Al Franken, Purveyor of Truth
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Al Franken, the Air America radio host and bestselling author of new-ish book " The Truth (With Jokes)" (Dutton; October 2005), may have started his career in standup comedy, but he's evolved into one of America's more astute lefty commentators.
A refreshingly normal guy in the savage world of political spin and smear, Franken is progressive, but not radical enough to alienate moderate, middle-of-the-road folks. He's intelligent and well-informed, but without a whiff of his fellow Al (Gore)'s overeducated snoot. Approachable and friendly, but moody enough to seem, well, human, Al F. emanates a likeable everyman quality. Like his archnemesis, President G.W. Bush, who snared the last two elections partly based on his "good old boy" affability, it's easy to imagine hanging out with Franken: grabbing a pint, yelling at network news, smoking a cigar.
Fortunately for progressives, Franken plans to use his everyman appeal to his political advantage. He recently moved from New York City back to his hometown of Minneapolis, and he is weighing a run for Minnesota senator (as a Dem, of course) in 2008.
Franken spoke with AlterNet from his midwestern office about his campaign plans, his shit list's "most wanted," how to fuse satire and politics, and of course, " The Truth."
Laura Barcella: A lot has happened since "The Truth" was published in October.
Al Franken: A lot has happened since I wrote the book, certainly. Katrina happened since I wrote the book. Everything that I write about in terms of Iraq is about cronyism and incompetence, and that's what the whole story of Katrina is.
LB: What would you say about Katrina if you could go back and add a chapter?
AF: Katrina showed what was happening in Iraq, which was all this cronyism and incompetence and contracting that was going to people who didn't know what they were doing. And people who were stealing. The thing about Katrina is that people said, "Why was [former FEMA Chief Michael] Brown there?"
Well, people were saying he was there because he was Joe Allbaugh's roommate, and he needed a job because he couldn't keep the horse job; that's why he was there. Well, yeah, that's why he was there, but he was really there to funnel contracts to Joe Allbaugh, who, when he left FEMA, set up his own lobbying shop. He was there to make sure that he got the contracts, and there is no oversight of this at all in Congress.
And the same thing has happened in Iraq. Except that in Iraq, instead of poor people in New Orleans, the people who are dying are soldiers and Marines, and they're dying because we didn't do the reconstruction, and because the money was stolen, and because of incompetence. And because we didn't get the water up, and electricity [running], and the sewage taken care of. The people of Iraq became alienated right away, and that fueled the insurgency, and that's killed our men and women.
LB: How do you feel about the Alito confirmation?
AF: Well, it looks like he's going to get to cast the vote real soon on "partial-birth" abortion.
Today we had a decision by a court out in your area, on the 9th Circuit, that said the new law on "partial-birth" abortion is unconstitutional -- it's vague and it doesn't protect the woman's health. So, it'll probably come before Alito, and we'll get to see what a nightmare this is.
LB: Your last book, " Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them," got a lot of press from both right- and left-wing pundits. Have you gotten any particularly ridiculous attacks on this book, any crazy press?
AF: No one ever actually challenges an actual, real fact. They just make these general broadsides about my book: "Oh, The Truth â€¦ it really should be called Lies. Oh, I guess that was the other book. I don't really know what to say â€¦"
So I'm getting attacked right and left; mainly right. It's fine.
LB: Are they mainly personal or politically leveraged attacks?
AF: Well, they're both. They're personal attacks based on the fact that they don't like me politically. There are things like â€¦ there was some guy on "Bill O'Reilly" the other night saying that I go on USO tours as a publicity stunt. This guy doesn't know anything about me. I mean, it was weird to watch O'Reilly defending me. It was such an indefensible thing that O'Reilly had to say, "Well, how do you know?"
And the thing is that I've been going on USO tours since the Clinton administration. This guy was saying, "He's just going there because he's sensitive about the accusations that liberals don't love America. You know, liberals hate America -- that's why he goes." But I was going during Kosovo -- a war that if anyone objected to, it was Republicans.
LB: So, O'Reilly defended you?
AF: Yeah, it was a very bizarre thing. I mean [he didn't defend me] very strongly, it's just something he does -- he gets someone to make wild accusations, and then he tries to seem "reasonable." So then he gets the benefit of both the wild accusation he made, and getting to seem reasonable.
LB: Who are the top three commentators on your shit list right now? I know it used to be Sean Hannity.
