Spinsanity debate: Franken vs. Lowry
Rich Lowry on Al Franken's Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them - A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right
March 15, 2004
Al Franken is a clever guy, and Lying Liars has both laugh-out-loud moments and substantive policy arguments. He can be self-deprecating, and he has a field day puncturing such mindless conservative over-statements as "liberals hate America." He catches conservative mistakes and - appropriately - makes fun of some of the conservative anti-Clinton excesses of the 1990s. It's easy to understand why liberal readers have so eagerly lapped up this book. But Lying Liars is also vicious, sloppy, unfair, paranoid, and a pretty good sample of the kind of unhinged and self-destructive anger on the Left that is one of George W. Bush's great secret weapons this year.
Before I get into this, let me first stipulate that this review will not be a personal attack on Al Franken (except occasionally to lampoon him in his own style). I've talked to him fairly often over the last couple of months, and I regret to report that he is smart and funny. I bear him no personal ill will.
Now, on to the substance of the book. Franken opens with two chapters on Ann Coulter. So outraged is he by her outrageous name-calling, Franken calls her, quite seriously, a "nutcase." A spectacularly successful author, Ann Coulter is not crazy, although her argumentative brilliance can be tinged with intemperance. Franken writes as though he has discovered a great flaw in all of conservatism by stumbling on this about Ann, although by now it has been noted by such conservatives as Andrew Sullivan, Dorothy Rabinowitz, David Horowitz, and William F. Buckley Jr., among others (in fairness, these critiques may have been published after Franken went to press -- not that he would have noted them anyway).
Ann is such a smash because she is smart, combative, funny, and tells her readers that the other side is almost entirely populated by crazy and evil people. Now, what other best-selling author does this sound like? I mean, Franken calls Coulter's Slander a "bile-filled, relentlessly ugly" book as if he considers that a bad thing. (p.5)
Franken, who is blessed with a sharp and needling wit, does catch conservatives making mistakes. He therefore essentially concludes that all of conservatism, and its current political success, is built on lies. Some of these mistakes are hilariously picayune. One of my favorite examples is Franken catching Ann Coulter alleging that Evan Thomas is Norman Thomas's son, when Evan is actually his-gasp!-grandson. (You can find a Coulter response to Franken here by the way. Here is Spinsanity on Coulter's response.) Another example: Franken makes a big deal of Dick Cheney saying that there are crosses at Arlington National Cemetery, when there are really gravestones. Let's start the impeachment proceedings right away! He gets most of an entire chapter out of one bad statistic in a Wall Street Journal editorial. In another life, Franken must have been a particularly foul-mouthed (he loves "ass" and "shit" references) New Yorker fact-checker.
You can easily play the same game with Franken. Let's take one of the most egregious examples -- his assertion that Bill Clinton had an anti-al Qaeda war plan upon leaving office that was turned over to George Bush, but studiously ignored. As Franken puts it, "Bill Clinton's far-reaching plan to eliminate al Qaeda root and branch was completed only a few weeks before the inauguration of George W. Bush." Franken elaborates on this theme at length in his War on Terror chapter called "Operation Ignore." I know from talking with Franken that this is one of the chapters of which he is proudest. But it is based on a mistake, or, as he might put it, "a dishonest, brazen, f---ing lying lie."
There was no Clinton plan to take out al Qaeda before he left office. How do I know? I'd like to credit my exhaustive reporting. But actually Sandy Berger said so in testimony before Congress on September 19, 2002. According to Berger, "there was no war plan that we turned over to the Bush administration during the transition. And the reports of that are just incorrect." Franken often recounts the self-deprecating and good-humored fact-checking conversations he has with the subjects of conservative attacks, supposedly proving how easy various allegations are to check -- if, that is, only conservatives were interested in checking them. If Franken had bothered to check with Sandy Berger (he is mentioned in the acknowledgments), this is how the talk might have gone:
FRANKEN: Hey Sandy, it's Al.
BERGER: Hi, Al. How are you doing?
FRANKEN: Great. Hey, quick question: I'm working on this chapter for my new book that talks about what a great job you did on terrorism and how you handed a complete anti-terrorism war plan over to President Bush and he ignored it because he is such a lying, incompetent, sleazeball, bastard, lying liar.
