The essential founder of the American experiment was neither a general in the Continental Army nor financier of its fight against colonial oppression. He was not a member of the Continental Congress, nor a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. He did not sign the Declaration of Independence or any of the other official documents of his time.
Tom Paine put his name only to the pamphlets he authored. But those pamphlets, which achieved the widest imaginable circulation in the colonies that would become the first 13 of these United States, provided the impetus for the break from British empire. Rare was the home of a patriot from Boston to Savannah that did not have a copy of Paine's "Common Sense" near the hearth. Rare was the tavern where it was not discussed. Rare was the gathering of Tory sympathizers with the British monarchy where the book and its author were not reviled for their affronts to a ruler named George.
Paine's next pamphlet, "The Crisis," which was written to inspire support for the Continental Army and the republican cause, was so broadly read that contemporary historians suggest it reached a greater percentage of Americans than today watches the Super Bowl game. John Adams wisely noted, "Without the pen of Paine, the sword of Washington would have been wielded in vain."
"The Crisis" contained what is perhaps Paine's most famous line: "These are the times that try men's souls." And it is surely true that the times that try men's souls must, necessarily, inspire new Tom Paines. The dissenting and radical tradition that is so vital to the health of American democracy is characterized not merely by a willingness to confront what Paine referred to as "aristocratical tyranny" but by a determination to do so in a manner that is bold enough, provocative enough and, yes, entertaining enough to reach the great mass of citizens.
I thought often of the pamphleteering tradition as I read comedian, social commentator and Air America radio host Al Franken's new book, with a title that - like "Common Sense" or "The Crisis" - is Paine-like in its bluntness and confidence: "The Truth."
It's fair to say that Paine probably would have dispensed with the subtitle "(With Jokes)," but the old revolutionary wrote in more deliberate times than these. And if it now takes a bit of humor to get the message out, doubtless Paine would approve.
Surely, Paine would recognize the need, in times such as these, for Franken's enormously popular books of social and political criticism.
At a point where the Bill of Rights' "freedom of the press" protection - which was written to encourage criticism of those in charge - has been warped by media conglomerates into an excuse for the peddling of celebrity gossip, the commercial carpet bombing of our children, and the shameless stenography to power that allows a nation to be lied into war, it has become difficult for most Americans to get a coherent take on the zeitgeist. As it was in the era of King George, in the era of President George it is hard to get a read on the spirit of the time from a media that, for commercial and political reasons, is subservient to those who appoint members of the Federal Communications Commission rather than to the readers, listeners and viewers who yearn for substance and insight.
It is this yearning that underpins the success of Franken's books and his Air America radio program, as it does the documentary films of Michael Moore and Robert Greenwald, the "Daily Show" diatribes of Jon Stewart, and the Web sites such as www.commondreams.org and www.truthout.org that have been developed to break through the fog of commercialism, extended weather reports and breathless communiques regarding the lifestyles of the rich and famous that now pass for "news."
But what struck me as I read Franken's new book was the extent to which it stands fully, and commendably, in the great tradition of patriotic pamphleteering. Yes, it is thicker than one of Paine's revolutionary tracts, and a bit more expensive. At some fundamental level, however, it does the same work - that of exposing the flaws, the failures and the frauds of the unexamined powerful.
The former Saturday Night Live star's book is funny when it needs to be. But the humor is merely the spice used to flavor what is a serious dish of information.
Some might chuckle at Franken's line: "Bush is lucky that he had a Republican Congress, or he almost certainly would have been impeached and imprisoned." But does anyone seriously question, after all the revelations regarding the doctoring of intelligence and the deliberate deception of Congress and the American people by the president and his cronies, that an independent Congress would now be reviewing impeachment resolutions?
With "The Truth," Franken indicts both the Bush administration and its congressional allies - the section on former Majority Leader Tom DeLay is deliciously detailed.
To a far greater extent than Franken's previous book, "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right" (Dutton), which attacked the messengers of the new right, this book sets out to dismember official wrongdoers. "Gone is the familiar cast of villains: the psychotic Ann Coulter, the sex-addicted Bill O'Reilly, the drug-addicted Rush Limbaugh. Consigned to their own personal hells by their failings as human beings, Franken mercifully leaves them be. Ann Coulter has been banned as effectively from these pages as from the intellectual salons to which she so desperately craves admittance," the third-person introduction explains. "In 'The Truth,' the fish are bigger, and the fry is deeper. Franken's targets this time include both people - Bush, Cheney, Rice, Rove, DeLay - and something new: ideas. In particular, the idea that the 2004 election meant that Franken's beloved America had moved to the right. Al Franken ain't buyin' it."
The fishy figures of this administration do, indeed, get fried.
Franken's book succeeds not with jokes - although the author's humorous barbs remain the most effective skewers of the likes of Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld - but with the tool that Paine and the pamphleteers of previous ages employed: facts.
"The Truth" is no screed penned in anger at a disreputable ruler and his acolytes. It is a bill of particulars, which spells out high crimes and misdemeanors for which Bush, Cheney and their crew will, ultimately, be remembered. Indeed, if someone were to ask me for a quick review of what has gone wrong with America since Jan. 20, 2001, I would not hesitate to recommend that they start with this book. To be sure, there are other texts that take apart particular players in effective ways - as the author of a book on Cheney, I am duty bound to make that point - but there are few that have the broad sweep combined with the consistent reliance on official statements and credible critiques that this book offers.
Additionally, "The Truth" captures the emotions of the moment, particularly in the sections that deal with the frustrations of the 2004 presidential contest, its delusional Democrats, its dysfunctional debates and its disappointing conclusion. Bush, or more precisely Karl Rove, prevailed not on merit, Franken argues, but by employing the "Three Horsemen of the Republican Apocalypse: Fear, Smears, and Queers."
That's a good line, to be sure. But it is backed up by chapters of information and analysis that batter Bush with the effectiveness of a particularly well-written legal brief - or a closing statement to the jury from Clarence Darrow.
Perhaps it does Franken no good to suggest that he has written - with the able research assistance of Madison native Ben Wikler - an important and useful book. In these days, the greater rewards tend to go to the most glib commentators, to the loudest ranters and to the cruelest character assassins. But Franken has offered us something more than another scream from the left.
This is a book that matters, not as great literature - although it is quite well written and smoother in flow than Franken's previous texts - but as a dose of reality for a nation that has grown ill from imbibing the global fantasies of the neocons, the free-trade fallacies of the neolibs and the "fighting-for-freedom" fakery of the Patriot Act-pushing, torture-promoting neofascists who pass themselves off as the champions of liberty.
At one point in the book, there is a joking reference to the notion that Franken penned this tome with an intent to "purify the blood of the body politic."
Yet the often poignant letter to his grandchildren that closes the book, under the title "The Resurrection of Hope," suggests that Franken's purpose is just such a purification.
Surely, Tom Paine - who anticipated both the Bush administration's secrecy and Franken's challenge to it when he observed, "It is error only, and not the truth, that shrinks from inquiry" - would encourage his pamphleteering heir to embrace no less a mission.
John Nichols is the associate editor of The Capital Times. His latest books include "The Rise and Rise of Richard B. Cheney" (The New Press) and, with Robert W. McChesney, "Tragedy and Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy" (The New Press). E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2005 The Capital Times