Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right
By Al Franken
Dutton, 368pp. $ 24.95
"Telling the truth is something I take seriously, and I try to hold myself to an impossibly high standard."
This time, Al Franken may have set the bar too high. By his own account, the self-appointed scourge of right-wing lies and liars has something of a truth problem himself. But let him tell the story:
April 21, 2003
Dear Attorney General Ashcroft,
I am currently a fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, where I am working on a book about abstinence programs in our public schools entitled, Savin' It: The book's fourth chapter, "Role Modelin' It!," will feature the personal stories of abstinence heroes for our nation's young people to emulate . . . I would very much appreciate it if you could share your abstinence story. So far, I have received wonderful testimonies from HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson, William J. Bennett, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, Cardinal Egan, Senator Rick Santorum, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. (I'm still hoping to hear back from the President!)
And so on. The letter was a pretty obvious con, and none of the 28 people to whom Franken sent it was fooled. Somebody even tipped off the Kennedy School that Franken was misusing its stationery. He apologized to Harvard--but not to any of his intended victims.
Anybody can type out a deceitful letter. (Well, almost anybody.) To lie to people's faces--and to do it over and over again--requires a more hardened character. Franken, though, is up to the challenge. He devotes a lengthy chapter of this book to an "elaborate ruse" (his words) intended to extract embarrassing material about Bob Jones University. (Just why he thought this material--or, for that matter, his abstinence-education material--might be relevant to a book about right-wing lying is something of a mystery.) First he asked his son to submit a bogus application to Bob Jones; then, when the boy begged to be released, Franken had one of his research assistants apply, this time traveling with the assistant to South Carolina to pursue the joke in person.
They got caught. "Look," Franken reports the man from the public-liaison office saying, "We've had enough of being made fun of . . . If you're legit, I'd be happy to show you anything you want to see. But we're not going to put our heads on the chopping block again." Franken acknowledges that "even while being hostile, [the man] was extremely nice about it."
Franken might well excuse these excursions into deception as comedy--pure entertainment. But that only raises another mystery: how does a man who values truth so highly as Franken says he does, and is so plainly eager to have his readers think him a nice guy, convince himself that it is OK to deceive people in order to lure them into doing foolish things that will cause others to laugh at them? Is that not compounding deceit with cruelty?
But Franken has an excuse for that, too: "I never lie. That is, unless it is absolutely necessary." And this time, one gathers, it has been absolutely necessary. For the latest book from America's most famous left-wing comic needs all the help it can get.
That may sound like a strange thing to say about a number-one bestseller. Franken is surely entitled to feel that his book has succeeded beyond all expectations. And, just as advertised, he and the fourteen research assistants provided him by Harvard University have caught some important conservative journalists and politicians in a number of embarrassing errors. Anne Coulter, for example, has identified Newsweek's Washington bureau chief Evan Thomas as the son of Norman Thomas, the famous socialist politician of the 1920's and 30's. Evan Thomas is not Norman Thomas's son. He is his grandson. Gotcha.
And yet, even Al Franken's keenest fans may sense that, in most of the "lies" he detects, there is (shall we say) a lack of oomph. Who would lay out $ 24.95 to be told that George W. Bush's claim to have eliminated income taxes for millions of low-income taxpayers is a lie because it says nothing about payroll and excise taxes? If that kind of thing gets you excited, there are ten Democratic presidential candidates who will say it to you for free--and, if yon live in Iowa or New Hampshire, even throw in a steak dinner or fish fry to thank you for listening.
No, the appeal of Franken's book cannot rest in its repetition of familiar Democratic talking points. It must rest, instead, on Franken's purported ability, to transform familiar Democratic talking points into knee-slapping hilarity. But it is just there that Lies repeatedly fails.
Not that Franken is unamusing: there are bits of Lies that might elicit chuckles even from those who do not share his politics:
"God chose me to write this book . . The reason I know God chose me is because God spoke to me personally. God began our conversation by clearing something up. Some of George W. Bush's friends say that Bush believes God called him to be President during these times of trial. But God told me that He/She/It had actually chosen Al Gore by making sure that Gore the popular vote and, God thought, the electoral college.
