I always thought the big problem with Ann Coulter's faggot joke was not that it was offensive (because we expect what from her?) but that it wasn't funny. As I saw it, her target was all wrong. There are plenty of jokes to be made at the expense of John Edwards, but he's not, and has no reputation for being, faggy. If she'd made a Hillary dyke joke, at least that would have landed. It's revealing that the audience didn't laugh at Coulter's joke. They gasped in surprise -- and then broke into applause. As Jon Stewart knows, that's a sure sign that you're not being funny, you're just pandering.
I wasn't going to comment on any of this because there's plenty of other folks already doing so, but I was struck today by the sheer gutlessness of Coulter's explanation of her joke, which, if you accept it, proves that she knew it was a lousy joke (or should have known). According to Coulter, "'Faggot' isn't offensive to gays; it has nothing to do with gays. It's a schoolyard taunt meaning 'wuss,' and unless you're telling me that John Edwards is gay, it was not applied to a gay person."
For the moment, let's take her at her word, that she was using "faggot" in its schoolyard, non-gay context. Like it or not, this is a common use of the word, and while that doesn't make it, as she argues, completely non-offensive, it would at least be possible to construct a joke that relied on that context and that would be significantly less offensive. The only problem is, Isaiah Washington didn't go into rehab for using "faggot" as a synonym for "wuss." His sin was that he called a gay man a faggot. Coulter's joke completely fails on its own terms because if she was trying to call Edwards a wuss (by which she means "pussy," but she's too much of one to say that), her reference was all wrong.
It's possible her problem stems from trying to jam together two unrelated "jokes" (complaints is a better word): one about Edwards, one about rehab as a form of damage control. She'd been field-testing the latter for a while before her speech, and it worked before because in that context, she was actually on to something.
But I don't think we should take Coulter at her word. First of all, she has a history of calling Democrats "fags" and meaning, quite explicitly, homosexuals. (Note that in this conversation, her Clinton theory is bizarre and offensive, but her Gore joke is actually pretty funny, because it defuses the bizarre and offensive Clinton set up with an intentionally ridiculous punchline about Gore.) More to the point Coulter's first defense of her joke totally obviates her later "it's not about the gays" defense: "Did any of these guys say anything after I made the same remark about Al Gore last summer? Why not? What were they trying to say about Al Gore with their silence?"
The same remark. The first Gore joke was explicitly about homosexuality. How can the Edwards joke be the same and yet about something else entirely? Besides, the new joke that she makes about Gore is also about homosexuality (Ha ha! I tricked the Democrats into calling Gore a homo!), which means she knows that the Edwards joke was — or at the very least could be read as being — about homosexuality.
I agree with Kaus that Coulter doesn't think Edwards is gay and that she may not bear any personal animosity toward gay people, but at a minimum, she's thinks it funny to call people gay as an insult, especially if you use the word "faggot." That's what makes the joke unacceptable (and not, as the anti-Coulter conservatives have it, because it hurts conservatives at the polls).
Update: Andrew Sullivan's take is worth reading.