BERGER: Great. You should get a nice DNC bulk buy of that book. Mmmm-my guess? 1,000. Let me know if I can put in a call to Terry for you.
FRANKEN: Thanks, Sandy. But I'd expect they'd buy at least 1,200. Anyway, I'm just checking-you did have an anti-al Qaeda war plan, right?
BERGER: Well, Al, uh, no.
FRANKEN: Let me get this straight. I'm just a comedian here, Sandy, and so I'm unaccustomed to the jargon and nuances of the national-security establishment. You didn't have an anti-al Qaeda war plan?
BERGER: Uh, well, no.
FRANKEN: But wasn't there a cover story in Time saying you did?
BERGER: Al, just between us, you really shouldn't believe everything you read in the liberal media. Time got spun. Look at my September 19, 2002 testimony if you want the truth on that.
FRANKEN: Oh. Uh, I'll be sure to have my 14 Harvard researchers do that. [Internal monologue: "I mean, if they're not too busy helping me write fake abstinence letters to John Ashcroft."]
BERGER: Look, Al, frankly? If you want to be misleading you can call the various aggressive proposals that had been kicking around for a while in the Clinton administration, but mostly hadn't been acted on, "a plan." Or, if you want to lie outright, you can simply write that we had a war plan and base a whole chapter on it, called, I don't know . . . something like "Operation Ignore."
FRANKEN: Hmmm. Thanks Sandy.
BERGER: Glad to help, Al.
FRANKEN: Hey, one last thing. Just a stray thought really. I don't want to sound like one of those f---ing a--hole, bastard right-wingers, but I was just wondering: shouldn't you have done more militarily and diplomatically against al Qaeda given that we suffered a series of terrorist attacks all during the 1990s, beginning with the first World Trade Center attack in 1993 and ending with the near-sinking of the U.S.S. Cole in 2000? Andrew Barr, one of my 14 Harvard research assistants, just told me that you guys didn't even designate Afghanistan as a state sponsor of terrorism.
BERGER: Uh, Al, I gotta go.
FRANKEN: Okay Sandy, but you'll get back to me on this, right?
BERGER: Yeah, right, Al. I'll get right back to you...
FRANKEN: Thanks, Sandy. You're a pal...
In his short chapter on his challenge to me to fight in his garage, Franken gets my age, my relationship with PBS, and my reaction to his challenge wrong. If Franken, a self-professed stickler for factual accuracy, had bothered to call to check anything he wrote about me it might have gone like this:
FRANKEN: Rich, it's Al Franken.
LOWRY: Hi, Al. What's up?
FRANKEN: I'm working on a book on how all conservatives tell lies because they're such lying liars who tell lies because they're liars...
LOWRY: Hmm, right. Interesting, Al...
FRANKEN: ...and just wanted to double-check some facts with you.
LOWRY: OK. Good idea. I don't want to tell you how to go about your business. But you wouldn't want to write a book calling any conservative who makes a mistake a liar, and then make mistakes yourself -- thus undercutting your point that every conservative mistake is somehow a malicious lie.
FRANKEN: Tell me about it. So, you're 40 years old, right?
LOWRY: No, 35.
FRANKEN: Oh, OK. You were a semi-regular on The NewsHour?
LOWRY: No. I've appeared on it, but that would be a real exaggeration.
FRANKEN: Oh, OK. You stopped talking about the feminization of politics after I challenged you to a fight, because you were so scared, right?
LOWRY: Uh, no -- it's a theme I still hit on in most of my presentations.
FRANKEN: Oh, OK. Well, I'm glad I checked.
LOWRY: Better safe than sorry, right?
FRANKEN: Yeah. [Chuckles pleasantly] Thanks for taking my call.
LOWRY: No problem, Al. Hell, I have to admit I admire your commitment to accuracy. A lot of authors, especially ones trying to score tendentious political points, would just make stuff up. Hey, if anything else comes up have any of your Harvard researchers, Owen Kane, Joan McRobbie, Andrew Barr, Ryan Friedrichs, Ryan Cunningham, Ben Mathis-Lilley, Ric Arthur, Ben Wikler, Karl Procaccini, Steve Rabin, Madhu Chugh, Noah McCormack, Bridger McGaw, Emily Berning, or really anyone else, give me a call. [Internal monologue: "I mean, unless they are all busy writing fake abstinence letters to John Ashcroft or something..."]
