This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

The Reno-Coulter "show"

Ideological opposites "debate" to raucous house in Alumni Arena

Published: March 24, 2005

Reporter Contributor

The Distinguished Speakers Series "debate" between two controversial figures was more performance than forensic display, with the discussion often propelled by a partisan audience.



The March 10 event in Alumni Arena paired former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and conservative commentator and best-selling author Ann Coulter. The two women had never debated previously; in fact, they were meeting for the first time. The crowd of about 4,000 offered plenty of booing and raucous cheers, at times functioning as the third (or fourth) debater. Mark Scott, news director of WBFO 88.7 FM, UB's National Public Radio affiliate, served as debate moderator.

Coulter and Reno covered a diverse array of subjects, including the war in Iraq, the state of U.S. public education, the Patriot Act, environmental issues, proposed Social Security reforms and the state of U.S. intelligence-gathering. Coulter, known for her acerbic wit, issued many pointed statements, while Reno seemed intent on taking the high road, using polite, restrained language and even giving her opponent a few verbal salutes.



When asked how the nation might better unite, Coulter, who led off the program, seemed to dismiss this concern. "Bush's position was that we were attacked and we've got to respond, but liberals decided he was the enemy," Coulter said. "I don't know that being united should be an end objective in and of itself. I notice that liberals—because they're always wrong on the end-result—they become fixated with the process.

"We've just won a war in Iraq and in Afghanistan," Coulter continued. "And democracy is sweeping through the Middle East. And really all liberals care about is, 'Oh, but we didn't have the French on our side,'" she said to audience laughter. In her view, national unity can be achieved by supporting the president's foreign policy initiatives. "We could all be united doing the right thing...united behind America's self-defense and behind America's admirable tradition of spreading freedom."

In her opening statement, Reno recounted a "pretty mean" passage written by Coulter in one of her books, in which the author castigates the former U.S. attorney general—a reporter had read the inflammatory comments at a press conference that preceded the debate. Why, Reno was asked, would she agree to debate Coulter? "Because I would like to try to have a thoughtful discussion with her about what we can do to bring America together."

Turning to national security issues, Reno said the country must work to ensure that U.S. troops are adequately funded and equipped, now that the decision has been made for them to be there. "No matter what we thought of the decision to go to war, it is imperative that Democrats and Republicans come together in one thoughtful effort to make sure that our troops have the support they need to do the job, that they have the armor they need and the other resources they need to protect themselves. (They must also have) the numbers and the human power that is important."

Reno voiced concerns over the abuse that took placed at Abu Ghraib prison. "Taking care of prisoners in the United States is a difficult enough job. I think it is imperative that we provide the supervision and the guidance for our troops in the field so that we make sure that abuses that have occurred do not occur again and that the message is loud and clear."

Reno said the Patriot Act has some worthy components that ought to be preserved, while other provisions of the act need to be remedied. Indeed, it is possible to simultaneously protect national security and protect civil liberties, she argued.

On the education front, Reno noted that Republicans and Democrats had worked together to pass the No Child Left Behind Act. However, the act needs to be "properly funded" and also address the criticism that it "really doesn't encourage excellence; it only supports mediocrity because you're only trying to get to a level that you can pass."

Coulter acknowledged Reno's point that there have been intelligence failures, but attributed the intelligence decline to "30 years of the Democrats' relentless attacks on the CIA." Democrats, she contended, had filled the CIA with lawyers, to the point that a 2:1 ratio of lawyers to agents now prevails.

As for the Abu Ghraib scandal, Coulter said "even the worse treatment of the prisoners (in Iraq) is better than how the Clinton Administration treated 80 American citizens at Waco," referring to the 1993 tragedy in which 80 members of the Branch Davidian religious sect died in a fire following a lengthy standoff with federal agents. "That was the Clinton Administration's major military intervention," Coulter said.

Turning to the Patriot Act, Coulter noted that it had passed overwhelmingly in the Senate, with an equivalent margin in the House of Representatives. In any case, she said, "why is that only when it comes to the defense of America, when it comes to going after our foes, our enemies, do we need total unanimity?"

Following the formal debate, Reno and Coulter fielded about a dozen questions from the audience. Topics included the likelihood of a female U.S. president, which Reno sees happening in her lifetime. Coulter did not disagree, but predicted the first female U.S. president will be a Republican. On Roe v. Wade, Reno didn't think the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing abortion would be overturned. Coulter countered that Roe v. Wade should be overturned, but believes the matter should be decided democratically by a vote. Here, Democrats again were faulted. "They don't want Afghanis and Iraqis to vote; they don't want Americans to vote," Coulter said. "They want issues (like abortion) decided by fiat."

Asked about same-sex marriages, Reno said she sees the issue going to the U.S. Supreme Court. Coulter believes this issue also should be resolved through the democratic process, not the courts. "That's another issue liberals don't want us to vote on," she said, adding that state referendums during the last election revealed strong support for traditional marriage.