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NEAL CONAN, host:

Ann Coulter is a master at stirring the political pot. She makes her living trashing liberals. And her performance at last week's Conservative Political Action Conference was no exception.

She used an anti-gay slur - we'll call it the F-word - to refer to Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards. And it played well with the crowd, which erupted into applause.

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: This was not an exceptional moment for Ann Coulter, though it left many conservatives outraged and wondering, what was she thinking? If you think you know, give us a call, 800-989-8255 or e-mail us talk@npr.org.

Joining us now to dissect the Ann Coulter brouhaha is Susan Estrich, the Robert Kingsley professor of law and political science at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law and a political analyst for Fox News. Also an expert in electoral politics and author of the book, "Soulless: Ann Coulter and the Right-Wing Church of Hate."

Susan Estrich, thanks very much for being with us today.

Professor SUSAN ESTRICH (University of Southern California Gould School): My pleasure. Thank you.

CONAN: And so what was Ann Coulter thinking?

Professor ESTRICH: Oh I think she was thinking brilliantly by her lights. I mean maybe she was thinking she hadn't been in the paper lately. And you and I hadn't been talking about her recently.

So she stirred the pot. It worked like a charm. She got everybody worked up, laughing. The Republicans condemned her - some of the candidates. But you know, I don't think it'll affect her bookings.

So I guess you'd have to say in the Coulter culture it worked like a charm.

CONAN: So completely deliberate, you think?

Professor ESTRICH: Oh, absolutely deliberate. You know, she unleashes these things. And they're very clever. And they're well thought through. A lot of them have gay themes. And then if you turn around and you say to her, but wait a second, you know, I particularly object to gay jokes. I'm trying to raise teenagers in this culture and it's hard enough without people who've got authority doing it - she'll say, oh, you have no sense of humor.

CONAN: Yes.

Professor ESTRICH: I mean she did this with Al Gore last year.

CONAN: Yeah. On her Web site today there's - she has the speech with the comment, I'm so ashamed I can't stop laughing. In other words, if you're not laughing you have no sense of humor.

Professor ESTRICH: You have no sense of humor. And she figures out - which is very clever - how to keep playing it and playing it. So she had the first statement which got all the attention using the F word. Then she came back and said, well, I would never, you know, basically insult gays by comparing them to John Edwards. So she gets another punch in.

And she's very good at this. And we live in a culture in which, to be perfectly honest, it works.

CONAN: And so after that, of course, the reporters who were there have to go to every candidate who was there and say, what did you think of that, and to certainly John Edwards. And of course some Democrats issued statements of their own. So this is going to bounce around for a couple of days.

Professor ESTRICH: Right. And she's got herself a story with herself at the center of attention. And you know, I would say more power to her if it didn't come at a price. And that's the, I think, the part worth focusing a little time on.

And the price is, look what message it sends in terms of the acceptability of offensive humor, of what works, of what the path ought to be. I meet young women today who say to me they want to become pundits. And when I suggest to them go off and get experience, they say, no, I have to go off and get skinny and write a crazy book.

CONAN: Hmm. We're talking with Susan Estrich. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's add another voice to the conversation. Amy Ridenour is president of the National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative think tank that helped sponsor last Friday's event and who's been very critical of Ann Coulter afterwards and of the American Conservative Union for inviting her.

Nice to have you on the program today.

Ms. AMY RIDENOUR (President, National Center for Public Policy Research): Thank you.

CONAN: And your reaction to - well, I know you were outraged by what Ann Coulter had to say. How does it make it look to outsiders when she gets uproarious applause and laughter?

Ms. RIDENOUR: Well, I'm not going to say that she gets uproarious applause and laughter because I wasn't in the room. And unfortunately the thing about applause is if you're sitting there on your hands, you're silent. If you're listening to a tape, you can't tell how many people are sitting on their hands.

But there's no denying there's a certain part of the culture - some of it's conservative of course...

CONAN: Hm-hmm.

Ms. RIDENOUR: ...that likes this kind of shock jock attitude. And those people are going to laugh. And they're a certain age group, I think, too. I don't mean to, you know, make it an age thing, but younger people probably are a little bit more likely to think things like this are funny.