Typical of the Franken approach is his long chapter on the Paul Wellstone memorial service. Franken concedes that one of the speeches at the service may have been "just a bit too partisan for a memorial service." (p. 184) He then goes on to argue that the service got a bad rap basically because conservatives from Rush Limbaugh on down - "The Republican Lie Machine" - were so determined to lie about it afterwards. This seems at variance with the fact that a disgusted Jesse Ventura left the service before it was over, and Tom Daschle has written in his new book that he knew as he was leaving the service that it had been an utter disaster.
Here's what Daschle says. He writes that Trent Lott was "showered with boos and catcalls from the crowd. I felt very bad for Trent and Tricia. I think Paul Wellstone would have felt bad, too. He would not have abided the people responding that way -- his people or anyone else's." When Daschle traveled back from the service with other Democrats that night, they all agreed the service would be a political nightmare: "At one point, Chris [Dodd], [North Dakota Democrat] Byron [Dorgan] and I were sitting together, talking about how anyone who knew Paul or his politics would understand and appreciate how his spirit was reflected in that evening's enthusiasm. But we knew how many people did not know Paul and did not share his politics, and we agreed that among those people-millions of them across America -- we were going to pay a price for what had just happened." Even Walter Mondale, Wellstone's replacement candidate, agreed: "I remember talking to Fritz Mondale in the afternoon the following day. He, too, was shocked at the rapid turn of events. He had already personally experienced the vitriol among many Minnesotans that morning." This was probably before these Minnesotans had heard a single Rush Limbaugh broadcast. In the Franken worldview, there can only be one possible explanation for these damning passages in Daschle's book -- the Democratic leader must be lying.
Franken does catch conservatives exaggerating how extensive the booing was at the Wellstone memorial. But, in a characteristic mistake, he suggests that because some of the conservative commentary on the service was sloppy, there couldn't possibly have been anything unseemly about the service itself. And, hey, what's a little partisan booing at a memorial service, after all? Doesn't that happen all the time? Wasn't it just a weird aberration that there was no partisan booing at the Mel Carnahan memorial service? In his usual cool-headed way, Franken calls -- again, seemingly quite seriously -- the over-the-top critiques of the Wellstone service "evil."
This is almost understatement for Franken. He often reduces himself to sputtering saliva-flecked insults. Some of this is perhaps intended as humor, but a lot is quite serious. He calls Peggy Noonan "awful," (p. 197) Rupert Murdoch, "evil" (p. 60), and Karl Rove, "human filth." (p. 151) He calls Sean Hannity an "asshole" (at least three times by my unscientific count) (pp. 86, 89); Hannity is also an "Irish ape-man," (p. 85) and "evil" (p. 289). He calls John Ashcroft "something of a nutcase" and a "boob." (p. 160, 161) He calls David Horowitz a "racist." (p. 112) Ari Fleischer is a "chimp." (p. 341) And Franken writes a fictional account of conservative "chickenhawks" serving in Vietnam that is so disgusting it is almost disturbing. Franken's inability to keep himself from schoolyard name-calling is a shame, because he obviously has the rhetorical resources to do much better than this.
Let me hit on a few substantive points I consider important. I don't want my silence on any question necessarily to denote agreement -- I just can't cover everything. Some of the following points are ideological or policy arguments, others have to do with important omissions, and still others with matters of fact. Remember, this is the standard that Franken set for himself: "with fourteen researchers, I can do something that my targets seemed incapable of doing-get my facts straight."(p. xii) Given that he throws down this gauntlet, Lying Liars is an extremely sloppy book. If you want to skip all of the below and get to the bottom line, I agree with the Spinsanity assessment: "Much of the book operates in [a] region between humor and outright distortion."
