Never get into a pissing contest with a skunk

GUEST: Al Franken
VTR: 12/03/03

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest today is Al Franken whose new book “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them … A Fair and Balanced Looked at the Right” has resided for 13 weeks now on the best sellers list of the New York Times where it is described as a satirical critique of the rhetoric of Right Wing pundits and politicians.

Let’s note, too, that my guest’s earlier tome “Rush Limbaugh Is A Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations” was on the Times list for over eight months, five weeks as number one bestseller.

All of which has perhaps contributed somewhat to the recent Nicholas Kristof Times piece entitled “Hold The Vitriol” from which I’d like to quote if my guest will continue to be his usual benign, patient self … for I want to ask him his reactions.

Kristof writes, “Considering the savagery with which the snarling Right excoriated President Clinton as a ‘sociopath’, blocked judicial appointments, undermined US military operations from Kosovo to Iraq, hounded Vincent Foster and then accused the Clintons of murdering him, it is utterly hypocritical for Conservatives to complain about Liberal incivility. But they’re right,” continues Mr. Kristof, “Liberals have now become as intemperate as Conservatives and the result … everybody shouting at everybody else, corrodes the body politic and is counterproductive for Democrats, themselves. My guess is that if the Democrats stay angry, then they’ll offend Southern White guys with or without pick-ups and flags and lose again.”

And I want to ask Mr. Franken what he thinks about that? Is there anything to this notion that “Shout louder and the Democrats lose.”?

FRANKEN: Well, I hope Mr. Kristof wasn’t talking about me, and if he was I hope he had read my book. Because this is a number of … one of a number of articles like this. My book is a little different then, then …sometimes I’m equated with Anne Coulter or with Bill O’Reilly, that I’m just doing what they do, but on the other side. And, you’ve got my book here …

HEFFNER: Yeah. Sure do.

FRANKEN: You know we … Fox sued us to try to stop the book from being published because of the title “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them … A Fair and Balanced Look at The Right”. And “fair and balanced” is their trademark and …

HEFFNER: You got them to do that, didn’t you?

FRANKEN: I got them to sue us? It couldn’t have worked out better. I mean I was jumping up in the air … you know, the whole family was dancing when we heard we were being sued. But when they first threatened to sue us I told my publisher, who was a little nervous about it. I said, “Look, one thing I know is that satire is protected speech even if the object of the satire doesn’t get it.”

And the same is true of Nicholas Kristof. There’s a difference between what I do and what they do. What, what I do, basically, is tell the truth and what they do, the Right, is lie. And I’m talking about certain people on the Right and the people that I address in this. And my book is just satirical ju-jitsu. I take what they say, their lies and I use them against them and heap scorn and ridicule on them, which is the satire part. So I take issue where I’m being lumped as doing the same kind of vitriol that, that they do.

Some of it … “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them” is deliberately using their over-heated rhetoric in the title. I mean Anne Coulter’s book “Slander” was “Slander, Liberal Lies Against the American Right”. And her next one was “Treason, Liberal Treachery”, you know, [laughter] and so, so the point of the title was, “Lies and The Lying Liars Who Tell Them … A Fair and Balanced Look At the Right” is over-heated rhetoric of the Right, followed by ironic … the use of “fair and balanced” ironically in a couple of ways. There’s nothing … a book called “Lies and The Lying Liars Who Tell Them” can’t be fair and balanced.

Also “fair and balanced” is an allusion to Fox’s own trademark, which I believe they use ironically. I didn’t even know if they were suing me for using their trademark or for stealing the idea of using “fair and balanced” ironically. [Laughter]

HEFFNER: Don’t give them ideas; maybe they’ll come back.

FRANKEN: [Laughter] They’ll come back and go like “that’s what we meant in the first place.”

HEFFNER: But now deal with the question; the real question is not whether you shout, shout …

FRANKEN: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … but whether you give as good as the Democrats have gotten.

