by Pat Holt
Thursday, January 16, 2003
WHY AL FRANKEN GETS AWAY WITH IT
Few comedians today have the charm or political moxie of Al Franken, the former Saturday Night Live writer/performer and author of the decidedly offbeat advice book, "Oh, The Things I Know!" (Dutton; 159 pages; $19.95).
But it's that goofy grin and little-boy squint behind the horn-rimmed glasses that can crack up a thousand serious-minded patrons in a second - or so it seemed when he appeared "in conversation" at the Herbst Theater for City Arts and Lectures in San Francisco last week.
My job as interviewer for the evening was to hurl the tough questions at Franken, to open up the man behind the satirist. Of course I started with something I've been dying to know for years:
"If other writers ridiculed people the way you do, they'd be terrified of the consequences," I said. "I know you can make fun of people who are public figures, but don't you worry about libel suits when you name a whole book, 'Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot'?"
I didn't mention the many other ways Franken's remarks might be deemed offensive - that he once characterized Rush Limbaugh as a "tubby rightwing gasbag." Radio talk show host Don Imus got off easy when Franken referred to him as "a big putz." And former Texas senator Phil Gramm was really raked over the coals when Franken wrote: "If you get beyond the fact that Gramm is ugly, mean, hypocritical, has a boob fetish and drives his wife like a mule, he does have a certain folksy charm."
Now in "Oh, The Things I Know!" Franken takes potshots at Anna Quindlen and Maria Shriver, teases William Ford about his "virulently anti-Semitic" great-grandfather, Henry Ford, and chastises the veteran "60 Minutes" cast for working "well into their hundreds."
Franken squinted at my question about libel suits and pretended to think it over, his dimples showing mischievously. "Well, the Rush Limbaugh book was very well researched," he said. "No one came back with [any complaints] about that one. And while it's true I comment on public figures, what I do in these books is always based on fact."
That sounded good, except that misquotes abound in the book, as when Franken shows how former General Electric chief Jack Welch explains the real reason for his success: "I'd pull a decision or two out of my ass every month or so on the golf course, and for that they paid me millions!"
Franken nodded sagely, like a great teacher waiting for the student to get the point. "Now that book," he said, gesturing at "Oh, The Things I Know!" "is full of lies."
So the fun of the interview was finding out how Al Franken gets away with being offensive wherever he goes, even on the lecture circuit, where he gives about 30 speeches a year.
"Corporate speaking is great," he said. "I love it. Most of the groups that invite me are trade associations for business people like investment bankers, so they're pretty conservative. I'd say almost always about two-thirds or three-quarters of the audience are Republicans."
This was a surprise. Why would conservatives pay to hear a lecture from a leftwing comic whose politics are bound to annoy them?
"Exactly. So the first thing I say to them is, 'You probably know I'm a liberal from my book, ''Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot.'' I know most of you are Republicans. One thing I've discovered is that Democrats can't afford me.'
"Well, they love that. They're rich, and it makes them feel good, so they have a good laugh. Then I say, 'Here's what I'm going to do tonight: I'll make fun of you. You laugh, and then you pay me.' They think this is hilarious. Then I can say anything."
An example of how hilariously rude Franken can be occurred when he gave a speech to an association of secretaries to corporations - not executive secretaries who work for individuals but "the kind of highly placed board secretaries who oversee the governance of corporations," he said, grinning wickedly. "And as you know, they've been doing a terrific job."
"For this group, I thought it would be funny to do something called 'ill-conceived minutes' since one thing corporate secretaries do is to take minutes of corporate meetings. For example, at Phillip Morris, you might find this notation in the minutes: 'Resolution to target cigarettes at children: Passed unanimously.' Or 'Good discussion on hiding health risks of smoking.' They loved it."
Franken said he used to call his friend Ralph Nader for advice on "corporate malfeasance issues" - Nader once suggested the Dalkon Shield as a great candidate for "ill-conceived minutes" - but since the 2000 election, this doesn't happen much any more. "Ralph Nader is a hero of mine, and now I'm mad at him [for taking votes away from Al Gore]. That was a tragedy.
"It's not true what Nader said - that Gore is no different from Bush. After 9/11 this country had a unique moment of national unity that I think the Bush people have used for their own political purposes, instead of for the kind of things Gore would have gone after - increasing energy efficiency on cars; creating a Manhattan Project on renewables; working on energy independence, which seems obvious but in the Bush administration hasn't even been suggested."