--I couldn't check with every conservative Franken reproduces a conversation with. But my personal experience is that he is not very careful about getting things right. Other conservatives say they have had the same experience. Franken writes a chapter called "Paul Gigot Is Unable to Defend an Incredibly Stupid Wall Street Journal Editorial." He asserts that Gigot was unable to argue with him on the basis of a brief conversation with the editor, who is not generally known for being "unable" to defend himself. Gigot tells me that when Franken called him, he told the comedian that he would answer questions he had about the Journal editorials if he put them in writing and sent them to him. According to Gigot, Franken never did.
Now, Franken is a busy guy, but at least he could have had one of his 14 Harvard research assistants get back to Gigot if he didn't have the time to do it himself. And he certainly should have mentioned in his book that he never got back to him. "He's just dishonest," says Gigot. Perhaps the Franken chapter should have been called "I Call Up Paul Gigot to Get Him to Defend an Editorial, But I Don't Follow Up and Decide to Distort My Conversation With Him Instead."
(I have no firsthand knowledge of what happened between Gigot and Franken, which is a he said/he said. But I tend to trust Gigot because he has never written false things about me. Franken has. When this Gigot conversation came up with Franken, he insisted, "Gigot told Howard Kurtz [of the Washington Post] something different, by the way. Which is that I didn't tell him I was writing a book. I see that he's now embellishing." I assured Franken that Gigot had indeed told Kurtz both that Franken hadn't mentioned his book and hadn't gotten back to him with written questions, as requested. Franken shot back, "It's not what Gigot told the Post. He said merely that I didn't tell him I was writing a book." But here is what Kurtz wrote on August 28, 2003: "Gigot said he offered to respond if Franken would send him the details, but the comedian never did.")
--Franken denies that there is any significant liberal press bias. He cites survey data produced by a Virginia Commonwealth University professor who often performs studies for the left-wing group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). The polling data supposedly shows that reporters tend to be more conservative than the public on some economic matters. OK, maybe. But even if true, it's not saying much. Even if reporters are "only" liberal on social and cultural matters that means they "only" will have a tendency to be skewed on abortion, marriage, church-state issues, judicial activism, gun control, Hollywood, gay rights, welfare, immigration, law enforcement, the death penalty, race preferences, religion, NASCAR, and upholstery design, among other issues. And does anyone really believe that the press coverage of economic issues favors Republicans? Just one example: According to the Media Research Center, complaints from liberal tax cut opponents such as Senator Tom Daschle that the Bush tax cuts were unfairly skewed in favor of the wealthy were relayed to network audiences twice as often (31 times) as the contrary conservative point of view (15 times).
--As mentioned earlier, Franken occasionally tries to write policy, but does so in a decidedly amateurish way. On crime, Franken suggests that Clinton's gun control policies were primarily - if not entirely - responsible for a "remarkable, un-Reagan-like drop in crime rates" in the 1990s. His argument amounts to asserting that crime went down in the 1990s, therefore Clinton must have been responsible. This is sophomoric analysis. Crime was beginning to decline before any Clinton policies took effect, mostly because the crack epidemic of the 1980s had finally broken and the effects of a long wave of imprisonments were kicking in. Indeed, in most major cities, the number of murders peaked sometime between 1990 and 1992 (see the table on page 25 of Andrew Karmen's book New York Murder Mystery). Clinton's gun-control measures had little or nothing to do with continuing the trend. The Brady Bill mandated five-day waiting periods and background checks, neither of which has - according to respected criminologist Gary Kleck - has been shown to have much effect on the rate of violent crime (although background checks are probably more useful than waiting periods). Also according to Kleck, the assault weapons ban affected a tiny proportion of semi-automatic weapons and was mostly a symbolic measure. Franken doesn't even mention imprisonment in his crime discussion, perhaps because it is a policy associated with conservative liars. Franken either should have stuck with the humor and not put on any airs of seriousness in this book, or brought some standard of minimal intellectual honesty to his attempted policy discussions.
--Franken loves the idea that it was "Clinton's military" that has been responsible for the successes in the War on Terror. But most of the major weapons systems that the military relies on to this day were designed and/or procured during the Carter, Reagan, and first Bush administrations, from the B-2 bomber, to the F-117, to the Abrams tank, to the Bradley fighting vehicle and so on. Franken gives Clinton credit for the JDAM, which converts conventional bombs into precision weapons. OK. But as a general matter, Clinton was living off Reagan's build-up, and reducing the size of the military while asking it to do more. As in so much else, in this respect, Clinton was merely a placeholder.
