John Tierney has a good op-ed (TimesSelect) this morning in the New York Times that addressed the issue of exploiting personal tragedy for political gain. This has been brought out into the public by the adventures of Ann Coulter, but as Mr. Tierney is quick to point out, it’s not just the left that does it.
Coulter faults liberals for exploiting victims and their relatives as human shields for their arguments against the war and in favor of gun control. But conservatives use these tactics too. President Bush had the parents of a slain Iraqi soldier stand up during the State of the Union address as a tacit endorsement of his policy. Republican widows of Sept. 11 victims have been exploiting their status to oppose the Democratic widows.
Let’s not also forget that the right wing has exploited the grief of families before; most notoriously the Terri Schiavo agony where they enacted federal legislation for the purpose of trying to preserve the life of the Republican hard-right voting bloc.
Aside from writing the first line of her obituary this week (“Ann Coulter, conservative pundit and author who once compared the 9/11 widows to ‘harpies,’ died in a freak hunting accident with former Vice President Dick Cheney”), Ms. Coulter has made the transcendental move from writing about the story to becoming the story herself. The reaction has for the most part been not about what she said but how she said it — and in what kind of outfit she said it (who wears a cocktail dress for an interview on the Today show?). The condemnation from all sides has been swift and pretty much unanimous, and it overwhelms the point of the original story which, as Mr. Tierney points out, is a valid one: what is achieved when grief overwhelms considered thought in enacting laws and policy?
By making herself the story, Ms. Coulter has done exactly what she accuses the 9/11 widows of doing: exploiting personal feelings for political and material gain. The left now has a highly-visible punching bag for the right, and the right now has to find a way to distance themselves from her without completely repudiating their own philosophies that they share with her. (To be fair, the left has also found themselves in these situations before; Jesse Jackson comes to mind.) Some conservatives have speculated that Ms. Coulter isn’t really a conservative; she’s an opportunist who is exploiting a ready market for right-wing paranoia. That sounds like wistful and wishful thinking — she’s not really one of us and we’re being used.
Whether or not it’s all an act and she’s the Andrew Dice Clay of punditry, Ms. Coulter and others like her run the risk of reaching the same point Sen. Joseph McCarthy did in his hunt for the Red Menace in the 1950’s. As Edward R. Murrow noted in his famous See It Now piece in 1954, “he didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it, and rather successfully.”
Demagogues have a short life span and the issues they exploit have a way of fading away with them. The Red Scare died with the same whimper as its chief enabler. It became a joke to some and a horrible memory for those who were harmed by it through no fault of their own. It should have served as an object lesson that it is dangerous to exploit the fear and paranoia of a shell-shocked America for political gain at the expense of the real issue at hand.