I've always liked the fact that Franken sees himself as a comedian who talks about political issues rather than as a political commentator who tries to sell a sense of humor. The difference is that when in doubt, Franken goes for the joke, not the message.
So despite having deep feelings about Bill Clinton - Franken refers to himself as a "Clinton shill" during the last administration - and having been a huge supporter of Gore in 2000, Franken returned to "Saturday Night Live" a few weeks ago to put Gore through his paces.
In fact it was Gore who, after deciding to host SNL, asked Franken to write several sketches for the show, Franken said, which may account for the reason Gore appeared in so much of the program.
The favorite scene for many viewers occurred when Franken brought back his alter ego, Stuart Smiley, the endearing 12-step advocate with the back-molar lisp who sat Al Gore down for some long-awaited counseling.
Smalley explained that Gore probably still had "feelings" about losing the 2000 election. To help Gore face his emotions, Stuart asked the former vice president to look in a mirror and say out loud, "I am sad about not being president."
This Gore did, and he immediately felt better. Then he adopted an affirmation similar to Stuart's: "All I have to do is be the best Al I can be," Gore declared, "because I'm good enough, I'm smart enough and, doggone it, people like me."
Gore's ability to make fun of himself throughout the show was significant, because the next day, he announced in an interview with Lesley Stahl on "60 Minutes" that he was dropping out of the presidential race.
So the question that SNL fans and Stuart Smalley watchers in particular wanted to ask was whether Gore had decided before the show not to run for president, or if his appearance on Saturday Night Live showed him he could not be taken seriously by the American electorate, and that's why he decided to quit the race the next day.
Franken made a face like this was the dumbest question he had ever heard but answered it politely. "I think Gore decided during the week before Saturday Night Live that he wasn't going to run again," Franken said. "He had a lot of good reasons for not running, one of which was that his campaign could turn into a rerun of 2000, and that would be exhausting for a lot of people."
Did Franken know Gore was going to drop out of the race when the two worked on the show? Again the look. "Oh, yes, I knew. I was there when he called Lesley Stahl. Gore told only me. Well, he also told Lorne [Michaels, SNL producer], and some of the cast members, a few of the makeup people, the camera operators..."
Gore's decision has been interpreted as a victory by conservatives, and perhaps Al Franken's happiest news of the evening was that his next book will concern "media bias," though it's a term he seems to abominate. "Conservatives like Ann Coulter, Bernie Goldberg, Bill O'Reilly. Rush Limbaugh and others have been accusing the media of a 'liberal bias' for years. I think it's the other way around.
"Take the 2000 race," he said. "In the first debate, Al Gore said he had gone to Texas to visit disaster areas with James Lee Witt, the head of FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency). It turns out he hadn't. He had gone to 17 other disaster areas with Witt but not to that one in Texas - on that one he went with a deputy of James Lee Witt.
"Well, the press jumped all over Gore for this. It was if James Lee Witt was the most popular man in America, and Gore was lying to get some of that James Lee Witt magic.
"In the next debate, Bush said that 'by far the vast majority of my tax cut goes to those at the bottom.' By far. The *vast* majority. Of my tax cut. Goes to THOSE AT THE BOTTOM. But the press doesn't jump on that at all.
"Now did this happen because the press has a conservative bias? I don't think so. I think the attitude of the press was: Bush doesn't know. Leave the man alone. He *just doesn't know.* This was around the time Bush said he doesn't mind being 'misunderestimated,' as he put it. Maybe what he meant was he didn't mind being 'misunderestimated' for the wrong reason."
At this point, Franken turned to his bulging backpack and began pulling out book after book by conservative authors. "Listen to this by Bernie Goldberg!" he exclaimed, then read a statement made by NBC reporter John Chancellor about severe shortages of supplies in Russia on August 21, 1991. Goldberg insisted the statement was soft on Communism, which enraged Franken for its inaccuracy. On 8/21/91 the hardliner coup collapsed, causing massive shortages. "Even [conservative economist] Milton Friedman would say that Chancellor was right, but this is the kind of thing [rightwing writers] do - they take things out of context and end up lying to their readers."
Out came another book from the backpack. "And listen to this from Ann Coulter, who is trying at the end of her book to show us how elitist the New York Times is. She says that the day after [racecar driver] Dale Earnhart died, every paper in the country had a front page article on it except the New York Times, which would be a very good point, if it were true.
