In the kicking, spitting spirit of current all-star political discourse, Al Franken gives as good as he gets. His quintessential ad hominem attack title, "Rush Limbaugh Is a Big, Fat Idiot," has already established his flair for the requisite games. Name calling, fact molding, gotcha!: all figure prominently in Mr. Franken's instant best seller "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right," just as they do in most of the books that "Lies" attacks. Whatever their partisanship, these sporting diatribes share two underlying attitudes: "What gray area?" and "It's all about me."
Although Mr. Franken refers to "my wife, who, I have to tell you, is not usually funny," he writes of living in "a comedy household." Here is one of many indications of where the center of his particular universe lies. In addition to promoting his earlier books, lucrative corporate speeches and gonzo confrontational tactics (as in trying to con Attorney General John Ashcroft into writing a confessional article on sexual abstinence), Mr. Franken has assembled a team of 14 research assistants from Harvard. They are pictured in this book wearing T-shirts that read, "TeamFranken" — what else?
Note to Bill O'Reilly, the de facto publicist for "Lies" thanks to Fox News's hapless efforts to block its publication: Never say "Never said it" or "You can't find a transcript where I said it" when a man with 14 researchers is on your trail. In a book that baits its targets with varying degrees of success, Mr. Franken makes a bull's-eye out of Mr. O'Reilly. First the prize: he shows how Mr. O'Reilly's erroneous claim that he won a Peabody Award evolved into even bigger fibs once it was challenged.
Then the porn: a mortifyingly stilted erotic passage from Mr. O'Reilly's novel "Those Who Trespass" is sent up repeatedly here. Then the political affiliation: a 1994 voter registration form is dug up, courtesy of National Public Radio, and reprinted to contradict Mr. O'Reilly's 1996 claim that he was not enrolled in a political party. (The form counts him as a Republican.) And finally the provenance: accounts of a childhood in Levittown, N.Y., are contradicted in The Washington Post by "an inside source (O'Reilly's mother)."
Funnier here than he was in his previous "Oh, The Things I Know!," Mr. Franken also has a serious agenda. Interspersed with wisecracks about Republicans, like "They've never forgiven us for carrot cake," are his thoughts about antiterrorism efforts, tax reform, media bias and pollution caused by animal waste. ("People lucky enough to live in the vicinity of an industrial hog farm are, with each breath, made keenly aware of the cause of their declining property values.")
He has a special fondness for statistics and for the ways in which they can be readily distorted. A chart on military expenditures shows how Lincoln spent far more than President Ronald Reagan, especially if the comparison is based solely on the cost of horses.
At the start of a brand new mud-slinging season, with books by Michael Moore, Mr. O'Reilly, Molly Ivins and others in the wings, Mr. Franken touches many of the same bases that Joe Conason does in "Big Lies." Both examine the all-important way that slipshod computer searches can be used to distort facts, for example. And it is the more blunt, relentless Mr. Conason who digs deeper.
But Mr. Franken's humor, when it is not reduced to the comic book level, hits harder. He argues that the F.B.I. needs to spend more on computers, since the bureau has claimed it can't look up two words together, and thus to look up "al Qaeda" agents have to "go through me, they go through Al Gore, they have to read every Weird Al Yankovich lyric." (Alert the media — that name is misspelled. There's no "h" at the end.) About research conducted by another of his favorite targets, Ann Coulter, the author of "Slander" and "Treason," he writes: "Using Coulter's technique, it's possible to prove that no newspaper ever covered anything."
Mr. Franken and his Harvard elves fuel future arguments by barely annotating much of this book's data and skipping a closing index entirely. A weakness for oversimplifications undercuts it, too. So: "Clinton-hating was to the Bush White House what terrorism-fighting was to the Clinton White House." And on patriotism and the Civil War: "You know who were the worst traitors in the history of our country? The Confederates." He has a little — but only a little — more to add to the latter remark.
"Lies" is more detailed in describing how the memorial service for Senator Paul Wellstone snowballed into a media circus. He writes about this section: "And the best part is, it's hilarious! No, it's not. But read it anyway. You paid for the book."
The book also delivers a bitterly funny assault on Alan Colmes, whom Mr. Franken deems the milquetoast house liberal at Fox News. "Lies" says his duties include "adding toner to the copiers and printers, loofah-ing Roger Ailes," Fox News chairman, "in his personal steam room, and ordering Chinese food for editors working on misleading video packages."
Once again Mr. Franken assails Mr. Limbaugh for name-calling invective while displaying his own commensurate skills in this regard. "Rush, I know you have a three-hour show every day that leaves precious little time for bothering to know what you're talking about," he writes. And: "The old fallback. Blame Clinton. That always works with your audience when you're trying to make something up."
He adds, "When I don't know something, I just tell a joke about Gingrich having a mistress."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company