So you're going to get a certain amount of that. But I think it's not quite so important what every little person, every individual person said about it so much as we as conservatives - and I was particularly concerned because we've been a co-sponsor of CPAC for some time...

CONAN: Yes.

Ms. RIDENOUR: ...and that's the conference at which she was speaking - by putting her on the platform two years in a row, in which she has said things that are just plain offensive, says things about conservatives that A) shouldn't be said, and B) are not in fact accurate.

CONAN: Hm-hmm. And presumably she's invited back to these conferences because she sells tickets.

Ms. RIDENOUR: That's our assumption. We made a point last year of making a strong statement that we thought they shouldn't have her back - basically that they shouldn't. But if they did have her back at all - if they disagreed with us - that they should first get an agreement from her that she wasn't going to do anything like this.

I don't yet know if they tried to get an agreement and she just broke it or they just didn't bother.

CONAN: Hm-hmm.

Ms. RIDENOUR: My assumption is that they do like the selling of the tickets. And as far as I'm concerned, it's simply not worth it.

CONAN: And what is your response when - presumably Ann Coulter would tell you what she's telling everybody - hey, get a sense of humor.

Ms. RIDENOUR: Well, I'm perfectly happy to laugh when someone's funny. But maybe she needs a little bit of a better sense of humor herself so her jokes get funny. It's not a joke to call somebody a bad name.

You know, eighth graders do that. And then their parents call them over and explain why it's wrong. I believe she's over 40. It's probably time.

CONAN: See if we can get a caller in on the conversation. This is Mac. Mac's calling us from Syracuse, New York.

MAC (Caller): Hi. I've been following the story on the blogs and everything today. And I've noticed that a lot of liberal bloggers are firing back by calling her a transvestite.

And I'm wondering, are we like losing the moral high ground by doing that? And I'll take my answer off the air.

CONAN: All right, Mac. Thanks very much. What do you think, Susan Estrich?

Professor ESTRICH: I think you do lose the moral high ground by doing it. But the problem with Ann Coulter is she is destroying the moral high ground as a place where people debate. And that's really the underlying trouble.

So liberals attempted to say, you know, we've been swift boated enough in our lifetimes. How can we fight fire without using fire? (Unintelligible) name calling, which takes us nowhere.

CONAN: And Amy Ridenour, let me ask you a political question. Ann Coulter was introduced at that conference by former Massachusetts governor, current Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

She went on to give Romney what was practically a glowing endorsement. At that point - he's one of the candidates, I should say, who issued, you know, his objections to her remarks afterwards - but do these comments help him or hurt him?

Ms. RIDENOUR: Well, they certainly don't help him. I don't know why he did that. I think it was unwise. I think it's unwise for anybody to introduce her. Obviously I don't think she should be there at all.

So I don't care if you're running for president or not. You shouldn't have been introducing her. The fact that he thought it was appropriate I can only assume they thought it would help them reach out to conservatives, at which point it may mean that he doesn't understand conservatives very well because, you know, most of us don't approve of this sort of thing.

CONAN: And let me ask you from the other side of the political aisle, Susan Estrich - we just have a few seconds left, but if you were managing somebody - some opponent's campaign, what would you do?

Professor ESTRICH: Well, if I were in the Republican primaries I might issue a statement just like Mitt Romney did. But I certainly wouldn't say no to her endorsement. And I think that's the unfortunate truth.

If you're a guy like Romney who's trying to prove how conservative he is, someone like Ann Coulter still has a lot of appeal in the base.

CONAN: Susan Estrich, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Professor ESTRICH: Thank you.

CONAN: Susan Estrich, a professor of law and political science at the University of Southern California and a political analyst for Fox News Channel. She's also author of the book, "Soulless: Ann Coulter and the Right-Wing Church of Hate."

Amy Ridenour, thank you for your time today. Appreciate it.

Ms. RIDENOUR: Thank you.

CONAN: Amy Ridenour, president of the National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative think tank. She joined us by phone from here in Washington.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington, D.C.

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