The people at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy stand behind Al Franken.
The center — a part of the John F. Kennedy School of Government which says it is “dedicated to exploring the intersection of press, politics and public policy in theory and practice” — chose the sometime comedian to be one of its Shorenstein Fellows for Spring 2003. An effusive press release said Franken would be “working on a book examining whether or not there is a liberal bias in the media, including a look at the media’s treatment of George W. Bush and his administration.”
Now we have the results of Franken’s work in his new book “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.” In it, Franken attacks lots of people: Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly, George W. Bush, and even Alan Colmes, the liberal half of Fox News’s Hannity and Colmes whom Franken believes lacks the gumption to stand up to conservative counterpart Sean Hannity.
The book has chapter titles like, “Ann Coulter: Nutcase,” “Bill O’Reilly: Lying, Splotchy Bully,” and “I Attend the White House Correspondents Dinner and Annoy Karl Rove, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, and the Entire Fox News Team.” It’s filled with comedic touches. For example, Franken refers to the Fox talk-show team as Hannity and Colmes, with the small type used to illustrate Colmes’s supposed wimpiness.
But a question arises: Does Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them measure up to the high academic standards of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center?
Yes, says Alex Jones, the former New York Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner who is now the center’s director. “I would not have allowed a book that I consider frivolous,” Jones explains. “What Al Franken had in mind was a serious book. It has a skin of humor, but it is a thoroughly researched book.”
Jones adds that Franken — whose previous works include I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me!, Oh, the Things I Know! A Guide to Success, or, Failing That, Happiness, and Rush Limbaugh Is a Big, Fat Idiot — is “a political satirist, not just a guy who does schtick.”
“I take him seriously,” says Jones.
For his new book, Franken put together a team of 14 Harvard research assistants. “He recruited them on his own,” Jones is quick to point out. “They were not paid by us and did not receive any credit.”
Franken called his group “TeamFranken” and gave them all special TeamFranken T-shirts. Dressed and ready, they set to work uncovering the lies of the right.
And what did they uncover? For one thing, Franken states flatly that George W. Bush, in his younger days, used cocaine.
Who knows? Maybe he did. But Franken has no evidence. And he certainly knows that during the 2000 campaign, reporters from major news organizations spent many hours searching — unsuccessfully — for proof of Bush drug use.
But who cares — Bush is a lying liar, right?
And not just about drugs. About more important things, too — like taxes. Franken delves into the old argument about the president’s tax cut: Democrats say more money went to upper income taxpayers, while Republicans say lower-income taxpayers received proportionally bigger cuts.
Both are correct, but Franken settles it by simply pronouncing the Republicans lying liars. He does so on the basis of the kind of “thorough” TeamFranken research that so impressed Alex Jones — in this case, apparently reading press handouts from left-leaning advocacy groups.
On May 26, 2001 the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities issued a press release which, citing research by the liberal Citizens for Tax Justice, said, “The bottom 60 percent of the population would receive 14.7 percent of the tax cuts.” In Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, Franken writes of the tax cuts, “The truth is that the bottom 60 percent got 14.7 percent.”
Did it really take a gaggle of research assistants to come up with that?
In a chapter entitled “Vast Lagoons of Pig Feces: The Bush Environmental Record,” Franken labels George W. Bush “the worst environmental president in our nation’s history.” As an example, he accuses the Bush administration of gutting Bill Clinton’s proposed regulations to solve waste problems at giant livestock farms, which are known in the agriculture business as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs.
But Franken wants to be fair. While Bush’s policy has been terrible, he writes, “To be totally honest, I wish the Clinton administration had done more to address the pig s**t problem. But at least he [Clinton] was pushing in the right direction. Toward the end of his administration, the EPA issued stringent new CAFO regulations.…”
What Franken does not mention is that the Environmental Protection Agency issued the new CAFO regulations on December 15, 2000. That was certainly toward the end of the Clinton administration, and it was also two days after the presidential election was settled, which meant that everyone finally knew that George W. Bush, and not Al Gore, would be the next president. And that is when the Clinton administration, which had been in office for nearly eight years, decided to get tough on CAFOs. (In addition, the new regulations would not take effect until after a four-month waiting period, at which point Clinton would be long gone.)
Did TeamFranken give you the whole story? You decide.
There’s more along those lines, accusing Bush and the GOP of lying about Iraq, education, the environment — pretty much everything. But to Al Franken, Republicans are not just lying liars. They are very bad people. For example, Franken is angry about racism, which he associates almost exclusively with the GOP.
He writes that when he gives corporate speeches, he begins by saying, “Looking out at your faces today, I can see that this group hasn’t caved in to that whole affirmative action nonsense.” He says audiences “look around, see all the white faces, and laugh.”
The funny thing is, one could say the same at a meeting of TeamFranken. Judging by a photo published at the end of the book, it appears that Franken’s crew has no African-American members. TeamFranken — made up of a grossly disproportionate number of white males — does not look like America.
That small hypocritical note wouldn’t matter much were Franken not throwing so many stones. But he is — from the glass house built for him by the Shorenstein Center.
At the end of Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, Franken gives his prescription for liberal action. He bases it on an incident he describes earlier in the book, in which he approached Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz at a Washington social event and said, “Hi, Dr. Wolfowitz. Hey, the Clinton military did a great job in Iraq, didn’t it?” According to Franken, Wolfowitz paused and then answered, “F**k you.”
In that brief exchange, Franken sees a lesson for liberals. “We’ve got to be willing to throw their lies in their face,” he writes. “When we say, ‘Hey, Dr. Wolfowitz, didn’t the Clinton military do a great job in Iraq?’ And they say, ‘F**k you!’ We’ve gotta come right back and say, ‘No. F**k you!’ That’s how we’re going to win this thing. Truth to power, baby.”
At the same time, Franken writes, “We can’t fight like they do.” Liberals, in stark contrast to conservatives, must be “funny and attractive. And passionate. And idealistic.”
Last week, the New York Daily News reported that Franken met with members of the Senate Democratic Caucus, including Hillary Clinton, Charles Schumer, and Minority Leader Tom Daschle. It’s not known what advice, if any, Franken gave the lawmakers. Perhaps he told them to be funny and attractive and passionate and idealistic. And — especially when dealing with their Republican counterparts — to say “F**k you!” as much as possible.
— This is an expanded version of Byron York’s column in The Hill, which appears today.