Backstage at Monday night's debate between Ann Coulter and Al Franken, guests drank wine with their vitriol.
Or vice versa.
At a private dinner for major supporters of the University of Judaism's (UJ) Public Lecture Series, the guests of honor each rose to say a few words to the 100 or so diners. Coulter immediately referenced the massive immigration rallies that were taking place across Los Angeles.
"I don't remember the last time I saw that many angry Mexicans," she said.
Not a titter. Nervous shifting in seats. Guests cast apologetic glances at the legions of Latino waiters and busboys.
"Now I know why my towels were a little late coming up to my hotel room."
More silence. Whispers among the crowd: How could she say that?
Virginia Maas, chair of the UJ's Department of Continuing Education, followed Coulter to the podium and offered a polite but pointed rebuke: "As a proud Mexican American and a Jew," said Maas, referencing her own background, "I want to thank Ms. Coulter."
Franken, in his comments, said the genteel dinner guests "just got a little taste" of what they were in for.
"By the way," he said, "the last time I saw that many angry Mexicans, the United States had invaded Mexico and was fighting Santa Ana, looking for weapons of mass destruction."
And from there, as the festivities moved to the public event, things got even nastier.
Out on stage at Universal Studios' Gibson Amphitheatre, in front of a sold-out crowd of some 6,000 people, the two pundits and authors went at it. First, event organizer Dr. Gady Levy introduced himself as the event's "ringmaster," preparing the audience for the circus that was to follow. He urged civility from the crowd. "Free speech only works when you can hear it," said Levy, to what were apparently many deaf ears.
Franken went first. He lamented that he wanted to follow Coulter -- you get to react to attacks and, he said, "more importantly, it pretty much spares you the chore of writing out prepared remarks." Accepting his position, he said, "I will use my opportunity to go first to define the terms of the debate: 'Whence Judaism?'" The joke got a huge, rolling laugh.
A former "Saturday Night Live" writer, Franken used a liberal amount of humor in his attack on the Bush administration, the war in Iraq, conservative pundits like Ann Coulter and Ann Coulter herself.
"I'm talking about an increasingly secretive, incompetent and corrupt Federal government that rewards cronies," he said to applause. "I also want to discuss with Ann the coarsening of dialogue in this country.... Ann has said repeatedly that liberals hate America. I disagree."
Franken told of a standing ovation he received following a speech he gave to cadets at West Point ("It was an audience not so very different from this one," he deadpanned to the largely Jewish crowd).
There, he said, "I told them we'd been lied into the war in Iraq."
Franken also attacked the Bush administration and the Republican Congress for neglecting the economy, Americans without health insurance "and the poorest in our society."
Throughout his speech, he hammered home his serious points with humor, and the crowd -- most of it -- loved his patter.
"George Bush famously said that Jesus was his favorite philosopher," Franken said.
Borrowing an image (uncredited) from Christian activist Jim Wallis, Franken said, "If you literally took a pair of scissors and cut out each one of those passages" in the Christian Bible in which Jesus talked about helping the poor, "you'd have the perfect box to smuggle Rush Limbaugh's drugs in."
But Franken saved his sharpest barbs for Coulter. He called her a liar. By way of example, he examined a claim Coulter made in one of her books that President Bush had less family help getting into college than did Al Gore. Franken named dozens of Bush relatives -- including Sen. Prescott Bush, the president's late grandfather and a Yale trustee -- whom Coulter neglected to mention.
"This is what she does," Franken said, "and she does it over and over and over again."
Franken, who filled out a slightly frumpy suit, left the podium to raucous applause, challenging Coulter to correct disparaging remarks she made following their last debate in May 2004: "Ann, let's see if we can end the point-counterpoint in an interesting debate."
Coulter, rail thin, wore pants and a shirt that occasionally lifted over her flat belly. She deflected the attacks.
"Let's stipulate that I'm a deeply flawed person," she said, then asked that they speak about more pressing matters, such as the war on terrorism.
With gusto, Coulter launched into an assault on former Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, eliciting only scattered applause. Her voice strengthened and pace picked up when she broadened her attack.
A sampling: "Evil does not seem to be part of liberals' vocabulary," she said to scattered applause and many boos.
