Maybe I shouldn't blame Ann Althouse for turning down my request for an interview. In the world she lives in, an email from an inquiring reader might just as well be a ploy to propose marriage as an attempt to gather information for an article. Of course, if I had any designs to woo Madison's number-one blogger, I would have known better than to send a mere email. It took her husband four years of comments on her blog before she gave him a chance.
No, I didn't want to share my life with Ann Althouse; I just wanted her to share a bit of her life with me. At least enough for me to understand how the 59-year-old law professor has built one of the biggest blogs in the country from her office on Bascom Hill.
And yet I came away from this exchange with much useful information. Althouse's brusque rejection was likely more revealing than any hour-long interview. In response to my questions about her background, political opinions and inspiration to blog, Althouse intoned:
"Basically, the answers to all these questions are already on the blog. If that sounds enigmatic, I mean to be enigmatic. I'm bored by whether something is right wing or not and how can anyone be right wing and so forth. The point of the blog is not to be bored."
I had never been a big Althouse fan. Still, as a UW student and amateur blogger myself, I was nevertheless surprised to be treated with such disdain by somebody whose salary is paid in part by my tuition.
But the real shocker came hours later, after I'd swallowed my pride and decided to follow her directions. When I went to her website in search of answers, I quickly learned that Althouse was not only uninterested in an interview with me she was proud of her lack of interest.
She had used her response to me as a blog post, under the headline "Words used to decline an interview." She pasted her entire rejection message, as well as part of a decades-old rant in which Bob Dylan chastises a reporter from Time who apparently lacked the capacity to understand his genius. To wit:
"I know more about what you do - and you don't even have to ask me how or why or anything - just by looking than you'll ever know about me. Ever. I could tell you, you know, I'm not a right winger and explain to you why, but you wouldn't really understand."
In the original, Dylan said "folk singer," not "right winger."
Coming from a generation that was largely raised (and scarred) by Dylan groupies and wannabes, I couldn't believe I'd ever find anything positive to write about this baby boomer brat.
But then again, maybe Ann Althouse really is a genius worthy of her gigantic ego, and I was just missing it. Now I was stuck having to read her blog, just to be sure.
And so I pored through hundreds of Althouse posts on pop culture, politics and, perhaps most important, her life, which she invites readers to share. Althouse.blogspot.com often includes pictures of whatever café she's in, discussion of whatever TV show she's digging (practically any reality TV and anything with Ricky Gervais), and even the occasional tidbit from her love life.
To some of you, that may seem like yet another display of obnoxious Internet narcissism. But tell that to the 500,000 people who visit Althouse's blog every month, and they won't agree. Tell that to the hundreds of loyalists who populate her comments section, and their ridicule and venom will likely drive you to another corner of the blogosphere.
And if so, it's probably your own fault. Why should she even bother trying to explain, since you probably wouldn't really understand?
Chatty and revealing
After further pestering, Althouse did agree to part with some information about her enigmatic life in an email response to some softball questions. She told me, for instance, that she only blogs about what interests her and that she doesn't see herself as an activist.
But that was the extent of my communication with her. She didn't respond to more pointed questions. So most of what I was able to learn about Althouse's story came from reading her blog.
That story begins in January 2004, when, according to what Althouse wrote at the time, a colleague's blog inspired her to start her own. Nina Camic, a law professor who still maintains a low-key site of gentle prose and poetry, motivated her colleague to overcome her "timidity," as Althouse put it.
Althouse, then as now a professor of constitutional law, found this unfamiliar, noting in her second post, "It seems if you're going to do it [blog], you need to be somewhat chatty and revealing, which is a strange thing to do to the entire world."
Nevertheless, Althouse embraced the strangeness. The first few months of althouse.blogspot.com were largely based on the professor's modest reflections on her day-to-day life, which revolved around what she read in the news. In between descriptions of trips to the hair salon and office cleanups, Althouse mused about political issues and pop culture controversies.
