Al Franken sounds a little fatigued. It's exactly 9 a.m. when he phones from New York City, having set aside 20 minutes of his jam-packed schedule to talk.
He's not as animated as he is during his daily Air America Radio Network program, which will begin airing Tuesday on cable TV a la Howard Stern's radio show. But Franken — author of the best-sellers Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them and Rush Limbuagh Is a Big Fat Idiot — still manages to chuckle several times while discussing the presidential election and the record of the Bush Administration.
The election has been widely called the most important in a generation and is expected to be as close as the 2000 results. Based on the events of that race, Franken says the Bush/Cheney campaign can still pull off something that will tip it in their favor.
"I don't know if they have something up their sleeves," Franken says. "They're constantly trying to pull little things. The announcement of bringing 70,000 troops home from Germany and South Korea is a little something."
Bush and Cheney, of course, have spoken in front of several military crowds in what appears to be an attempt to show rabid public approval before the TV cameras.
"They've been speaking to their crowds," Franken observes. "There are certain places where they've made people sign loyalty oaths (in order to hear the speeches)."
This practice, though widely reported, was denied by Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minnesota) during a recent appearance on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. "Never did that," he said, laughing.
That's just one example, however, of the ugly charges being fired off by both campaigns and by the groups that support each candidate. The most recent controversy surrounds Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, who claim Kerry exaggerated his Vietnam War record and received medals he really didn't deserve. The left has countered for quite some time that George W. Bush received favorable consideration when applying to the Texas Air National Guard during the war and then failed to show up for duty.
Are both sides slinging an equal amount of mud?
"I think the criticism of Bush's lack of a war record is more legitimate," Franken says. "First of all, it seems to be based on truth. And the Swift Boat Veterans are being funded by Republicans. So much of what they do is just downright lying or misleading. Whereas it's pretty clear that President Bush got into a champagne unit of the National Guard and didn't show up for either all or most of his service in Alabama."
He finishes that sentence with a hearty chortle, before continuing, "I think that's a legitimate thing when you talk about the president leading troops. (This is) the party that criticized Bill Clinton."
As a dope-smoking draft-dodger.
"Exactly," Franken says.
Patriotism seems to be an important cog in the Bush/Cheney machine. Even those who don't agree with the president or only sometimes agree with him might bristle when the Commander-in-Chief is criticized.
"Well, I think there's an effort to use patriotism as a refuge," Franken says. "There's an appeal to the American sense of exceptionalism, that we're morally superior, as a way to not be self-critical. I think that's a bit dangerous."
In his book Cruel and Unusual, Mark Crisping Miller seems to contend that often the Bush Administration believes its own lies. It recalls Sienfeld's George Costanza telling Jerry, "It's not a lie if you believe that it's true."
"I think they have whole spectrum of what they do," Franken says. "And some of it alludes to being stuff that isn't true and knowing that it isn't true but trying very hard to believe it. But I think there's also outright lying."
Did they really believe they were going to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?
"Yes, they did," Franken says flatly. "They cherry-picked the information. They were deliberately misleading. There's no doubt about that. They thought there would be some chemical weapons. Biological weapons maybe."
Birth of a pundit
Franken has been a political pundit for quite a few years now. After being hired as one of the original writers and occasional performer on the original Saturday Night Live, he left that program along with cast members and creator/producer Lorne Michaels in 1980.
He returned in 1985, staying on for another decade. During that time he co-wrote the screenplay for the film When a Man Loves a Woman. In 1995, he wrote and starred in Stuart Saves His Family, based on his popular SNL character. Critically acclaimed, it wasn't well received at the box office.
It was in 1988, however, that Franken began to emerge as a political satirist beyond the bounds of SNL. That year, CNN asked him to provide commentary at the Democratic National Convention. In both 1992 and 1996, he co-anchored Comedy Central's campaign coverage with conservative Arianna Huffington in a series of reports called Strange Bedfellows.
His 1998 sitcom Lateline, a spoof of nightly news programs like ABC's Nightline, was another critically acclaimed venture that failed to draw large audiences. It's just been released on DVD and features four unaired episodes.
In 1996, Franken published Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot, which firmly established him as a major nemesis of the political right. He wrote two more books, also best-sellers, before penning the hugely successful Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.
Now out in soft-cover, three chapters have been added to the book — an addendum to the chapters on Fox News personality Bill O'Reilly and conservative author Ann Coulter, as well as a hilarious recounting of Fox News' attempt to sue Franken and his publisher over the book's title and use of O'Reilly's mug on the cover.
O'Reilly is no fan of Franken, of course, and the media often mention the feud between the two. But it seems that cable TV and radio personality Sean Hannity sticks in Franken's craw a bit more.
"(Hannity) is much more of an attack dog conservative," Franken says. "Just basically say anything for the cause, including blatant lying, and I do think he's pathological about lying on a number of things. I think he actually starts believing the lie."
Is Limbaugh a better liar or merely a craftier showman?
"I don't know, that's a very good question," Franken ponders. "At least (Rush) has sort of a shtick that I suppose is a little easier to take, which is sort of cheeky bloviating.
" 'I'm bloviating,' " he blusters in an impression of Limbaugh. " 'And if what I'm saying isn't true, it's because it's all a joke.' Whereas Hannity comes at it from the indignant outrage of a man who's fighting evil."
Franken's radio program, which he co-hosts with former Minnesota Public Radio personality Katherine Lanpher, is on just a handful of stations around the U.S., but it can be heard on the Internet (airamerica radio.com).
"Overall, we're doing very well," Franken says. "We got our first quarter ratings in New York, where we came in second to WABC (the flagship station for both Limbaugh and Hannity). We're the No. 1 provider of streamed audio on the Internet, and we have a huge Internet audience."
Franken is hopeful about having an affiliate in Cincinnati, which is dominated by the Republican-friendly Clear Channel radio chain.
"Actually, we're on a Clear Channel station in Portland, Oregon," he points out. "We're doing very well there."