FRANKEN: I think I give as well …but I give legitimately. I mean don’t accuse Bush of murdering one of his aides or of raping people; or of that kind of thing. I just … I don’t even accuse him of … I accuse him of lying, for example, during the campaign, he said repeatedly, “by far the vast majority of my tax cuts go to those at the bottom.”

HEFFNER: But now, wait a minute, you say “lying”.

FRANKEN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Is that any different from the political exaggeration which we, in the past, haven’t called lies except in the middle of a campaign. Who hasn’t in the past made that kind of claim, for whatever he’s done politically.

FRANKEN: But it, it’s a pattern. It’s a pattern with this Administration and it’s a pattern with Bush. And that is such a … it’s so over the top … a lie … and he knows … I mean what I said about it, what I say about it is that the press, the quote “Liberal” press, wrote nothing about that. And I thought it was because their attitude at the time was, “he doesn’t know, leave the man alone, he doesn’t know. He doesn’t know that the vast majority doesn’t go [laughter], they’re telling him to say that.” They just underestimated him or, as he said, “misunderestimated” him. And when we heard, he said, “I don’t mind being misunderestimated”, we thought … “okay, he’s stupid.” But I think he was saying what he doesn’t mind is being underestimated for the wrong reason. And I think … we thought he was just stupid and the fact of the matter is he’s dishonest.

HEFFNER: Okay. Dishonest. Call it what you will. Question still has to be dealt with …

FRANKEN: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … whether Kristof has touched on something here that might be of concern …

FRANKEN: Sure.

HEFFNER: … that getting back in this way can do in your cause. What do you think about that? This new Liberal radio.

FRANKEN: Well, okay, for … I think, when people show up for my book signings, now obviously they’re going to be the people who’ve responded to the book and who … they say, “thank you, thank you. We felt so alone, you know. We just kept … we’ve been listening to right wing radio …you can’t help it, you just turn on the dial … and you want to hear what … what’s Rush Limbaugh talking about.” And they say, “we’ve just been taking it so long … thank you for returning fire.”

And that’s all I’m doing. I’m just, I’m just standing up and saying “you can’t have a two sided conversation if one side can lie all the time, and the other side doesn’t call them on it.” And, and so all I’m doing is calling them on it. I’m doing a totally different thing than they’re doing.

Duh, I’m not running for President. The guy who runs for President is going to have to do more than, than what I do in this book, although I think what I do in this book is talk about a lot of important things. I talk about, for example, one of the issues of this campaign is going to be 9/11 and it’s going to be … the Republicans are going to be saying Clinton caused 9/11.

And the fact of the matter is, is that the Bush people from the transition until November 11th did nothing, absolutely nothing, even though the people who came over from the Clinton administration, Richard Clark, for example, the Head of Counter-terrorism at NSC, were screaming at them in tandem, were screaming at them to implement the plan that Clark has created under Clinton after the Cole. The Cole happened in October of 2000. Clinton was not in a position to put boots on the ground in Afghanistan … one, it takes a little time to plan it, and two, it would have been an October surprise. And by the time the election was resolved in December, he would have had … for him to go into Afghanistan would have been handing a war to President Bush. Much like he was handed a war in Somalia. So, he … Sandy Berger and Richard Clark went to Condoleezza Rice and, and said, “this is the plan, this is what we’ve got to do. Osama bin Laden is going to take more of your time than anything else.” And everyone in the Bush Administration said, “Those Clinton people are just obsessed with Osama” and they did nothing.

The Hart/Rudman came out in February, they ignored it. In May they finally, Bush finally announced a counter-terrorism taskforce, headed by Cheney. He said he’d meet periodically with them to review their findings. How many times did he meet with them? Zero. Why? Because they never met. Ashcroft was turning down counter-terrorism requests from the FBI. Rumsfeld was threatening a Presidential veto when Congress wanted to take $600 million dollars from Star Wars and put it into counter-terrorism. These guys did nothing. And that’s going to be part of the debate. I call it Operation Ignore. And that, the … that Bush implemented Operation Ignore and I’ve been criticized because … people are going to think there was actually an Operation Ignore. They go like, you can’t convince me there’s someone too stupid, so stupid they’re going to actually believe there was an Operation Ignore.