AF: Oh, it's always Hannity. I haven't been listening to him much, though. It's probably Rush Limbaugh. And Michael Savage makes them all look good. He's, like, a monster. If you listen to him â€¦ I don't know what that's about. [His popularity] is just about people who love poison or something. I think it's still Rush and O'Reilly and Hannity who are important enough to be on my shit list. Coulter, the usual suspects.
LB: What about on the opposite end, on the left? Is there anyone whom you're particularly fond of?
AF: Tom Oliphant. I like the guests I have on my Air America show, and I pick them as my guests for a reason. Tom Oliphant is on our show for an hour every week, and that's an hour I love.
Joe Conason, Paul Krugman -- I love his stuff. I love Frank Rich, EJ Dion. I'm always a Michael Kinsley fan. Jonathan Alter, I like reading.
I love Garrison Keillor -- did you see his New York Times book review recently? Garrison did the most hilarious and scathing attack on this book this French guy wrote about NSA's tracing -- Tocqueville.
LB: No, I didn't see the review. What was the gist?
AF: The gist was that if you're an American tempted to write a book to explain France to the French, you might want to read this book first to see all the hazards. [The writer] went to different American freak shows, and you don't really recognize anyone he talks about. He goes to a swingers club, and to Las Vegas and Dealey Plaza. No one in the book actually eats anything or does any work.
LB: OK, what about Air America? How's it doing, what direction do you hope it takes as it continues to expand?
AF: Up. Expanding, bigger, reaching more people, that's what I'm hoping for. And I hope that as we grow, we also get an increased talent pool. I hope that we develop local talent and also attract more people.
Oliphant is someone that I'm flirting with the idea -- if I do run for Senate in 2008 -- of having him take over my show, because he's so brilliant. He's sort of [aligned with] my politics, which are very reasonable, rational, liberal, fact-based politics. I'm championing values that I grew up with, like equal opportunity, expanding opportunity, justice and science, all that good stuff.
We're very rigorous on our show, and Oliphant just has so much authority, and he's so good-hearted. So my fantasy is to have people like that start hosting our shows. So, someone like Ray Suarez is someone that I was trying to attract to the network, and that didn't happen; he stayed up in News Hour. But I thought his Talk of the Nation was a great show when he was at NPR.
LB: You're living in Minneapolis full-time now. What's the political climate there, as opposed to East Coast cities like New York and D.C.?
AF: Well, Minneapolis and St. Paul are pretty liberal. D.C. is now pretty conservative â€¦ not the voters, though, in the [actual] District of Columbia.
LB: Are you still working out the decision to run for Minnesota senator in 2008?
AF: I'm still working that decision out. I think I'm going to let it evolve. I don't have to decide for a while, and I'm sort of doing the things that I'd have to do if I did run. So if I do make the decision to do it, I'll have done the things I needed to have done. I'm learning -- traveling within Minnesota, talking to people. I've been raising money for candidates in Minnesota and around the country. I've formed a national PAC called the Midwest Values PAC.
But I really think that 2006 is a crucial year. Because none of the things that I've been talking about on the show, like universal health care and the Apollo program for renewable energy, raising the minimum wage to give people a livable wage -- all those kinds of things -- none of those are going to happen unless we win some elections.
LB: If you do run in '08, why would you hope that people voted for you?
AF: Because I think Americans -- Minnesotans -- don't like the direction that the country is going. They want good health care for themselves and their kids and their grandchildren. They want to avert disaster in global warming. They want a future where kids get good educations, and good jobs for people, and a clean, healthy environment for people to live in.
LB: How has life changed since you started considering running?
AF: I've been working all the time, but I enjoy it and am learning a lot. Ever since I decided that I was going to do a radio show three hours a day -- that was a huge decision. I did that while I was researching " Lies and Lying Liars," and I ran across this Gallup poll that said that 21 percent of Americans get the majority of their news from talk radio.
That's why I did it. I said, "I am going to take this and use it as a learning experience." What I've learned is the need for people to be responsive; and how big an issue the military is. The more I've done this, the more I feel like we need good people in government. We need Democrats.
Today on Air America we were talking about universal health care with Rashi Fine, who is a professor emeritus of medical economics at Harvard and has written a book on health care, and we had a congressman from Massachussetts who happened to be in Massachussetts and talked about clean elections and federal financing of congressional elections. We also had a head of the Nurse's Association in California whose association is supporting legislation to do the same thing in California: public financing of clean elections. She says that that's the only way you're going to get real health care reform. It all ties together.