--Franken writes that in "the 2000 campaign, it was the Republican ticket that ran against our military." (p. 221) This is an obvious distortion. Bush didn't run against the military, but on the idea of reforming and improving it. "Help is on the way," was the soundbite, which doesn't sound like much of an anti-military rant.
--Franken deals with the Trent Lott/Strom Thurmond controversy without noting that conservatives helped publicize Lott's comments and called for him to step aside, including National Review. If you are writing a book about conservatives, this would seem a pretty important datum to include. But Franken bulldozes on. He argues that Republicans are "racist," (p. 255) and only make gestures toward blacks to try - futilely - to avoid appearing too "overtly racist." (p. 256) (Later, he does say that not "all Republicans are racist," in what, in this book, qualifies as a generous concession.) (p. 259) He suggests -- sort of jokingly, but not really -- that the Bush tax cuts were motivated by racial bigotry. And he notes that black poverty declined under Clinton without mentioning the Republican-sponsored welfare reform of 1996 that had a big hand in this trend.
--Franken partly rests his case for the racism of the Republican party on the defeat of Sen. Max Cleland in Georgia in 2002. He quotes Cleland saying that his defeat was the result of a backlash against a change in the state flag in 2001 by then-Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat, to de-emphasize the St. Andrew's Cross - a symbol of segregation - in the state flag. Franken says that Cleland was undone by a "racist avalanche." Cleland himself alleges in the book that the Republican party did push-polling on the issue of the flag, thus doing him in. Franken offers no evidence for Cleland's outrageous claim, I assume because there is none. (Franken didn't even bother to check with the Georgia GOP official mentioned by name as the mastermind of the push-polling - what were those research assistants doing?)
Sonny Perdue, who would defeat Barnes for governor, didn't oppose the change in the flag, but called for a referendum on it. It was on the ballot on March 2, and the Barnes flag won. (see appended correction below) The only candidate I am aware of who featured the old flag and his support for it on his campaign literature in 2002 was a Democrat, Mike Snow from Northwest Georgia. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in October 2002, "Nearly two years after the fact, a majority of Georgia voters either favor the change made in the state flag-or say they don't care." All of this hardly adds up to a "racist avalanche" burying Cleland.
Also, during this "racist avalanche," Georgia was re-electing a black attorney general and a black labor commissioner. When I tried to figure out why Franken would leave this fact out of his account of the 2002 election, I came up with a few possibilities: a) he didn't know; b) he worried it wouldn't fit his thesis; c) his editor demanded that he trim 28 words from his final manuscript and these just happened to be the ones; d) Franken figured the Georgia "racist avalanche" buried a white candidate, but spared black candidates -- you know, that happens in racist avalanches all the time.
What possibly, then, could have led to the defeat of Max Cleland if not racism? Franken and other liberals have complained bitterly about a tough ad against him which featured Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. Cleland wasn't "pictured with" the two as Franken says. (p. 254) If we're being sticklers for accuracy, neither was Cleland wounded by a "VC grenade," as Franken maintains. (p.163) The ad didn't morph Cleland into either of these figures, or say that he supported them, or question his patriotism. Bin Laden and Hussein were used to illustrate the point that the U.S. was facing threats to its security. It then explained that Cleland had voted 11 times against a homeland security bill that would have given President Bush freedom from union strictures in creating and running the new department. Cleland was voting against a bill sponsored by his popular Senate colleague Zell Miller, a Democrat, setting himself up perfectly for the charge that he was voting with Daschle and the unions against Georgia common sense. If you can't criticize the Senate votes of a Senator in a Senate race, what can you criticize? Cleland had also made himself vulnerable on national security, taxes, and social issues.
Franken mentions none of this because he is so busy advancing his unsupportable racism allegation. In doing so, he relies on a stereotype of Southerners that should be fading into nonexistence. As Zell Miller notes in his book, in 1990 there were 565 African-American officeholders in the South. In 2000, there were 5,579. Georgia has elected seven African-American to statewide office, this in a state that is 70 percent white. There is no other word for Franken's stilted account of all this except dishonest.