And then I remember saying that to somebody and it was like, someone else reported it as saying like, “Franken angrily [laughter] responded …”

HEFFNER: And you’re never angry.

FRANKEN: Well, I’m, I get angry, sure. But I wasn’t angry when I was saying, “you can’t convince me there’s someone so stupid that they think there’s actually an Operation Ignore” after reading my book.

HEFFNER: Earlier this morning, at this table …

FRANKEN: MmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: … Rick Hertzberg was saying “Now Franken is a political scientist”. And it’s clear, you’re …

FRANKEN: Well, I …

HEFFNER: … on top of what has happened in the past. You know whereof you’re speaking.

FRANKEN: Relatively … not, I’m not …

HEFFNER: And that’s going to … all right.

FRANKEN: … Rick Hertzberg.

HEFFNER: … Don’t; don’t push me too far on that.

FRANKEN: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: You do. And that’s going to come over on radiolib. Aren’t you going to be talking, won’t they be talking to the choir. Won’t they be talking to the people who cheer them anyway?

FRANKEN: Preaching to the choir. I think that you could, you could say the thing about Limbaugh … the same thing about Limbaugh and the same thing about Hannity. And those guys who … now … and the local right wing radio guys. But at a certain point, if it’s the only thing out there, people listen to it and they start absorbing this stuff and they start believing it. And if there’s no counter to it, they’ll just believe it. And they do, and that’s what’s happened. It’s moved this country, I really believe that Right Wing radio has moved this country to the Right.

HEFFNER: What evidence do you have of that? And I’m not challenging you. I’m interested to know what evidence there is of that. Because most people will say, “Come on, these things don’t work that way”.

FRANKEN: Well, first of all they mobilize people. And I think that that’s clear that you could, you know, Joe Lockhart used to tell me that you could always tell when Limbaugh had started charging people up about something because they would get all these mail at the White House and the press would be affected. I give a good example in the book, I talk about the Wellstone Memorial.

HEFFNER: Right.

FRANKEN: I went to the Wellstone Memorial. It was a beautiful memorial. There were a couple of moments in the, in the Memorial that were over the top.

HEFFNER: Politically?

FRANKEN: Well, emotionally, politically, I don’t know. Rick Kahn who was Wellstone’s best friend had lost his best friend, his best friend’s wife who was so close to Paul and Paul and Shelia were so close that you could say he lost his two best friends. And their daughter, and three other very close friends who worked on the campaign. The guy was pretty distraught and he went over the top, he said “Win this election for Paul Wellstone. We have to win this for Paul”. And then he asked the Republicans who were there to step down … you know … to back Paul.”

Which is something … I remember sitting going there, “that’s odd, you don’t do that.” But the, the crowd, the emotion there was so strong and there was weeping and there was cheering and there was laughing and crying. And Rush Limbaugh went on the next day and went “Where was the grief? There was none of that.”

And the people who did not see the Memorial, which is most of the people in the country, came away with … because of Rush and because of other people in the Right Wing media … the Weekly Standard wrote just a scandalous editorial on it. By Chris Caldwell who has done good … I’ve seen Chris do good work. He did not see the Memorial at all. And he said things like it was a pagan event and that 20,000 repeatedly booed and then he gave a list of Republican Senators and stuff. And he said that the Aides who died in the plane crash were hardly treated at all.

I called him up, I said, “You said it was pagan. Did you see the ecumenical prayer by …given by, you know, this stage full of clergy from every faith tradition in Minnesota?”. He went, “Ah, no.” I said, “You said 20,000 people repeatedly booed this person. Did you see that?. “Ah, no.” You say the aides were hardly treated, did you hear David McLaughlin’s incredibly beautiful eulogy that I include part of in this book to his brother Will? No. “Well, what did you see?”. And it turns out he didn’t see the thing. He say some clips on like Hannity and Combs that were like, you know, my image is of like Combs walking past the edit room, going like “What are you guys going?”. “Oh, we’re editing a misleading piece on the Wellstone Memorial. Oh, good. You guys need anything? You want some Chinese food, or something? Yeah, that’s be good Alan, why don’t you just … you know what we like.”