"THAT WORKED FOR EVERYONE ELSE!," God said. "What about Tilden?," I asked, referring to the 1876 debacle. "QUIET!" God snapped."
As I say: chuckles. Humor is notoriously subjective, but I suspect that even the most die-hard Democrat will go many, many pages between belly laughs -- pages that are instead filled with more characteristic charmers like this one:
"In contrast to [John Walker] Lindh's depraved [California] childhood environment, [conservative talk-show host Sean] Hannity trumpets his Long Island childhood in the protective embrace of the Catholic Church. Gee, nothing weird happened to cute little boys in the Catholic Church, eh, Sean? Nothing that would explain your bizarre fixation with our nation's homosexuals."
Not to be invidious, but the best right-wing funny men -- P.J. O'Rourke, Rob Long, Mark Steyn -- truly are laugh-out-loud funny. I have been on airplanes on days when Steyn's column is running in the local paper and heard the laughs exploding from the seat in front of me like artillery shells out of a howitzer. There is nothing howitzer-like about Franken. If he resembles anyone, it is Russell Baker, the New York Times humorist who churned out almost four decades' worth of columns that his admirers praised as "wry" and his non-admirers skipped for their intolerable smugness.
So why, then, if it is not for the content, and not for the humor, are liberal-minded Americans buying up this book by the boxcar-load? (An Al Franken wannabe might reply, "What else are they going to read? Hillary?" But that would be mean-spirited.) Obviously, a book so successful is filling some vast, unmet need. What is it?
Let me attempt an answer. Today's liberal-Left confronts a baffling predicament. For the first time since the early 1950's, Republicans hold the presidency, the Senate, and the House of Representatives. For the first two years of the Bush presidency, liberals could dismiss this amazing breakthrough as the product of a freak presidential election. But then the Republicans went on to enlarge their majorities in the 2002 off-year elections--something that had not occurred under a Republican president since at least Teddy Roosevelt's time.
How to explain this crushing turn of events? In the 1980's, many Democrats had responded to a prior wave of Republican success, the one that gave the country first Richard Nixon and then Ronald Reagan, with similar bafflement and rage. But, back then, Democratic governors based in the practical world of state politics were able to exert some restraint upon their party's tendency, when cut off from power, to veer into bitterness, paranoia, and extremism. The governors created the Democratic Leadership Council, from which Bill Clinton rose to win the presidency.
Today's Democrats are looking not for answers but for villains and scapegoats. This is the need that Al Franken's book satisfies--like Michael Moore's Stupid White Men, Eric Alterman's What Liberal Media?, and Joe Conason's Big Lies before it and like many more that are sure to follow. All of them propound a single message: "We Democrats did not lose power because of our own mistakes. We lost because we were cheated. We lost because the other side lied -- and because it controls the media that allow it to lie and get away with lying."
Of course, conservatives and Republicans also devour books that bash the other side and the media, like Bernard Goldberg's Bias and Anne Coulter's Slander. But there is a noticeable difference between, for example, Goldberg's take on CBS and Franken's assessment of Fox News. Goldberg attacks media bias as an evil in itself. Franken blames right-wing media deceit for depriving liberals of the political power that is rightly theirs. "The members of the right-wing media are not interested in conveying the truth. That's not what they are for," writes Franken in a pair of sentences that (substituting "left-wing" for "right-wing") could easily have appeared in Goldberg's book. But the sentence that follows it could not: "They" -- the media -- "are an indispensable component of the right-wing machine that has taken over our country." In short, where Goldberg's is a book about the media, Franken's is a book about political power, about how those who should rightfully hold it have lost it, and about how to get it back.
"What went wrong?" is the question with which the eminent scholar Bernard Lewis titles his book about the intellectual history of the Muslim Middle East. How had the once-wealthy and all-conquering Muslim world been overtaken by the despised Christian West? Al Franken's Lies can be read as one Democrat's attempt to grapple with an analogous problem. Unfortunately, like the enraged Muslims whom we meet in Lewis's book, Franken repudiates both self-examination and self criticism. It is all somebody else's fault. The faithful have nothing to learn from anybody. The solution to their problems is not reform, and it is certainly not self-criticism. It is a return to the fundamentals of the faith -- and war against the unbelievers.