Wholly Without Merit

Thank god for Fox News. If that august news organization—you know, the fair and balanced one helmed by Roger Ailes—had filed a decent lawsuit against Al Franken instead of one the judge called “wholly without merit,” I would have had to wait several more weeks before picking up Franken's Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. As it was, publisher Dutton rushed the books into stores this past Thursday, and the fine people at Book Soup (in South Coast Plaza, no less) procured 45 copies while the clerks at Barnes N Noble down the street had no idea it was even out. By the time I clicked my heels down South Coast's hallowed halls on Saturday (having just then discovered Lies was early), Book Soup had just three copies left. I took two.

In their suit, Fox's lawyers describe Al Franken as shrill and unstable, a C-level commentator. “Moreover,” they continue, “since [Al] Franken's reputation as a political commentator is not of the same caliber as the stellar reputations of FNC's on-air talent . . . ” etc. Now, without any facetiousness at all—I'm being totally serious here—don't you read that sentence and conclude that Fox's lawyers have a pretty refined sense of humor? One that probably went right over the heads of their mean Fox bosses? Don't you think they were chortling silently behind their lawyerly poker faces while they presented that? 'Cause I do!

Now, Al Franken likes to say he's just a comedian. But he's just a comedian with a 14-person research team from Harvard. And he really is a humble guy, but a humble guy who thinks nothing of taking on Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz at the White House Correspondents Dinner. There, he sort of humbly, almost naively, asked Wolfowitz if he didn't agree that Clinton's military had performed exceptionally in Iraq. Wolfowitz responded, “Fuck you.” Franken persisted: had the Bush administration authorized production of a single weapon used in Iraq? “That got him all pissed off again. So he got into how they've reorganized the military, and technical arguments on how they've changed the command structure. I mean, he is the deputy secretary of defense, and I have to admit he lost me.”

Lost him? Hardly. Some of the smarts of that 14-person Harvard research team (elitist, ivory tower, your slur here) rubbed off, because Franken not only has a pretty amazing grasp of facts and numbers while his researchers are available (i.e., while he's writing his book), but even when he's out and about in green rooms and at White House correspondents dinners as well. Heck, even though he's a Jew, he can school Commerce Secretary Don Evans—the guy Newsweek said spent two years in a “Scriptural boot camp” with the president—on the New Testament. Al Franken? “I'm a Jew. And I grew up knowing zip about the New Testament.” Evans, according to that Newsweek article, spent two years studying the book of Acts and yet claimed not to know what Acts was about when Al Franken asked him. Al Franken had been gearing up, in a little cocktail chatter, to ask him if he didn't think it was odd that Acts is communitarian and contains the passage from which Marx adapted his famous aphorism, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

“I explained to the scriptural boot camp survivor what I understood Acts to be about. Then I went into my spiel about the unfairness of the tax cut.

“'Ah,' Evans smiled. 'But Acts also has Jesus' Parable of the Talents.'

“'No,' I said. 'That's in Matthew.'”

But ever humble, Al Franken explains it's a fluke that he happens to know that the Parable of the Talents is in Matthew, not Acts, and how Gary Bauer's wife (who is, long story, a friend) explained the parable for him when his young Jew son at his affluent Jew private school had a term paper due on the subject and neither of them could understand it. Al Franken, a fine dad, had gone straight to the undisputed experts. And that's the story of how Al Franken schooled Don Evans on Acts and Matthew, but not as funny. Al Franken is really funny.

Al Franken recounts for us every confrontation he's ever had, in chapters such as “I Bitch-Slap Bernie Goldberg,” “Paul Gigot Is Unable to Defend an Incredibly Stupid Wall Street Journal Editorial,” “I Attend the White House Correspondents Dinner and Annoy Karl Rove, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, and the Entire Fox News Team” and “I Meet Former First Lady Barbara Bush and It Doesn't Go So Well.” I left out several chapters from that list where I didn't think you would recognize the names. But although of course his bantam arguments are hilarious and thrilling and will probably be the most quoted scenes in the book reviews, why, there's ever so much more!

Take the chapter “By Far the Vast Majority of My Tax Cuts.” Over the course of 15 pages, Al Franken parses George W. Bush's lie (told many times) that by far the vast majority of his tax cuts would go to folks at the bottom end of the economic spectrum. Fifteen pages. And they're funny even though they're about math.

I stayed up until 5 o'clock Sunday morning. I couldn't sleep. Al Franken had made me mad. Now, he's just a comedian. But the chapter on Paul Wellstone's memorial service, the one that had television commentators shrieking that it wasn't a memorial! That it siphoned away the personal and was just a grotesque party rally! Well, they hadn't been there. They hadn't even watched the whole thing. Franken wasthere. “This chapter is a case study of how the right lies and viciously distorts. It is the story of how the right-wing media repeats its fabrications until they echo into the mainstream press. It is a story of pure cynicism in the pursuit of power. It is the story of how the lying liars took the death of my friends and invented a myth that changed the 2002 elections.

“And the best part is, it's hilarious! No, it's not. But read it anyway. You paid for the book.”

And it's all there: a two-page transcript of the rending eulogy for Paul Wellstone's driver, delivered by his grieving brother. Not personal? The story of Al Franken's friendship with Wellstone. And the story that kept me up till 5 a.m., seething. It begins before Wellstone's death in a plane crash; it begins in the Senate campaign that pitted Wellstone against former St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman.

“[M]ainly it was Coleman's proxies who played it dirty,” Al Franken writes. “The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) ran an ad called 'Pork' that hit the hypocrisy jackpot. It savaged Wellstone for voting 'to spend thousands of dollars to control seaweed in Maui,' claiming that he prioritized seaweed control over national defense. In fact, Wellstone did vote for S.1216, as did Strom Thurmond, Trent Lott and 84 other senators. That bill did appropriate the seaweed control spending—but it also provided $21 billion for veterans' health care, $27 billion for veterans' compensation and pensions, and block grants to assist New York City's recovery from 9/11. The NRSC was chaired that year by Bill Frist, who later replaced Lott as Senate majority leader. Before the memorial, Frist spoke with the Wellstones' older son, David, who later recounted the conversation to me.

“'I'm sorry about your parents and your sister,' Frist told David.

“'Did you authorize the seaweed ad against my dad?' David asked.

“'Yes,' said Frist.

“'And did you vote for the seaweed bill?'

“There was a pause. They both knew that the answer was yes. Finally, Frist said, 'It wasn't personal.'

“'My dad took it personal,' David said. 'Thanks for coming to my family's memorial.'”

If you need a pick-me-up after that, you can always go back and reread the chapter “You Know Who I Don't Like? Ann Coulter.”

Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. Published by Dutton. 379 pages. $24.95.

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