It was sickening to someone who knew Paul and to someone who was there. And, but Rush led the charge. And he was saying, “It was … everyone knows the house was packed … the play was a planted audience”. They had to go on Twin Cities radio to tell people to stay away over an hour before hand.

HEFFNER: So, you’re saying, in response, you’re going to tell the truth …

FRANKEN: Yes.

HEFFNER: … and the truth shall make us free.

FRANKEN: Yes.

HEFFNER: You really believe that.

FRANKEN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: You do.

FRANKEN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Good.

FRANKEN: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: I hope the hell that you’re right.

FRANKEN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: But I’m worried about the other side of that.

FRANKEN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: That I haven’t seen, I think I’ve lived through many more elections than you have … unfortunately.

FRANKEN: No, I think it’s good that you’ve lived …

HEFFNER: [Laughter]

FRANKEN: … through those.

HEFFNER: And I don’t, I don’t … haven’t come through with the thought that the truth is what makes us free. What makes us free is a hell of a lot of money in the bank to buy television in … since the nineteen fifties …

FRANKEN: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: And a lot of other things …

FRANKEN: Oh, oh, oh, yeah. Well, I … okay … no that’s the goal … the truth will make us free. And I’m not, I don’t have any illusions that if, if I do this Liberal radio thing, which would start in March, that … and on five … you know, in five markets … so far … that it will necessarily change this election.

Although that’s one of the goals. And no, there’s, there’s fights on so many fronts and part of the fight is, is on money. But I mean one of the things that Kristof is, I guess, objecting to, is this anger that … but the, the candidate that’s raising the most money is Howard Dean and he is doing it like Republicans. He’s raising it in small amounts, he’s doing it on the net, instead of Richard Viguerie’s direct mail, but he … people are, are responding to that. Now he’s also doing more; he’s doing more than that. That’s what the press is reporting. I’ve seen Howard’s … the Governor’s entire stump speech and he speaks to a vision of what he wants to do and what he did in Vermont. And he did things … I mean he talks a lot about like pre-natal care and about, you know, we have the largest prison population in the world. And he talks about … he said something that I thought was interesting, which is … he said that every kindergarten teacher or first grade teacher can tell you which kid [laughter] is going to go to prison. And that they did early intervention in Vermont and that their prison population has … as this has come to fruition, has, has gone down. And, and … my daughter …

HEFFNER: Is he your candidate?

FRANKEN: Not yet, no. I mean I, I want someone who I think will win. And I …

HEFFNER: You’re not so sure about him?

FRANKEN: I’m not so sure about who is the right candidate yet. And I’ve done fundraisers for … I did a fundraiser for him. I’ve done one for Dick Gephardt, who I think is a great guy. For John Kerry. Doing something with Rick tomorrow. I mean Rick and I are just doing a, a thing at my house where we’re having a lot of opinion makers over to just have an on-the-record, informal talk, we have about 15 people talking to Kerry.

HEFFNER: If someone doesn’t show up, by the way, since we live in the same building …

FRANKEN: …the same building. [Laughter]

HEFFNER: … call me …

FRANKEN: I’ll invite you now.

HEFFNER: … I’d like to meet him.

FRANKEN: He is a … you know, obviously there’s a guy with tremendous gravitas, tremendous experience with both international and domestic issues and a guy who, you know, I, I was talking to this guy Rich Lowery, who writes for the National Review and he’s kind of a, you know, he’s a, a Conservative writer and he’s cut above like the Hannity’s and those guys; I mean he really is.