"Or here: Coulter says that after Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote an opinion contrary to a New York Times' position, the New York Times then responded with an editorial about Thomas called 'The Youngest, Cruelest Justice.' Coulter goes on to say that Thomas is called 'a colored lawn jockey for conservative white interests,' 'race trader,' 'black snake,' 'chicken and biscuit-eating Uncle Tom,' 'house Negro' and 'handkerchief head.'
"Now how many here," Franken asked the audience, "can guess that the New York Times did *not* call Clarence Thomas a 'chicken and biscuit-eating Uncle Tom' or a 'colored lawn jockey?' " The house lights came up and we saw the entire audience guffawing and holding up their hands.
"Right. Ann Coulter defends herself with a footnote that shows where these names for Clarence Thomas really came from, so she can say she's being honest. But what this really shows is her contempt for her readers. She thinks because of the way she writes that people are going to believe the New York Times has actually referred to a United States Supreme Court Justice as a 'handkerchief head.' "
We'll know more after Franken goes off to Harvard this year, where he'll be a Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government, teach a study group on political satire and write his next book about, of course, "media bias."
"I'm very excited about the study group," he said, flashing that goofball grin at the audience. "It means I'll have 10 students doing my research."
THE LIBRARY THAT BANNED ITSELF
Thank you, astute editors at the irreverent and literary website, MobyLives.com - how I love its motto: "That Whale Is Out There, Man" - for awarding its LIVE BY THE SWORD, DIE BY THE SWORD prize to the Flesh Public Library of Piqua, Ohio.
Named after donor Leo Flesh, the library was proud of the three months its staff had taken to create a state-of-the-art website, which was unveiled last month.
"But when the big day came in early December and director James Oda assembled the entire staff to premiere the finished site — www.fleshpublic.lib.oh.us — the library's computer system denied him access," MobyLives.com reports.
"The Internet filtering system used by the library to protect children from pornography had blocked the site because the URL contained the words 'flesh' and 'public.' As Oda later told the Dayton Daily News, 'We banned ourselves.' "
THE 'I WANT YOU!' WAR POSTER FROM TOMPAINE.COM
Why are we really going to war against Iraq? The possibility that the United States might be playing right into Osama bin Laden's hands is suggested in a funny yet gravely instructive 17x22" poster published by TomPaine.com.
You'll probably see this poster in the coverage of anti-war marches this Saturday. Think of the old "I Want You!" war recruitment poster, except that here it's Osama bin Laden who's dressed in a red, white and blue suit and wearing a long greyish beard. He would look remarkably like Uncle Sam if it weren't for his eyes and a vaguely Islamic white pill-box hat.
In the poster illustration, Osama bin Laden points to us and says: "I Want YOU to Invade Iraq!
"Go ahead, send me a new generation of recruits. Your bombs will fuel their hatred of America and their desire for revenge. Americans won't be safe anywhere. Please, attack Iraq. Distract yourself from fighting Al Qaeda. Divide the international community. Go ahead. Destabilize the region. Maybe Pakistan will fall. We want the nuclear weapons. Give Saddam Hussein a reason to strike first. He might draw Israel into a fight. Perfect! So please - invade Iraq. Make my day."
Have you noticed that we don't hear much about Osama bin Laden anymore? Must be he's less of a threat than ever.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I was delighted to open your last issue and see a profile of Maryjane Dunstan, but dismayed to learn that the tribute was occasioned by the cancer that took her life a short time later.
Maryjane was one of those college teachers everyone dreams about having, but few do. As you noted, she used to say to all of her students, "The point is never to take anything for granted. Question everything that goes on. There is never enough questioning."
With that exhortation (though delivered in her quiet way), she changed my life.
When I enrolled in the first "Inventing the Future" class she created (it was Fall 1968) I was a 20-year-old middle-class College of Marin student with a passion for journalism and some political consciousness, taking and passing 17 units that semester. "Inventing" was a multidisciplinary class team-taught (as I recollect) by four instructors from behavioral science, political science, communications, and a discipline previously foreign to me, ecology.
By the next semester, I flunked half of the four courses I attempted, and, just after my 21st birthday, was a three-time loser--arrested and dragged three times from two muddy Marin County creeks.
And I'm proud to say I owe it to Maryjane.
"Inventing the Future" was, in the parlance of the time, a mind-blower. As you wrote, she introduced us to such visionaries as Buckminster Fuller, Arthur C. Clarke and Gregory Bateson, and her "Future Fare" - her weekend experiment of exhibits, discussions, games and lectures - was well ahead of its time.
The course attempted, successfully in my case, to show students the interrelationships between the political and social institutions humans create and the natural world, and the effect of human activities on the other life forms with whom they share their "ecosystems," another new word to me then.
