By Thane Peterson Conservatives love to hoot that liberal radio and TV talk shows always seem to fail because liberals tend to be self-righteous dullards with nothing interesting to say. I consider myself a liberal, and I've always found this analysis less than satisfying. So I'm extremely happy to report that comedian Al Franken has blasted it out of the water once and for all.
Franken's new book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right (Dutton, $25.95), which is now No. 1 on the New York Times' nonfiction best-seller list, is laugh-out-loud funny. It's also a compelling, fact-laden slam of the positions and posturing of conservatives, ranging from commentators Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, and Ann Coulter, to President George W. Bush and his Administration. Finally, I say, a liberal who's not only passionate and well-informed but amusing! I just wish I could be happy about what the book -- and others like it -- portends for American political discourse. Alas, that's not a pretty picture for any American.
LEFT-WING LITERARY LEGION. Franken's is the most readable of a number of political books by liberals that have hit the best-seller lists lately. Stupid White Men?nd Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation (HarperCollins, $24.95) by documentary filmmaker Michael Moore (another funny liberal), dropped off the most recent New York Times list after 59 weeks as a best-seller. Then there's Thieves in High Places (Viking, $24.95), by one-time Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower, and Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth (Viking, $24.95), by Joe Conason, a writer for online magazine Salon.com and The New York Observer. These last two are Nos. 15 and 16, respectively, in the latest New York Times rankings.
None are as funny as Franken's, but all lay out what are likely to be some of the major themes of 2004's presidential election campaign. The authors are farther to the left than most voters and the declared Democratic candidates -- but to my mind that's the point. If you've been watching the rise of fiery Howard Dean as the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, you know that 2004 -- no matter who gets the nomination -- is likely shaping up as a slugfest between the incumbent Bush and fervent Democratic activists, who can't stand Bush and are truly outraged over his policies. Majority wins (oops, well, not always -- look at the Bush-Gore 2000 race.) But with such highly galvanizing rhetoric, victory next year may also hinge on how many centrists are so turned off by the bombastic campaigning that they don't bother to vote.
For me, that's a sad thought. But Franken's book is so exhilarating because it softens up the Bushies early with an effective fusillade. Franken argues that an army of right-wing ideologues has turned "the public arena into a wasteland of personal destruction," adding that, "the left, sadly, has no such army. Our attack dogs are a scrawny, underfed pack of mutts that spend half the time chasing their own tails or sniffing each other's butt. The right, by contrast, appears to have a well-oiled puppy mill for pit bulls, bred to kill and trained to go for the jugular. Or the balls."
FIGHT FIRE WITH IRE.?So be it, Franken declares, in essence. To match the machismo of conservatives, he argues that the Right isn't just misguided and misinformed but filled with stupid liars and thieves. He seems to have decided that the only way for liberals to counter name-calling by right wingers such as Ann Coulter, whose book Treason (Crown Forum, $26.95) is No. 9 in the Times' latest rankings, is to match invective with invective. Franken, for instance, devotes a whole chapter to the willowy blonde, entitled "Ann Coulter: Nutcase." Then there's a chapter on O'Reilly, entitled "Lying Splotchy Bully." No subtleties there.
Franken and Conason make very similar cases against the Bush Administration, only Conason uses considerably less invective, and much of his material has appeared elsewhere in books such as What Liberal Media: The Truth About Bias and the News by Eric Alterman, a writer for the liberal magazine The Nation.
All of which makes Franken's approach so much fresher and biting. The author is not only funny but surprisingly well-versed for a book found in the "humor" section of the bookstore. That's partly because Franken moved to Boston and had 14 Harvard students help him with the book's research and fact-checking.
BUSH BASH. Franken's characterization of President Bush couldn't be harsher. Bush is an illegitimate President, he argues, unfairly elected because Katherine Harris, Florida's Republican secretary of state, "purged thousands of legitimate black voters from the [state's voter] rolls." Bush got another unfair advantage, Franken argues, because Clarence Thomas cast the deciding vote in the U.S. Supreme Court. Thomas should have recused himself because he was appointed to the court by George Bush Sr., and his wife worked for George W. Bush's transition team, he says.
In Franken's analysis, Bush is a spoiled rich kid who frequently benefited from rich peoples' "affirmative action" -- that is, favorable treatment by governing elites when he was a student and potential draftee during the Vietnam War. He made his fortune through questionable business dealings, Franken asserts, and has repeatedly lied, both during the campaign (when he promised to bring a more collegial tone to Washington, for instance) and as President (about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and by denying that his tax cuts mainly benefit the rich.)
Franken dismisses Karl Rove, Bush's longtime political adviser, as "human filth," a career dirty trickster who was behind personal attacks not only on Democratic opponents such as Al Gore but Republicans such as John McCain. Franken describes the Bush Administration's game plan as "Pretend to stay above the fray; use surrogates to lie, attack, and discredit; then get the media to report it."
I wouldn't quite put it all in the same way, but Franken's analysis resonated with me. It obviously resonates with a lot of others, too, given the book's booming sales. It cheers me to see someone on the left taking on conservatives so aggressively. Then again, as an American, I can't tell you how weary it makes me that our nation's political discourse has descended to this level. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online