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Caveat lector

Coulter’s book is a fake and a fraud. Do timorous scribes dare to tell?

FRIDAY, JULY 26, 2002

YES, SHE’S THE GREAT DISSEMBLER: There’s much to gape at in Coulter’s book. You can enjoy the tribal thinking, in which her tribe—the conservatives—has all the good people, and the other tribe—the liberals—is all “vicious” thugs. Or you can have big fun playing Freud, noting how constantly Coulter assails her own traits, not those found in others.

For us, though, it’s still the dissembling. If you read this book with NEXIS nearby, there’s amusement on almost each page. Yesterday, for example, we finally decided to check a claim which we had found a bit odd. When President Reagan sought re-election, Coulter says, the liberals conspired to get him:

COULTER (page 132): Most peculiarly, a spate of general-interest articles on senility began to pop up in large-circulation magazines. In the ten months before the 1984 election, Newsweek, Time, Ladies’ Home Journal and U.S. News & World Report all ran major pieces on senility. That’s too many to be a coincidence. The LexisNexis archives yield only one magazine article on senility (U.S. News) in 1976; zero in 1980; zero in 1988; zero in 1992; one in 1996 (Time magazine); and one in 2000 (Maclean’s). In other words, the same number of magazine articles on senility were published in 1984 alone as in all other presidential election years combined in the last quarter of the twentieth century.
Coulter’s cites all carried footnotes. Incomparably, we looked them all up.

Coulter was right on one key point; the four pieces were not “a coincidence.” Two of the articles (Newsweek and Time) were written about Reagan’s stumbling performance at the October 7 debate—a performance so weak that the president’s campaign manager, Sen. Paul Laxalt, said that Reagan “had an off night…but it wasn’t because of any physical or mental deficiency. He was brutalized by a briefing process that didn’t make any sense…It filled his head with so many facts and figures that he lost his spontaneity and his visionary concepts.” In short, the mags were simply exploring a topic which was being widely discussed. Readers will see how Time took advantage:

TIME (10/22/84): About 10% of Americans between the ages of 65 and 75 are senile. The President clearly is not. Doctors watching the debate saw no signs of slurred speech or outright memory loss, the usual telltales. They did suggest that Reagan should be regularly tested for mental acuity. Though Reagan promised in 1980 that he would undergo testing for senility if elected, so far he has not. Earlier this year he told an interviewer that he would take the tests “only if there was some indication that I was drifting…Nothing like that has happened.”

Stress, not age, may explain Reagan’s slips. “Any of us could be capable of that kind of performance live on national TV,” said Dr. William Applegate, a geriatrics expert at the University of Tennessee.

There is no reason to believe that Reagan’s intelligence is diminishing. “The competence of an individual does not change much with age,” said Dr. T. Franklin Williams, director of the National Institute on Aging. "Many people in their 80s and 90s are quite capable of being President.”

Reagan has aged less visibly in office than most of his modern predecessors. Indeed, his robust example may undermine the notion that age necessarily saps vigor. Said Spar: “Nowadays people between 65 and 75 are statistically more like young people than they are like old people.”

Her readers have no way to know it, but this was part of the War on Reagan which Coulter flogs in her book. Meanwhile, the Newsweek piece which Coulter cites ended with this assessment:
NEWSWEEK (10/22/84): Doctors see no reason why a man Reagan’s age shouldn’t be president. They cite Winston Churchill, among others, as an impressive precedent. And, they point out, decision makers often suffer less stress than the younger people who execute their edicts. “There’s no reason a priori why someone in his 70s may not be just the person we need,” says Albert. “Sometimes, those very people have the accumulated wisdom, knowledge and expertise to deal wisely with complex situations.”
The article—a “major piece on senility”—never once mentions the word. By the way, was it only “the liberals” who were discussing Reagan’s performance? As Newsweek noted in its piece, the first such examination was a front-page article in the editorially conservative Wall Street Journal. “IS OLDEST U.S. PRESIDENT NOW SHOWING HIS AGE?” the headline had said. “REAGAN DEBATE PERFORMANCE INVITES OPEN SPECULATION ON HIS ABILITY TO SERVE.”

OK, but was Ladies’ Home Journal runnin’ down Ron when its published its “major piece” back in August? Sorry. That article was wholly personal, a writer’s report on the health care received by her elderly mother. It had nothing whatever to do with Reagan. And to the extent that it offered an overview, this is what it said:

LADIES HOME JOURNAL (8/84): [Medical professionals] should be well aware that “old age” and “senility” are not interchangeable terms. In fact, only 5 percent of older people ever suffer from severe intellectual impairment. Fifteen percent may suffer some mild disability, such as minor memory loss. But 80 percent of those who live to very old age, into their eighties or even nineties, never experience any symptoms of senility at all.

We tend to forget that Picasso was painting the last day of his life. He died at ninety-one. Alfred Hitchcock was planning a new film. He died at eighty. Martha Graham, America’s greatest dancer and choreographer, produced brilliant new dances this year—the year of her ninetieth birthday. What is true for them is true for hundreds of thousands of older Americans…

And how about that U. S. News piece? Its headline: “Dynamic Elderly; Busier, Healthier, Happier.” Here’s how the agit-prop started:
U. S. NEWS (7/2/84): With more than 1 out of 10 Americans now over 65, the nation is seeing the rise of a powerful “gerontocracy” of elderly who are healthier, richer, better educated and politically more active than older generations of the past.
President Ronald Reagan is 73 years old. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, Jr., is 78. Nobel scientist Barbara McClintock, 82, carries on her work in a Long Island laboratory. Houston surgeon Michael DeBakey, 75, still performs heart transplants. Runner Johnny Kelley, 76, has competed in 53 Boston marathons. Today, the average life span is an unprecedented 74 years—up from only 47 in 1900.
The mag ran an interview with gerontologist Robert Butler. He too praised the robust Reagan. “There needs to be a certain amount of tension, stress and triumph in life,” Butler said. “President Reagan, at age 73, is a good example. He seems to love his job. He feels very much in command and derives much stimulation and satisfaction from being President.” That’s how the liberals at U. S. News tried to bring Ron to his end.

According to Coulter, those are the four “major pieces on senility” the liberals gimmicked up to get Reagan. Strangely, they all stressed Reagan’s “robust example” or the high achievements of the “dynamic elderly.” By the way—if the liberals were trying to get Ronald Reagan, don’t you think that someone would have written a scary piece about aging? No such piece was ever produced. So Coulter just made a few up.

Coulter’s book is professional wrestling—a pathologically inaccurate work. And don’t forget the things we’ve shown you the next time she shows up on TV. Coulter is a fake and a fraud; her work is a giant hoax on her readers. Hosts and reviewers have a big choice to make. Here’s the question they must ask: Do we tell?

A NOTE FROM THE AUTHORIZED BIO: Let’s start the weekend with some real inspiration. In yesterday’s Christian Science Monitor, a thoughtful Ann Coulter told writer Kim Campbell where she got those impressive work habits:

CAMPBELL: Last year, network news veteran Bernard Goldberg’s bestseller “Bias” got people talking about [media bias]. And following on its heels is this week’s No. 1 bestseller, “Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right,” a book that includes media bias in a wider attack on liberals.

Its author, Ann Coulter, an attorney and conservative commentator, is herself a graduate of the program offered by the National Journalism Center. “Ideology was not taught,” she recalls. “Reporting was taught; do research and get your facts right.”

Kim Campbell simply typed it up. Next time, she might check some footnotes.