--Franken has great fun with this Bush quote: "By far, the vast majority of my tax cuts go to those at the bottom." This is very sloppy language on Bush's part. Elsewhere, Bush has said, "The bottom end of the economic ladder receives the biggest percentage cuts," which happens to be true (the biggest reduction in tax rates was in the lowest rate, which went from 15 to 10%, a 33% reduction, and millions of lower-income people were taken off the income tax rolls entirely, giving them a 100% income tax cut). This is pretty clearly what Bush meant in his "vast majority" statement. But Franken conveniently doesn't quote the correct statement. He also says that Bush had to gin up "a political freak show" to come up with families that would benefit from his tax cut during the 2000 campaign. (p. 291) As it happens, John Kerry has been relying on a version of the same alleged "freak show" to argue against a full repeal of the Bush tax cuts, since the cuts have applied to so many ordinary people. As factcheck.org has noted, a repeal of the Bush cuts would cost a single taxpayer, making as little as $15,000 a year, $350, and cost a middle-class family with two kids under 17 and an income of $50,000 a year, $1,773. Kerry made great use of such figures to attack Howard Dean for advocating tax increases on the middle-class.
--Franken says that Clinton "focused more on terrorism than any previous president." This is almost a tautology, since the threat of Islamic terrorism ripened while Clinton was president, but it doesn't tell us anything about whether Clinton's response was sufficient. He quotes Paul Bremer as saying that Clinton "correctly focused on bin Laden." He dishonestly implies that Bremer was thus giving a seal of approval to Clinton's law enforcement-based counterterrorism policy. Franken is either unaware of - or dishonestly fails to mention - the fact that Bremer headed a counterterrorism commission in the late 1990s that suggested all sorts of get-tough proposals of the sort Clinton didn't adopt. (A simple phone call to Bremer could have given Franken an accurate impression of his views - unless Franken really didn't care to find out.) As evidence of Clinton's toughness, Franken cites the capture of Ramzi Yousef, Abdul Hakim Murad, and Wali Khan Amin Shah. Wow. The arrest of three people. How did bin Laden's network survive? (Check out, in this connection, this Washington Post story on how the Clinton administration failed to give the CIA crystal-clear orders to kill bin Laden.)
--Franken criticizes Ronald Reagan for arming the mujahedeen resistance in Afghanistan, without mentioning what would have been his alternative policy for dealing with the Soviet invasion of that country. He also faults the first President Bush for neglecting Afghanistan in the wake of the Soviet pullout. I can tell by the questions Franken has asked me in preparing his piece on my book that he considers any foreign policy critique illegitimate unless it was also made contemporaneously with any given event. By this standard, Franken should feel free making these criticisms only if in the late 1980s at "Saturday Night Live" rehearsals he was interrupting skits to make long speeches about the danger of disengaging from Central Asia. Not likely. Of course, Franken is now free to criticize whatever he wants, no matter what he was or was not saying back then. The question is whether he is right on the merits. And he's wrong about the mujahedeen -- arming them was the right thing to do at the time, unless it was better for the world to have a Soviet-occupied Afghanistan.
--Franken, as we saw earlier, criticizes Bush for not doing more, sooner on the War on Terror. Fair enough. But Franken can't help taking cheap shots. He implicitly blames Bush for not acting on an FBI memo pointing out that young Arab men might be training at U.S. flight schools. It was indeed a shame that this "Phoenix memo" wasn't acted on, but it isn't intellectually honest to complain about this without noting it would have constituted the kind of racial profiling that liberals have made radioactive. Franken also criticizes the FBI for not paying more attention to Zacharias Moussaoui after he was arrested in Minneapolis. But, again, it's not quite honest to make it seem as though the FBI didn't search Moussaoui's computer out of sheer lack of interest. A regime had been established at the FBI and the Justice Department during the 1990s that made them extremely cautious about asking for warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Franken should, by his own standard, be glad -- Zacharias Moussaoui's civil liberties weren't violated by John Ashcroft.
