after suggesting that some readers may want Franken to run for president, you ask him hardball questions like: “It’s got to be a little grating to see your book on the same New York Times bestseller list as the Ann Coulter book.” “You fact-checked Ann Coulter’s book and found a lot of inconsistencies, outright lies, and quotes that are taken out of context. Who is responsible for those kinds of errors, the author or the editors?” “How should booksellers deal with this? You ask me questions like these: “[W]ho is ultimately responsible for the errors [in your book], you, the publisher, or both?” “What gives—was this an honest mistake or malfeasance as he suggests?” “Why all the name calling?”
Fair enough. When you look at it that way, she had me. I was liberally biased. But she also conveniently ignored my more civil, open-ended questions, such as:
How would you characterize yourself? Conservative, moderate? Are there liberal or left-wing authors that you respect or turn to with interest? Who are they? As a professional media personality, what do you suggest the Democratic party do to elevate the level of political dialogue in the country?
Had she answered the question, I might have actually had a story. Instead, what she wrote was 2,000 words defending her book from Franken’s criticism. Nevertheless, I wrote back to Ann, via her publisher, to say I would be happy to run the piece, but I needed her to cut it by two-fifths, to match the length of Franken’s interview. Unbeknownst to me, Ann had already posted her entire response on her Web site. Uh-oh. I’d been Eggers-ed. It’s my firm belief that she had no intention of answering any questions I posed to her, but merely needed an excuse to answer Franken’s accusations. I was, sadly, too naïve to see this from the start. What was most disturbing wasn’t that Ann had posted her rant on her Web site without any prior notice. The freakiest part of this whole thing was the reaction of her rabid fans. Almost immediately, hate mail started flooding into my inbox. It came in a wave, mostly in the days following her posting on the Web. The most articulate began, “You stinking piece of offal!” My favorite e-mail parodied my own line of questioning:
So, what’s the deal here, Ed? Are you just a complete asshole, or what? Do you feel that calling you an “asshole” is an accurate description of you based on the sheer and utter stupidity of your questions? Could you have asked Ms Coulter questions in such a way as to be less of an asshole? If so, then how? If not, then why not? If not, then who is ultimately responsible for your being an asshole, you, your parents, or both?
Hey, this guy brought my parents into this. That’s not fair. My father is a 64- year-old retired Army officer, lifetime member of the NRA and regular financial contributor to the Republican party. (And even he thinks Ann Coulter’s views are a bit nutty, thank you very much.) Then I started to worry. My father, who was generous enough to share his name with me, revels in mistaken identity. When I publish a piece in a magazine and one of the patients at his dental office happens to read it and mention that they didn’t know my father was a book critic, he just laughs and takes the credit. But what if the hate mailers Google my name and start to mistake my father for me? What if he opened an e-mail, as I did, accusing him of being Al Franken’s “co-abortee”? I tried not to think about it, but when I found out that Ann had republished her Web rant in her latest book, I had to say something. My dad is a big devotee of audio books, and I knew that he’d recently bought How to Talk to a Liberal. I suddenly had a vision of him idly driving along some wooded two-lane country road only to hear Ann denounce him as a liberal. Startled, he swerves into a ditch. Car explodes. End of story. Ann Coulter killed my father. Or nearly did. I had to tell him. And I did. He thanked me. Tragedy averted. Then he called me a bleeding-heart, liberal asshole. But smiled as he said it. Ed Nawotka is the former programming manager of the Texas Book Festival. He lives in Austin and reviews books for People, USA Today, and the New Yorker.