I just feel like I don't like what's happening in our country. I don't like what's happening to people in society. It's not recognizable as the country that I grew up in. There's a bigger gap between the haves and have-nots than in any time since before the Depression.
LB: What do you think President Bush's biggest priority should be right now?
AF: Probably finding a way out of Iraq -- not allowing it to descend into chaos.
LB: Seems like it's already there.
AF: It started to descend a while ago, even before they admitted it, which is a big problem.
Bush should be more honest. That's certainly a certain understatement! He should be more honest with the country about what we've done so far, what mistakes we've made, and try to engage the country in a debate about what we need to do that is in the spirit of actually trying to find a solution rather than making everything so political.
LB: You wrote a lot about John Kerry in " The Truth." This is speculative, but how do you think America might be different now if he'd been elected in '04?
AF: The trend line on the deficit would be very different, because I think we would have at least gotten rid of the tax cuts, at least on the 1 percent that we've been saying. That trend line, in terms of revenue, would be different. I think we would have much different budget priorities.
You're seeing right now that the president is asking for still more tax cuts, really aimed at the top 1 percent, and you're seeing big cuts in things like student aid. I can't believe they're doing that. They're cutting like $12.7 billion in student loan programs, and I have a suspicion that that is about recruiting. When I travel to Iraq, and talk to the men and women, a lot of them are in there because they need the money to go to college. And if you cut $12.7 billion from student aid, then you're going to force more working poor and middle class kids to consider going into the military. They desperately need recruits because we put ourselves in a bind.
LB: There are more and more critiques of the Democratic Party recently -- people claiming it's falling apart, it's divided. How do you feel about that? Do you agree?
AF: No, I don't. I think that sometimes Democrats don't do as good a job at staking out â€¦ I think universal health care should just be something we say we're for, and we're not doing that. We're not doing things like that. But we barely lost this last election with a sitting president who was at war, which is a big advantage for presidents. And the last election before that, we actually kind of won.
So it's pretty even, and most people right now, if you ask them, want to see Democrats running Congress. I don't think we're in that bad of shape. I mean, how united would the Republicans be if they didn't have the White House?
LB: In an interview from a few months ago, you said that "comedy and satire are a legitimate way of dealing with very serious things." Explain why and how?
AF: Well, I think comedy and satire are a certain way of arriving at the truth that's just a different way of arriving at it. That's why people like "The Daily Show," and people like what we do at Air America, and why people like my books. It's because the humor is actually a way of cutting through stuff and seeing the actual truth of things.
LB: Do you think it makes the truth more palatable for people?
AF: Yes. I talk about my books as nutritional candy. The candy part is the jokes, and the nutritional part is the truth. It actually just makes it easier to digest and more fun.
LB: Do you ever worry that certain people won't get it when you combine satire with political messages?
AF: I think most people get it. There are people who stubbornly refuse to get it, deliberately will not get something that's ironic or something, and then they accuse me of meaning something I didn't mean. That's a very common thing that right-wingers do.
LB: They twist your meaning?
AF: Yeah, that also happened on "O'Reilly" the other night, with some lyrics that we had about a song about Abu Ghraib.
LB: How did the song go?
AF: It was like, "Sorry about the torture â€¦" It was a song called "Sorry" that we had put on my show. I didn't write the song, although they said I had. It was written from the perspective of Rumsfeld saying we're sorry, but not really meaning it -- just a perfunctory "sorry."
It was a "we're sincerely very, very sorry about the broomstick up your rear" type thing. The point of the satirical song was that this was a horrible mistake that we made, and that, at the time, the administration was issuing these sort of half-hearted apologies.
LB: Speaking of brooms up the rear, can you talk about what you call the "mid-shit maxim" in your latest book? Terror Management Theory, and how Bush used scare tactics to manipulate voter opinion?
AF: Well, I think they're trying to do it again. They're trying to justify these warrantless wiretaps by saying "Oh, it's al Qaida!" One guy is saying it's just al Qaida -- the Hayden guy, and then on the other hand, you hear from the FBI that they were inundated with referrals on all kinds of stuff with these calls, so much so that they couldn't get to their real work, and that none of the referrals led anywhere.
I think it's a Rove-ian strategy: "We win on national security; we'll scare people, and then we'll just win."
LB: Are you working on anything new or special?
AF: The PAC. Eventually our website will have the kind of bells and whistles that will enable people to write each other and connect and go to house parties for candidates. We want to get people involved in 2006.
Laura Barcella is AlterNet's associate editor.