--As noted earlier, Franken makes a big deal about Bush supposedly ignoring a Clinton plan to take on al Qaeda. Even if Bush was slow in taking up the challenge of the terror threat (and Clinton officials certainly warned Bush officials about how serious it was as they were leaving office), there is something perverse about Franken complaining about Bush not doing things in eight months that Clinton hadn't done in eight years. And he's factually wrong, also as noted earlier, about the alleged Clinton plan. Franken relied on a Time magazine report that he apparently considered too good to check. But Bush NSC officials have denied there was any Clinton plan. Former Clinton NSC officials have denied it too. One told National Review's Byron York for a September 2, 2002 story, "There were certainly ongoing efforts throughout the eight years of the Clinton administration to fight terrorism. It was certainly not a formal war plan. We wouldn't have characterized it as a formal war plan." And Sandy Berger himself has shot down the Time magazine story. If Franken had done any checking at all on this important question, even with friendly former-Clinton officials, he would have found that the Time report was flawed. He went with it anyway.
--After criticizing the FBI and Justice Department for not being aggressive enough prior to September 11, Franken then turns around and criticizes them for being too aggressive in the wake of 9/11. He writes, "Could we keep people locked up for months in horrifying conditions without letting their families know they'd been detained? Why not?" (p. 160) This never happened. There were 763 people detained, mostly in the New York area, immediately after 9/11. They were all in violation of immigration laws. They were all allowed to contact families and a lawyer, and even the newspapers if they so desired. Franken may be getting mixed up - again, where were the researchers? - by the fact that the Justice Department refused to release the comprehensive list of all the detainees. This policy has been upheld by the courts. They weren't held in "horrifying conditions" either, although an Inspector General report found 84 detainees suffered inappropriate treatment, such as shoving and verbal threats. In any case, like much of the Democratic party, Franken wants to have it both ways, criticizing Bush for not doing enough prior to 9/11 and then for doing too much after 9/11. The porridge is always either too cold or too hot. If there is another terrorist attack in the U.S., the Democrats will surely flip back to saying Bush hasn't been doing enough.
--Franken tries to knock down the story that Sudan offered to hand over bin Laden to the Clinton administration in 1996: "When the U.S. talked to Sudan, there was no such offer. The U.S. pursued every lead and tried to negotiate. Nothing." Nothing? I consider the question of whether Sudan tried to hand over bin Laden directly to us murky. But there was certainly not "nothing" (excuse the double negative). Sudan offered to give bin Laden to Saudi Arabia, which would have meant his demise. But the U.S. didn't push the Saudis to accept, so bin Laden went to Afghanistan instead, giving him the safe sanctuary that would be crucial to his 9/11 plot. And you can't honestly address the Sudan controversy without dealing with the fact that the administration asked the FBI to consider whether bin Laden could be brought to the U.S. (the FBI said no, because he hadn't been indicted), and with the fact that Clinton has been taped after his presidency saying, "I did not bring him here because we had no basis on which to hold him." Franken, of course, doesn't deal with either.
--It is worth noting that Franken lies when it is convenient. I'm not making an incendiary charge here. Franken is very upfront about this himself. He demonstrates it in a chapter about how he had one of his research assistants pose in a trip to Bob Jones University as a high school student interested in attending the school. Franken goes along with him and lies about being a friend of the "student's" family. Franken, in an excessive bout of modesty, titles this chapter, "I'm a Bad Liar." Actually, he seems pretty good at it. It's a queasy-making read, as Franken and his research assistant lie to well-meaning people who have strange religious beliefs (what happened to an appreciation for "diversity"?). To his enormous credit, by the end of his charade Franken seems to get a sick feeling about himself.
--Franken writes of Ronald Reagan, "He loved his terrorist death squads in Guatemala, El Salvador, and most of all, Nicaragua. Enough to violate the Constitution to support the Contras as they raped and tortured nuns." Even as an attempt at humor, this is absurd. The U.S., of course, had a long history by the 1980s of supporting military governments with spotty human rights records in Latin America. But the emphasis in Reagan policy was clearly on promoting democracy and human rights in the region. Guatemala made a transition, with Reagan's support, to democracy in 1985. In El Salvador's crucial 1984 elections, the Reagan administration backed the Christian Democratic (center-left) candidate for president, precisely because he was better on human rights than the right-wing candidate who was associated with the death squads. Military and economic assistance to the El Salvadorian government, which was fighting off a Marxist insurgency, was conditioned on annual human rights reports.
