You don't have to be told these are sad times for political commentary. H.L. Mencken and Murray Kempton, who are still worth reading after all these years, are not only gone but as forgotten as the Cold War. Michael Kelly was killed in Iraq. And there'll never be another George Orwell, despite all the pretenders to the title.
The best of the lot dwindle away, the mediocre proliferate, the worst come and, unfortunately, stay. Is there anyone writing regularly these days whose next column is as eagerly awaited as Mike Royko's used to be?
If any great ideas are mentioned in a piece of political commentary, they're usually there to be juggled knowledgeably for the admiration and amusement of all, not actually believed, let alone applied. As in a good Woody Allen comedy that makes us feel so . . . sophisticated. But nothing more. Certainly not impelled, or compelled, by an idea.
The very notion of Great Ideas is now suspect. Much like the concept of the Great Books or any other traditional canon. That kind of thinking - Orwell would call it oldthink - has been deconstructed by now. And somehow we're supposed to take seriously the intellectual vacuum left in its place.
What we're really interested in now is the Next Big Thing. The object of the enterprise called commentary is not to be left behind, and get caught still examining yesterday's idea, let alone one from the classics. It's a 24/7 world.
Great ideas now give way to little digs, the way the theater once gave way to vaudeville. When in need of a political fix, depending on your political preference, just reach out for something by Al Franken on the left or, on the right, ladies and gentlemen, the one and only, the ubiquitous, the glamorous, the logorrheic . . . Ann Coulter!
It is for disheartening times like these that Florence King was born. For her commentary regularly not only illumines but cheers. She's conservative with a small-c, in the sense of conserving whatever's left of the culture, not out of a sense of duty but of delight. She makes us antiquated Burkeans feel that we are not only among the discerning few but, rare sensation these days, the happy few.
There are times when Miss Florence outdoes even herself. For example, how explain to hardier, capital-C conservatives - the kind who just want some red meat when it comes to rhetoric - why Ann Coulter is so embarrassing? What do you say after "tasteless"?
Ms. Coulter has somehow managed to channel the malicious spirit of her hero Joe McCarthy - and she's having much the same devastating effect on conservatism's reputation.
But the Ann Coulter fan club, unable to distinguish between conservative and merely just right-wing, remains oblivious.
Leave it to Florence King, in the current issue of National Review, to dissect the trouble with Ann Coulter, much as a pathologist would any dangerous growth. Miss Florence uses a scalpel rather than Ms. Coulter's own weapon of choice, the verbal sledgehammer.
Ann Coulter never tires of swinging it - in that same dead, inflectionless voice. It's like listening to a zombie who for some inexplicable reason has developed an interest in current events. That lockjawed monotone gets to you after an unnerving while. Someone once described her as Twiggy with Tourette's.
Florence King's thesis is that La Coulter is emblematic, and symptomatic, of our media culture. No one has said it better - or even said it. Miss King's essay is a public service but it has the sound of a private, civilized conversation, which is the best kind of commentary. There is a devastating fairness about her analysis, as in this pithy summation:
"At her best, Ann Coulter writes well, but the chief source of her success is that she is a perfect match for the American ideal: smart as a whip but dumb as a post, educated but not learned, sexy but not sensuous, all at the same time."
Yes, that's it. Perfect. And, like perfection, concise. Ann Coulter is television's idea of a sharp conservative. It's hard to forgive Miss Coulter for perpetuating that caricature - for she's smart enough to know what she does and how much it pays.
En route to her conclusion, Miss King recalls some of the best lines of Jennie Churchill and Dorothy Parker, just to demonstrate what wit once was. Thanks, ma'am, we needed that after having to think about Ann Coulter for a couple of close-set pages of type. The worst should never be held up for inspection without affording the reader a little relief by quoting the best.
Recommended reading: "Watch Ann Go Whoosh!" in the Aug. 7, 2006, National Review.