WASHINGTON -- Apparently, it's news that Ann Coulter is a nasty piece of work.
I had rather thought that was the attraction, at least for those people who find her attractive. So forgive me for being mildly mystified by recent headlines about her most recent spasm of trash mouth, i.e., her attack on four women who lost their husbands in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
But then, the attack is vicious even by Ms. Coulter's standards: In her latest book, whose title you won't read here, she savages the widows as "self-obsessed" and "witches."
"These broads are millionaires," she writes, "lionized on TV and in articles about them, reveling in their status as celebrities and stalked by grief-arazzis. I've never seen people enjoying their husbands' deaths so much."
Evidently, the widows' sins are that they pushed for an independent commission to investigate 9/11 intelligence failures, they are critical of the Bush administration and they endorsed Sen. John Kerry for president.
The nerve of them.
Ms. Coulter's tirade has drawn bipartisan condemnation - New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton called it "vicious," while the state's Republican governor, George E. Pataki, declared Ms. Coulter "far worse than insensitive" - but c'mon. This is all part of the shtick for this chick. I mean, we're talking about the woman who said that Timothy McVeigh's only mistake was in not blowing up The New York Times building and that we should invade Muslim countries, kill their leaders and convert the people to Christianity.
Frankly, it's easy to do what Ms. Coulter does. Just say the most outrageous thing in the most inflammatory way. Just give moral and mental cover to that small-minded, anti-intellectual strain of the electorate that recoils like Superman in the face of Kryptonite from complexity and incertitude. And when people call you on it, just wrap yourself in the flag and declare yourself a straight-shootin' conservative under siege by that mean ol' liberal media.
It plays like gangbusters in Peoria. And never mind that it's a brazen lie. Ann Coulter is not reviled because she is conservative. Some of the best and most respected pundits in the country are conservative: George F. Will, Kathleen Parker and Charles Krauthammer, to name just three. They offer smart, snarky, cogent analyses of world and national events, and if you disagree with them, as I not infrequently do, you will be required to do some mental heavy lifting to dismantle their arguments. They challenge you.
No, Ms. Coulter is reviled because she is mean, malicious, the barbed-wire front woman for a cabal of bloviators, bully boys and blowhards (Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Michael Savage and too many others) who are pleased to regard themselves as the guardians of conservatism's soul. Conservatism's soul should sue for slander.
But again, it plays in Peoria. And why not? It is loud, simple, stupid. Not unlike The Jerry Springer Show.
The nation's political discourse has never been as polite and decorous as we like to think. Abraham Lincoln's political foes called him a baboon, Lyndon Johnson once said that Gerald Ford played too much football without a helmet.
When, however, even widows become fair game for a viperous harridan with an ax to grind and books to sell, maybe decent people should wonder at the lines we have crossed and the type of the nation we have become in the process.
Ms. Coulter's victims, by the way, felt compelled to release a statement. It said in part: "Contrary to Ms. Coulter's statements, there was no joy in watching men that we loved burn alive. There was no happiness in telling our children that their fathers were never coming home again." In a better nation, that would go without saying.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.