In Nicaragua, there were individual human rights allegations against the Contras, but it was never Contra policy to use human rights abuses as systematic element of their strategy. But it was for the Marxist Sandinista government. This is why two of the Contras' most prominent leaders in the 1980s, Alfonso Rebelo and Arturo Cruz, were Social Democrats and former/disaffected Sandinistas; the third leader, Conservative Adolfo Calero, had been a political prisoner under the Somoza dictatorship. As for nuns, it was the government that repressed religion, and the most respected religious leader in the country, Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, opposed the Sandinistas. It was military pressure -- supported by the Reagan administration -- that made the Marxist guerrillas in El Salvador and the Marxist government in Nicaragua come to the negotiating table and eventually make peace. But never mind. Reagan "loved his terrorist death squads."
A couple of final points. Franken has a deeply ad hominem style of argument. Take his fight challenges to me, which resulted in this exchange. What if Franken had vanquished me in combat? It wouldn't have proved anything about my contention that American culture and politics became "Oprah-fied" in the 1990s. In other words, Franken apparently doesn't understand that personal attacks and silly insults prove nothing. It shows in this book.
Another Franken mistake is that he tends to assume that every error on the part of his enemies must be a lie, a deliberate effort to evade the truth. But people make mistakes. A tiny personal example: I got the date of a peace agreement in Sierra Leone wrong in my book. I said the Clinton administration crafted it in July 1991. It was really in 1999. For Franken, this should be enough to show I'm a liar at great length in his next project. But I just made a typo and missed it. It happens, and I'm sure I unintentionally made other mistakes in the course of a 342-page book. Franken is so eager to prove the nastiness of the other side he makes little allowance for honest mistakes and mocks his opponents as moronic purveyors of evil, thus becoming nastier than the people he criticizes.
Franken is desperate to show that all conservatives are liars, and all their success is built on lies. As he puts it, "They fight with lies." (p. 353) So all that is necessary is for the Left to expose the obvious evil of conservatives, and be very aggressive about it. The first step, according to Franken, is to say in response to conservatives, "F--- you!" (p. 354) But a party that doesn't believe that the other side is merely wrong, but the embodiment of evil, and lets "f--- you" be its rallying cry risks being swallowed by its own rage. In other words, it will be the party of Howard Dean, which the Democrats are this year, even after the Vermont governor has bowed out. Bush, like Clinton before him, will benefit when the other side avoids going far enough to go too far instead.
One last point. Franken was enraged that I said in a column that his book is a collection of anecdotes and cartoons. That was unfair. It was perhaps an understandable mistake since he writes entire chapters about running into Barbara Bush on a plane or about talking to people at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, and fills a chapter with cartoons. But give Al Franken his due: This book is a collection of clever political commentary, vile insults, funny gags, gross misjudgments, factual mistakes, sloppy argument-and anecdotes and cartoons.
Al Franken's liberal populism is a noble political tradition, which is why it's such a shame that he can't put up a better representation of it, making it seem so angry and noxious. Franken's hero Paul Wellstone was, in contrast, a happy and honorable warrior. If you're on the left, my advice is: Read this book. Enjoy it. Just don't believe it or take it too seriously. Then wash your hands.
Correction from Rich Lowry (3/16/04):
I was wrong about the Barnes flag. It actually lost a couple of weeks ago
to yet another version of the Georgia flag, which seems broadly acceptable
to all sides. As the Palm Beach Post put it in this story, "Black and white voters across Georgia finally have a flag on
which they can agree." I regret the error.
Update 3/19 2:10 PM EST: Lowry has posted an article-length response to Franken's review of his book on National Review Online.
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-The editors respond to Al Franken and Rich Lowry (Ben Fritz, Bryan Keefer and Brendan Nyhan, 3/17/04)
-Al Franken on Rich Lowry's Legacy - Paying the Price for the Clinton Years (3/15/04)
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