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STYLE & CULTURE

Franken is proud to skewer those in right state of mind

October 24, 2003|Adam Bregman | Special to The Times

Al Franken has more than his share of enemies, but not many of them showed up to hear him speak this week in Beverly Hills.

At $18 a pop, a large crowd of boisterous supporters -- by all appearances older Democrats who read the paper and are maybe a bit peeved at George W. Bush -- attended Franken's discussion of his much-commented-upon book "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right" on Tuesday night at Temple Emanuel.

The writer-comedian-commentator didn't disappoint. The audience howled at his skillfully delivered quips, roundly applauded his pointed skewering of the right and even rudely shouted down one man who tried to engage Franken in debate.

Fellow Democratic activist and movie director Rob Reiner lobbed questions at Franken at the Writers Bloc-sponsored event. For his part, Franken entertained off the cuff, riffed on recent news events and repeated some of the funnier stories in his book, such as how at the White House Correspondents Assn. dinner he succeeded in separately annoying Bush advisors Karl Rove and Richard Perle, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz and members of Fox News.

He told the audience Tuesday that when Fox News first sent a letter threatening to sue over the words "fair and balanced" in the book's title, which they claimed as a trademark, his publisher considered taking the phrase out.

Franken told her, "I've been in satire for 30 years. I know this: Satire is protected speech, even when the object of the satire doesn't get it. Our letter to Fox should be, 'Dear Fox, Please, please, please sue us.' " He got his wish, and the resulting media coverage helped propel the book to the top of Amazon.com even before it was released.

Franken's moment in court was brief. He said the Fox attorney's first words were, "Your honor, the Fox News Channel has over 85 million subscribers ... " The judge interrupted the lawyer, Franken said, by exclaiming, "I don't know what that means. I get cable. Does that mean I'm a Fox subscriber?" The packed courthouse burst into laughter. The judge ruled that Fox's case was "wholly without merit, both factually and legally."

"Lies" was bound to provoke a reaction. Its thesis is that the Bush White House, along with high-profile right-wingers such as Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, usher lies into the mainstream media that go unchallenged and are repeated by other news sources until they become public record.

Comparing Bush's lies to Bill Clinton's (Franken is a dedicated Clinton enthusiast), Franken made the point Tuesday that "it's one thing to lie about your sex life and it's another thing to lie about why we're sending our men and women into harm's way."

Among the right's most shameless liars, Franken said, is Coulter (pause for a hiss from the audience), whose latest book is "Treason: Liberal Treachery From the Cold War to the War on Terrorism." Franken told a story in which he and his wife were about to go out while one of his research assistants, Andy, worked in Franken's home office.

His wife said she just needed to put on some lipstick first. Franken picked up a copy of "Treason" and said, "Andy, I'll bet you I can find a lie in here before she gets back." He randomly picked a page and found a questionable-sounding quote attributed to Thomas Friedman in the New York Times that Coulter was using to make a point. She wrote that Friedman blamed, "20 years of relentless attacks by Muslim extremists on -- I quote -- religious fundamentalists of any stripe."

Andy found the quote on Lexis-Nexis in a story in which Friedman suggested that everyone traveling by air fly naked. Friedman had actually written, "If everyone flew naked, not only would you never have to worry about the passenger next to you carrying box cutters or exploding shoes, but no religious fundamentalists of any stripe would ever be caught dead flying nude."

Franken makes the case in his book that some of the right-wingers whom he targets are pathological liars and comes up with numerous examples of Bill O'Reilly and Coulter fabricating stories and quotes. But Franken's soft spot for Clinton and Gore (he says Gore is "a good man, a funny man, my friend" in his acknowledgments) shows that he is less than objective.

And so was his audience. The first person to ask Franken a question was an agitated young man who had pages of notes on the book and rattled off an overly lengthy question. The crowd shouted at him and one audience member grabbed his notes and ripped them up. Soon a security guard arrived and gave him a little push.

The rest of the Q&A felt much like a Larry King interview with lightweight questions and Franken charming his admirers.

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