From the start, Althouse wrote a lot, as in all the time. It wasn't unusual for her to post a dozen times a day, occasionally during peculiar times - as when she was proctoring a law exam. At first, her message was not overtly ideological or even political. If anything, she liked to wonder aloud, primarily by making pithy points about popular topics in the mainstream media.
During her first two months as a blogger, the only issue that Althouse expressed a solid position on was gay marriage (she supported it). And although she often made references to local news, she avoided taking stances on the issues. In fact, three years later Althouse divulged that she "didn't feel like I had opinions until I started writing."
Whether or not Althouse had real opinions, she conveniently developed some as the 2004 presidential campaign heated up. She became a staunch supporter of President Bush's War on Terror. Although she spent much of the year dithering over which presidential candidate to support, she finally settled on the incumbent, George W. Bush.
Luckily for her, somebody important was reading.
That somebody was Glenn Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor and founder of Instapundit, one of the top conservative blogs in the country.
There's a reason bloggers often refer to links from Reynolds as "instalanches." The first one he gave Althouse on Feb. 28, 2004, garnered her blog more hits in one day than it had received in its entire month and a half of existence.
Althouse and Reynolds continued to link to each other, and eventually he asked her to guest blog on his site a move that gave Althouse even more exposure during the hottest months of the 2004 campaign. By election night 2004, The New York Times election blog was referencing Althouse in its coverage of the political blogosphere.
'I am a right-wing blogger'
While high-profile news organizations and political bloggers were anointing Althouse as an authority on politics, what exactly did she have to offer on the subject? She did no political reporting and had no inside knowledge; and, apart from constitutional law, which she only occasionally wrote about, her analysis of government and policy was generally rather superficial. Although she regularly chided politicians for lacking substance, she rarely suggested what substance they might adopt.
But that doesn't mean she couldn't make it interesting.
If anything, Althouse knew how to skip past all the boring stuff namely policy and give readers what they want: gossip about people. Why waste time with neutral, asexual questions of public affairs when there's a whole world of fascinating characters who define the American political theater?
In a manner similar to Times columnist Maureen Dowd (albeit less eloquent), Althouse treats politicians no differently than a character in Shakespeare or on a VH1 reality TV show.
People who call Althouse a right-wing political blogger miss the point. She's a right-wing pop-culture blogger.
When she's not writing about movie stars or Tiger Woods, she's writing about political figures as if they're movie stars or Tiger Woods. The issues are less important than the personalities.
With a straight face (I assume), she has written on several occasions that "to be a great artist is inherently right wing." In her view, Bob Dylan was kind of a phony when he was pursuing social change with Joan Baez, but he was a riveting rebel when he ditched the hippies and told reporters to go to hell. Althouse sees herself as continuing this tradition.
No, the positions on political issues don't matter. It's the attitude. Like the attitude Althouse said she adopted when she first entered law school, where she replaced her "obsolescent hippie balkiness" with "a pragmatic attitude for the task ahead."
But it's also about taking sides. Liberals have hated Althouse ever since the 2004 election, so what can she do but hate them back? "[Liberal bloggers] treat me miserably, and if I tried to get along with them, it would guarantee mediocrity," wrote Althouse in response to some humorous accusations of insanity from others in the blogosphere. "And thus, I am a right-wing blogger - even though I don't share many beliefs with right-wing politicos."
Thus, the real right-wingers adore Althouse. They can go to other blogs to read the Tea Party talking points, but they go to hers to partake in one of the most elite liberal-bashing choruses in the blogosphere.
Gore down, Palin up
Like a Fox News program, most of Althouse's news items seem intended to fuel the readers' well-established disdain for characters on the left.
Take Al Gore, for example. In Althouse's world, he's the quintessential loser, and that global warming stuff he talks about is dorkier than Dungeons & Dragons. Althouse doesn't bother claiming that climate change is false, she just mocks Gore and other environmentalists and lets her commenters draw the conclusion that climate change is a made-up liberal religion.