And, but I was talking to him and he had written something about Kerry crying. Because he’s obsessed …Lowery … with masculinity and the Democrats effeminize politics and he … I said, “Do you know how Kerry won his Silver Star?”. And he said, “Ah, no.” I said, “Okay.” [Laughter] He was headed upriver with a slipboat and they used to get ambushed, especially in this one area of the river. And with sort of impunity for the people who were ambushing them … for the Cong who were ambushing them. And they were taking fire and guys would get wounded and killed. And he just decided, “I’m going just … I’m just …” he just turned the boat around and he talked to the other guys … and this is what we’re going to do; and they came right at shore, toward the guys who are ambushing them, with a 50 mm gun which is on the top of a slipboat, blazing; so these Cong who had never been … thought they could ambush with impunity, were like “ah, ah”. They beached the thing, he jumped out and, and killed this guy. Ran down a guy and killed him … the guy who had some kind of grenade launcher thing.

HEFFNER: But he cries.

FRANKEN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: So did Muskie.

FRANKEN: Yeah, he cried about …

HEFFNER: Remember.

FRANKEN: … I think he cried about, because he was thinking aobut a guy who died in Nam. And he cried at a diner. I wasn’t … I was out of the country, I think, when he cried.

HEFFNER: Can you …

FRANKEN: But the point is …Lowery … so I said to Lowery, “so that’s how he won the Silver Star”. And Lowery went, “Oh.” And I said, “Were you in the military? No. Was I in the military? No.” I said he’s a hundred times the man either of us is, you know that. And he went, “Well, maybe, okay … I, I didn’t … I believe he gave good service to his country.”

HEFFNER: All right, you tell that story in the book, just …

FRANKEN: I don’t tell that story …

HEFFNER: Where, where was it that I read that? That you wrote, you wrote it someplace.

FRANKEN: No, I might have said it somewhere. Oh, the story about Lowery is in the book … about my challenging him to a fight.

HEFFNER: Right. No, I meant, I meant the one about the candidate.

FRANKEN: Aha.

HEFFNER: And it very dramatically, you told it …somewhere I saw that report. Are you going to be able to do that on Laugh Lib radio.

FRANKEN: Well, yeah. I mean I do a mixture of not everything is going to be … not everything in this book is funny. Certainly the whole chapter on the Wellstone Memorial is not a funny chapter. It was a very hard chapter to write, but I think it … I’ve had so many people come up to me and thank me for Chapter 25.

HEFFNER: So you are going to be the political scientist on the air. As well as the entertainer.

FRANKEN: Well, I think that …

HEFFNER: I want to know what you’re going to promise me …I want to listen …

FRANKEN: Well, if I do this, I will hopefully do compelling radio and I’ll do it …and I think you can be compelling in different ways. I think, obviously I’ve been a comedian for 30 years, so I hope to be funny. But I, I think there’s nothing wrong with showing a little knowledge and showing a little knowledge… I mean a lot of knowledge … you better. And I think there’ll be a lot of … I think we’ll be taping them a lot … the Right. I think we’re going to be digitizing them. And then I think we’ll be … also there’s nothing wrong with a radio personality displaying heart. Although O’Reilly hasn’t done that and he’s … he hasn’t been that successful on the radio. Hannity doesn’t seem to do that. Rush … another thing about … speaking about Rush … I’m going to try to do it drug free …

HEFFNER: Nasty, nasty, nasty.

FRANKEN: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: Nasty, nasty, nasty. [Laughter] That’s why I called this program … the warning I once got “don’t get into a pissing contest with a skunk”. But that’s the end of our program …

FRANKEN: Oh …

HEFFNER: … which is no way to end it, but thanks for joining me …

FRANKEN: Sure, it’s a great way to end it. I mean … it’s never been done before, drug free radio …

HEFFNER: [Laughter]

FRANKEN: But we’re going to try to do it.

HEFFNER: And it’s going to be calm and peaceful Thanks very much Al Franken …

FRANKEN: Thank you, Richard.

HEFFNER: … for joining me today. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.

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