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[whitespace] Left vs. Right

The bipolar world of Al Franken

By Joy Lanzendorfer

"I don't play dirty," Al Franken says. "I just don't. I'm completely fair. I'm a little mean sometimes, but when I'm mean, it's done with humor and it's fair." Being fair is important for Franken since the recent publication of his book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. As the title suggests, the book criticizes the right-wing media and, by extension, the Bush administration.

The book has spent 26 weeks on the New York Times bestsellers list, currently hovering at No. 6 in the top 10 bestselling nonfiction hardcovers. (Incidentally, seven of those 10 books are about politics or the media, or politics and the media, and four of them were written by strong media personalities, namely, Franken, John Stossel, Michael Moore and Bill O'Reilly.)

As his upcoming sold-out event at the Luther Burbank Center would indicate, Franken has hit upon a trend. But then, he is no stranger to this kind of literary success, since his 1996 book Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot was also a bestseller. Still, these days there is more competition, so Franken has tried to make a distinction between himself and people like O'Reilly. He would like you know that he is (a) more honest and (b) funnier.

And while his book is certainly funny, in a phone interview from his Manhattan home, when grooming his dog wasn't distracting him, Franken made it clear that he takes politics deadly seriously.

"I wrote this book because I was angry at the Bush administration and the people who cover it in the media," he says. "I kept hearing about this mythology of the liberal bias, but when you look at what goes on in the media, it just isn't the case. Like in the 2000 election, the coverage Gore got, or look at what's happening right now with Bush's National Guard records--why wasn't that looked into in 2000?"

This month, Franken will begin co-hosting a radio talk show with Katherine Lanpher. It will be called The O'Franken Factor, a take-off on Fox's O'Reilly Factor. The three-hour show will air five days a week in select cities.

Franken's show may be an opportunity for the left to beat the right at its own game. After all, the left has never been able to make a dent in the conservative-dominated talk-radio market. Some have even started calling Franken "the Rush Limbaugh of the left."

But considering that on the heels of his book criticizing Limbaugh--Franken spends most of his new 380-page book criticizing the biases of conservative media--that nickname could carry a certain ring of hypocrisy. He insists his show will not be like Limbaugh's show.

"It's true, we're going to try to counter the influence of conservative radio and TV," he says. "But we're going to play a different game. It's going to be honest. That'll be different. We're going to be funny. That'll be different."

Franken believes that the right is meaner and less honest than the left. The right, he alleges, makes up stories about specific targets in an effort to destroy them. "For example," he says, "I just had a story written about me that was totally false. And you really can't prepare for that. You have to take it as it comes and try to get a thick skin. The only way you can win is to not let them get to you."

He's referring to a story in the New York Post alleging that Franken "body-slammed a demonstrator to the ground after the man tried to shout down Howard Dean" at a Dean rally. Franken admits that he helped security get the protester under control when, after yelling and screaming, the man started running toward the podium. "But I didn't body-slam anybody," he says. "I didn't run across the room and slam him to the ground the way they said."

Predictably, Franken is less critical of the left. He "likes" Michael Moore even though "he does some things I wouldn't do." He claims to like most of the Democratic presidential candidates equally and will let the primaries sort themselves out. But while he is liberal on almost every subject you can imagine, from affirmative action to the environment to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, Franken has been conflicted on one of today's most pressing political issues: the war in Iraq.

In the beginning, Franken was pro-war, even giving a speech for Clear Channel Communications in which he said in part, "Today we are all Americans, except for NPR listeners, who always seem a little French to me. If I could be serious for a minute. I know your prayers are with our men and women fighting in Iraq, who are there protecting us from Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction."

Today, Franken seems to regret that speech, which he writes in his book that he made because of the pervading sense of fear in the United States, but tells me he made because Colin Powell's speech to the U.N. convinced him the war was necessary. At this point, he doesn't favor pulling out of Iraq.

"Well, now we're there," he says. "We can't allow the mission to fail. It would be nice if we could have a president who attracts international support. That's why I want to get rid of this guy because he has alienated the rest of the world."

If you really want to get Franken going, bring up O'Reilly. At every turn, O'Reilly calls Franken a smear merchant and Franken calls O'Reilly a liar. They have already had a heated confrontation at a book expo in Los Angeles, and on the NPR show Fresh Air, O'Reilly ended an interview with host Terry Gross because he felt she was less hard-hitting in a previous interview with Franken than she was with him.

Franken always seems ready to discuss O'Reilly. In his Fresh Air interview, for example, Franken accused O'Reilly of lying throughout the discussion, especially when Gross asked O'Reilly about his interview with Jeremy Glick, who opposes the Iraq War even though his father died in the World Trade Center. O'Reilly yelled at Glick on the O'Reilly Factor. Franken covered the incident in his book.

"The most pernicious lie O'Reilly told Fresh Air was about Jeremy Glick," he says. "He said that Glick said that Bushes One and Two orchestrated the attack on our country, which he did not say. You know, that's really obnoxious. Glick's only crime was having his dad die in the World Trade Center. All they have left is his Dad's phone. And he gets defamed by O'Reilly."

This kind of interview-within-an-interview talk can start to feel a little postmodern after a while, but it's Franken's way of holding the right accountable.

"The left has dropped the ball," he says. "That's why I wrote my book. I mean, somebody had to do it. And I think it's beginning to happen. You're beginning to see a lot of books about Bush now."

You can say that again.


Al Franken appears before a sold-out crowd on Thursday, March 11, at 8pm. Luther Burbank Center, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. 707.546.3600.

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From the March 3-10, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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