After Gore gave a speech in Madison about global warming in October, Althouse suggested that the former veep and others really want an economic meltdown, which would slow production and thus reduce carbon emissions.
"They just don't say that because it would make people mad," she wrote. Her flawless logic was affirmed by scores of approving comments from her band of admirers.
If Al Gore is the geek, Sarah Palin is the prom queen, and Rush Limbaugh, despite his physical unfitness, is the captain of the football team. Althouse skillfully draws the Palin partisans out of the shadows and into her comment section by defending the hockey mom's dignity and putting the elitists who make fun of her in their place.
"Okay, now I'd like to see a set of pictures of the little dweeb leaning over a computer screen, working on photographs of Sarah Palin," wrote Althouse in response to an unflattering Photoshopped image of the rogue Alaskan. "Because I bet he/she is not sexy at all."
Death panels, Obama's global "apology tour," Climategate name a right-wing buzzword and you can bet it is more than welcome chez Althouse.
Clearly, Althouse's affinity for conservative causes pays off in terms of readers and money. She's a member of the Conservative Blog Advertising Network, which sells ads on many top righty blogs, based on the size of the blog's readership. Althouse.blogspot.com, the eighth-largest site in the network, offers ads for prices ranging from $210 to $1,920 a week, based on size. And any money Althouse makes blogging is money that she gets to keep.
An interesting take
The author of dozens of scholarly articles, Althouse currently teaches two constitutional law courses and is paid $158,000 a year. Although many of her ratemyprofessor.com reviews complain that she is unpredictable and difficult to understand, she won the Wisconsin Law Alumni Association's Teacher of the Year award in 2002.
Althouse's right-wing slant is only part of her appeal. Quirkiness is likely a more important part. She tries to keep readers on their feet, springing little surprises on them from time to time, little enigmas.
For instance, her take on fashion. She has a bizarre obsession with men in shorts. "If you are in shorts, you are not a man," wrote Althouse in the first of nearly 70 posts that reference this particular pet peeve.
Some people enjoy this.
"She says something in many of her posts that nobody else is saying," observes Sue Robinson, a UW journalism professor who studies blogs. "She's got an interesting take on topics people are talking about."
The best political example might be Althouse's endorsement of Barack Obama in 2008, for reasons that were quirky to the point of absurd. In addition to her belief that Obama would "stand up to the Democrats" better than McCain, Althouse wrote that she had a dream in which she saw McCain as a grumpy father figure and Obama as a son whom she wished to see succeed. Any Republican readers she lost by this exercise were probably replaced by Freudians.
Quirkier still is Althouse's derision for seemingly everything the "son" promised to do: health-care reform, cap-and-trade, the closing of Gitmo. She's only happy with Obama when he backs off his pledges, which affirms her belief that Obama is "pragmatic" or more "like Bush," whom she still adores.
After the 2008 election, Althouse told Glenn Reynolds in a webcast that her support of Obama was an act of "courage." And yet, as she proudly noted later, her readership skyrocketed in the week after Obama's inauguration, rising at a rate faster than any other major blog, liberal or conservative.
Althouse has also expanded her appeal by fostering a sense of community among her audience. While most popular blogs have the potential of becoming online social hubs, Althouse takes a step further in fostering the water cooler atmosphere.
In-between her posts about politics and culture are photographs of various things a cup of coffee, a flower, the street view from a Madison restaurant which are generally given a fictional hotel, cafe or bar name that is emblematic of the picture. For instance, recently she posted a photo of a felled tree and titled it "At the Wisconsin Log Café."
When I asked Althouse about this practice (she curiously did not deem this question too boring to answer), she responded that it is "meant to convey the idea of the comments section as a sort of room where the readers can be together."
Awww. If that could soften the heart of the reporter she dismissed, you can only imagine how it melts those of the loyal Althousians. No wonder she has a PayPal link on her site for readers who wish to give her money to augment her $158,000 salary. She's practically a cult leader.
