Politics & Policy

Al Franken’s Suicide Mission

Liberals can't do talk radio.

A group of investors want to turn Al Franken into the Left’s Rush Limbaugh. To be accurate, the venture’s backers don’t want to mimic Limbaugh — not because that would be a bad thing, mind you, but because it’s been tried so many times before and it didn’t work. Jim Hightower, a man liberals believed would be regarded as brilliant if they just said he was enough times, failed miserably at talk radio. Mario Cuomo, a man who believed the world would consider him incredibly brilliant if he just said he was enough times, also botched his go at talk radio. “This side has failed by going at Rush, and trying to be Rush — you’re not going to beat him at his game,” Jon Sinton, a radio exec and organizer of the effort explained to the New York Times.

Meanwhile, Al Franken the author of Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot thinks there’s another reason for not trying to ape Rush. “I think the audience isn’t there for a liberal Rush,” he said on the Donahue show, “Because I think liberals don’t want to hear that kind of demagoguery.” Maybe it’s me, but this sounds a bit like Ron Jeremy, star of such hits as The Lust of Blacula and Dirty Harriet, saying “I think the audience isn’t there for cheap porn.”

Franken & Co. do believe that the one trick to effectively getting political commentary across on the radio is to be entertaining. “What really makes this work,” Sinton told the Times, “is tapping into Hollywood and New York and having a huge entertainment component, where political sarcasm is every bit as effective as Rush Limbaugh is at bashing you over the head.” Of course, when he says “entertaining” he means funny. After all, Franken won’t be singing — or, alas, miming — his commentary.

Of course, Franken, for all his fame as the Left’s answer to about 50 different people and his reputation as a comic genius not paralleled since Larry Storch had us all in stitches, is actually a very bad judge of the zeitgeist. For example, during his Big Fat Idiot tour, Franken was asked in an interview with Mother Jones about how “it’s hard for liberals to be funny, because they’re so earnest.” Franken responded, “I hadn’t really thought of that until this book. I thought of most comedians as liberal, most people in show business are liberal. But when the book came out, people said to me, ‘Thank God, finally, a funny liberal.’ And I’m going ‘Liberals aren’t funny? I thought we were. Oh, I guess we aren’t.’”

Ah, yes. This man has his finger on the pulse of a nation.

There are lots of reasons why liberals don’t work well on talk radio. Some of it has to do with the fact that the market for conservative talk has been carefully developed. When they rolled out Jim Hightower, according to Mr. Sinton, they tended to sandwich him in-between Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh. “That violates expectations of the listener,” he told the Times. This is a polite way of saying that listeners reacted the way members of Delta House did when Flounder’s picture appeared on the screen during pledge week.

Another reason why talk radio is right-wing is that most of America, or talk-radio-listening America, believes the mainstream media is liberal. They believe this because, well, it’s true. And talk radio serves as a truth squad for people who don’t trust Peter Jennings. Sure, the press isn’t as liberal as Eric Alterman and the guys at The Nation would like it to be, but then again the Democratic party isn’t as liberal as The Nation would like it to be. In other words, if you think Dick Gephardt, Joe Lieberman, and John Kerry are too right-wing, of course you’re going to think the New York Times isn’t liberal.

But let’s not squabble about the liberal-media thing. Been there, done that, got the snow globe.

What’s funny is that Franken’s backers are banking on precisely what Franken shockingly didn’t know until recently: Conservatives are more entertaining than liberals. Oh, of course it’s true that professional — and very funny — entertainers and comedy writers tend to be liberal. But the key here is that they are professional entertainers, not professional liberals. And therein lies all the difference.

Franken is on to something when he says that liberals aren’t interested in the sort of demagoguery provided by Limbaugh. That’s not because liberals don’t like demagoguery. They love demagoguery. They love hatchet jobs, low blows, cheap shots, and character assassination even more than conservatives do (and there are certainly more than a few conservatives into that sort of thing). When every day we hear another comparison between Bush and Hitler; when conservatives are likened to Klansmen, the mentally retarded and the Taliban; when the Democratic party sponsors ads saying that a vote for a Republican is a vote for church burnings, hate crimes, and organized murder; when every Republican economic policy is attributed to personal greed and every foreign policy is attributed to a hodgepodge of sins including, (again) greed ,racism, and vanity; it becomes very difficult to take Franken seriously when he says that his listeners aren’t interested in demagoguery.

No, the problem for liberals is that their “movement” extends to virtually every boutique victim group under the sun. I don’t just mean blacks, Hispanics, gays, women (roughly two thirds of the population right there), but pretty much anyone with a grievance. Even white guys can join the club if they complain about not getting enough workman’s comp or about Gulf War syndrome. Liberalism has become a politics of complaint. In a sense, that’s fine because politics is largely about the adjudication of complaints. Lord knows conservatives have plenty of grievances too.

But the problem for liberals is that they are terrified of offending anybody in their own massive Coalition of the Oppressed. That pretty much leaves white Christian men, rich non-liberals, and maybe a handful of right-wing Jews and conservative women. And, I’m sorry Al, there’s just not enough material there to be entertaining. Liberals have been feeding off of Whitey for so long they can see their reflections in the bones, they’re so picked-clean. If Franken thinks that there are millions of people who want to listen to the same tired and lame laments about white folks every day for three hours, he’s nuts.

For the record, I didn’t make-up the phrase “coalition of the oppressed.” I first saw it in a poster in Dupont Circle put up by animal-rights groups denouncing the “Gay Rodeo.” It explained that rodeos demean horses and cattle and since these animals are equal members of the “Coalition of the Oppressed” gays should not contribute to their persecution.

Anyway, I guarantee you that if Franken were to make fun of activists from any number of constituencies — gays, Hispanics, blacks, animal-rights activists, environmentalists, fill in the blank — he would be inundated with gripes from his “base” saying “that’s not funny!” And because he’s such a nice tolerant, Upper West Side liberal, he’d have to listen, apologize, atone. This is one of the main reasons why professional liberals aren’t funny: They are terrified of offending anybody even remotely “on their side.” (Another reason is that liberals tend to believe they are on a mission to save the world and therefore there’s simply no time for joking around.)

This is the peril of liberalism generally; it has become coalitional. It concerns itself with grievances, not ideas. So while liberal earnestness often stems from the groaning earnestness of liberals, it’s also derived from the inability of liberals to speak plainly. I really learned this, I think, when I was on the board of trustees of my college. It was explained to me that “tolerance” had become an unacceptable term of bigotry because it implies merely “putting up with” various groups rather than fully accepting them.

Because they must, liberals have mastered this vocabulary and convinced themselves it’s actually more sophisticated. They respect all sorts of false pieties which conservatives can poke fun of. They dance around politically correct landmines and confuse themselves for ballerinas. For example, when Mario Cuomo was asked on Donahue why conservatives do better on talk radio, he replied, “You see, look, they write their message with crayons. We use fine-point quills. We get a little bit more, I think — intellectual is not the right word….” Mario never told us what the “right word” is, but I think “condescending” would work just fine. Indeed, the fact that Donahue’s nightly parade of clichés amounts to affirmative action for fossilized liberals should have been all the answer poor Phil needed.

There are other reasons why I think Franken will fail. He talks too slow. He’s too dry and passionless. But, at the end of the day, he’ll bomb because people don’t want to hear what he has to say. And that says more about liberalism than it does about Al.


The Latest