"There will never be enough evidence for liberals to defend America."
"Democrats are generally one of America's domestic enemies."
And then there was this topical analysis: "The war in Iraq has been a magnificent success," she said. "We're only a few years into the rebuilding."
Coulter's point was that following the terror attacks of Sept. 11, "containment is not an option," and that fighting terror and Islamic fanaticism -- under which she included fighting Saddam Hussein in Iraq -- would be a longer, harder and bloodier campaign than some Americans would prefer, and that they would have to just get used to it. She rattled off the body counts for Pearl Harbor, D-Day and the Vietnam War and said that casualties in Iraq have been relatively light considering the importance of the struggle. Democrats opposing the war are like kids in the backseat of the car, she said, "They're constantly asking 'Are we there yet?' 'Are we there yet?'"
Coulter elicited shouts and boos calling President Bill Clinton a "pot-smoking draft dodger," but when she started a sentence with, "I'll conclude now, but --" the crowd roared.
If one were scoring the crowd's reaction to the prepared remarks, it would be about 80/20 for Franken, but then perhaps that could be expected at a Jewish-sponsored event in liberal Los Angeles. At any rate, the minority made up in decibels what it lacked in body count. And both sides, hungry for the fresh meat of unedited partisan punditry, grew more boisterous as the night wore on, and on.
Now it was time for an ad-lib Q-and-A before the revved-up crowd. UJ President Rabbi Robert Wexler joined Coulter and Franken on stage. His first question was about their early political influences.
Franken plunged ahead with the first of a number of long, uninterrupted replies. The gist was that the civil rights movement compelled his once-Republican father to become a Democrat.
"We were Jews," Franken said,
"and the Holocaust wasn't all that long ago."
Coulter answered the same question by saying, "Jimmy Carter was president." When Wexler asked for elaboration, she snapped, "What more do I need to say? Jimmy Carter was president."
Rabbi Wexler, clearly used to compliant, erudite panelists, found himself between two rhetorical predators who genuinely wished to dismantle each other. It just may be that if you don't bring a knife to a gun fight, you don't bring a scholar to a Franken/Coulter debate.
The evening took a toll on the speakers as well. As Franken was making a point about the Bush administration's cut back in veterans' benefits, an audience member yelled out "Boring!"
Franken swiveled in his seat.
"How dare you!" he said. "I'm sorry you find helping veterans boring."
"Your delivery is boring," the anonymous audience member retorted.
Honestly, it kind of was.
Off his prepared speech, Franken, who is considering a run for the Senate in 2008, tended to expound at length in a monotone as Coulter, looking like his petulant daughter from an intermarriage gone awry, rolled her eyes and stared at her bracelets.
The most heated exchange came over the situation in Iraq. Coulter said the occupation was tough but the election proved that eventually the war would lead to "an Arab Israel."
"Ann," Franken said, "you're so blithely dismissing what is going on there. The election was good but it was along sectarian lines.... The winner of the Iraq war is Iran."
When Franken said the Bush administration only wants free elections where it served its purpose, Coulter countered that liberals don't believe America is free.
"I love my country," Franken shouted.
"Oh yeah, yeah, yeah," interrupted Coulter, the nasty teen shutting down her righteous father.
Franken was angry enough to walk out, and Coulter bored enough to leave: Clearly the only thing keeping these two in the same amphitheatre were their enormous speaking fees.
Listening closely, it was easy to find the one thing both speakers agreed on: The Democrats have no leadership, no vision and no plan.
"You gotta have a platform to win," Coulter said. "You have to come up with something other than, 'Ann Coulter is a lying whore.'" The audience roared its agreement -- about the Dems, not necessarily Coulter.
"I do think the Democrats have to show what they stand for," Franken agreed.
Rabbi Wexler ended by asking the speakers what they hoped their legacy would be. Franken's rambling answer -- helping the poor, the disadvantaged -- prompted more catcalls.
Coulter said it in a sentence: "I want to be the right-wing ayatollah."
At 9:30 p.m. the game, slightly shell-shocked Rabbi Wexler rang the last bell. Walking out, I ran into two acquaintances -- one Republican, one Democrat. Both said the exact same thing, a few minutes apart.
"I feel like I need to go home," they each said, "and take a shower."
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