Love at first byte
UW professor Robinson cites the importance of Althouse's interaction with readers when explaining the law prof's success: "She posts frequently, she embeds a lot of multimedia, she keeps her posts shorter, she responds to comments."
Althouse knows how to attract commenters and keep them. Especially men. Her "commentariat" (as The New York Times put it) is overwhelmingly male and appears to be particularly populated by middle-aged men.
What can I say? The blogress got game. Enough game, at least, to entice a suitor.
Laurence Meade, a George W. Bush fanatic and caretaker/garden designer from Cincinnati, spent four years leaving pithy comments on Althouse's blog before finally gathering the courage to pursue his cyber- crush in real life.
A Times feature story described the sequence of events that led to matrimony. Meade, a charismatic commoner in both real life and the blogosphere, woos the Queen of the Commentariat with nothing more than sheer wit and a good old-fashioned sense of romanticism.
In fact, Meade's first date proposal came after Althouse posted a response to Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino, from which she drew this piece of advice for men: "A young man should perceive when a girl likes him and he needs to ask her out to dinner and a movie before somebody else does."
Meade saw his opportunity and seized it. "OK. Want to have dinner with me and see it again? I'll wear my pants [a reference to Althouse's distaste for shorts]," wrote the loyal commenter, eyes averted.
"Yes, but you'll have to come to Madison," Althouse responded.
The rest is history. After seeing The Wrestler in Madison, they set up another date in Indiana (halfway between their homes), and they were engaged several weeks later, stirring up an Althouse publicity storm on the blogosphere, some of it derisive, but all of it contributing to Althouse's growing blogger celebrity.
Ever since, she's referred to her friendly soul mate as "Hoosierly," which should perhaps earn her a loyalty review from her Badger colleagues. But, in fact, even Althouse's allegation that Indianans are "warmer" than Wisconsinites goes unpunished.
Here's how she put it in the comments section of a post praising Indiana: "In Wisconsin, you encounter an unfailing niceness and politeness and an earnest concern about doing what is right. In Indiana, it was much less superficial. I felt that here, we are all friends - not a mere pretense of friendship to facilitate social interaction, but something warmer that seemed to reflect a genuine pleasure in human interaction."
How could a woman who's spent 25 years among the most decent, generous and pleasantly tipsy people of the heartland spew such libel?
I suppose I'll draw the conclusion Ann Althouse wants me to draw: She's an enigma.
The Wit and Wisdom of Ann Althouse
On climate change: "Weather can be used as evidence of climate when it supports the theory of
global warming anthropogenic climate change. There's also a corollary: Whatever happens is evidence of global warming anthropogenic climate change. Another way of putting this is: You may only make statements of belief in global warming anthropogenic climate change.
"See how easy it is to be a member of the Church of Gore?"
On Sarah Palin: "And Palin's task at hand was to be an effective political candidate, and that is not about parsing the question and saying the most technically correct thing. People who assume they are smarter than Palin need to perceive the contextual dimension of intelligence. Are you smart at doing the thing you are currently trying to do or smart in the abstract?"
On Avril Lavigne, a guest judge on American Idol: "She idiotically doubted whether a guy who was a pastor could do the competition and still be true to his religion. Hey, judge the singing. Don't nose into their personal lives, or I'll nose into yours. Why were you so cold while everyone else was hot? And yes, her jacket had devil horns. Pure distraction."
On reactions to her blog: "Yes, it's an endless source of amusement for me that my offhanded commentary here gets people going. I have no political agenda. I'm barely even interested in politics. I'm just out here in Madison, Wisconsin, doing my thing, since January 14, 2004, saying what comes to mind...."
To a critical reader: "And screw you, Freder. You know damned well I let people disagree with me here all the time and that I have a problem with a particular person who is a former student of mine. You owe me an apology. If it doesn't come fast, everyone ought to see that you are in bad faith."