Maryjane and the other instructors offered not just traditional "book learning," but examples from their own experience, and from the campus and surrounding community, of how their disciplines operated in the "real world." In a sense, the course was Machiavellian, in that we students were encouraged to ask questions, to examine how politics operates in the real world rather than in abstract theory.
As Machiavelli wrote in "The Prince": "It appears to me more proper to go to the real truth of the matter than to its imagination; and many have imagined republics and principalities which have never been seen or known to exist in reality; for how we live is so far removed from how we ought to live..."
The truth of the matter was that the College of Marin, in conjunction with the Army Corps of Engineers and the local town governments, was about to have a radical effect on the local ecosystem. A proposed flood control project they'd been planning since before we students were born would allow the campus' long-range building program to proceed, but would also bulldoze the bucolic willow- and sycamore-lined Corte Madera Creek, which ran through campus, into a concrete-lined, straight-edged flood control ditch.
As part of our course work, we began to examine the impending construction, and discovered that there was local community opposition, which had coalesced around one local "housewife" (as the local Republican newspaper, the Independent-Journal, put it), the indefatigable Marty Kent Jones. She was grandniece of the founder of the town in which the college resided, Kentfield. Her granduncle William was also an American conservation movement pioneer, the man who had given much of Mt. Tamalpais and the surrounding area (including Muir Woods National Monument) to various governments for preservation in perpetuity.
Because Ms. Jones was invited to the campus under the auspices of our class to discuss the community dissent, which was organized around Tamalpais Creek (a Corte Madera Creek tributary), new dialogues began between "town and gown." These were not the traditional ways that power had of speaking to itself (the college trustees spoke as equals to the local town councils); the *constituents* of the governing bodies were speaking directly to each other.
Now to explain my dismal academic record of the next semester, during which I received credit for one communications class and a news editing class (I was managing editor of the college paper), but flunked all else.
To save the creek, we students and locals took on the Corps and the local government agencies, including the college Board of Trustees, in editorials and stories I wrote for the college paper, in a video documentary I helped produce for Maryjane's communications department (hence the passing grades in those classes; the others I ignored), and in the creek itself. We attempted to stop the destruction, through campus and up and down stream, arguing that an irretrievable natural, social and psychic resource would be wiped out.
While the flooding problem was real, there were alternatives, we felt - even as drastic as paying cash to relocate some of the families who lived on the floodplain - that would all be cheaper than the ditch. The effort proceeded on a number of fronts, including the courts, when Ms. Jones filed suit, along with some of her neighbors, to delay the Corps until all avenues could be explored.
We fought with our bodies first at Tamalpais Creek, and lost there when dozens of local activists and college students were hauled out of the creekbed, and the backhoes began their destruction.
With the help of other students (like Kimo Campbell, who would later be elected and serve for 16 years as a College trustee), I spent the rest of that semester coordinating a 24-hour-a-day "experimental college" class called Ecology 101, which was actually a sit-in attempting to keep enough human bodies along the banks to stop the Corps from cutting down our trees (we tied ourselves to the trees when push came to shove) and straightening the creek.
We lost there, too. The Corps prevailed, again sending local sheriffs to scour us out of the creek and haul us off to jail while they clear-cut the trees and built a hideously ugly flood control ditch that still bisects campus like a wound from a straight razor. Irony of ironies, the ditch was so badly designed that it doesn't work to control floods. The Corps completed the project in 1971, and the creek overflowed in 1982, 1983 and 1986. The boondoggle is an historic event, written up with chagrin in the annals of flood control engineering.
As an editor from the College of Marin, my career track would have been an internship (leading to a job) at the local daily, the conservative Republican Independent-Journal, the path offered each preceding editor-in-chief of the college paper. However, when I attended the traditional graduation lunch with the Independent Journal executive editor, I was told, "Our reporters write the news, they don't make it," and the job offer was withdrawn.
A month later, while covering Berkeley's People's Park demonstrations for a local magazine and for radio station KPFA, I was rounded up with 450 others (including my friend Kimo Campbell again). When I presented my press credential to the Alameda County Sheriff's deputy in charge and asked to be released (along with every other news person caught in the police sweep), he radioed his headquarters and told me, a few minutes later, "You're under arrest. You've been making trouble in Marin County."
I and the other young people (the officers rounded up everyone under 30 on the street) were taken to Santa Rita Prison in suburban Alameda County, where many of us were beaten by off-duty deputies. All charges against us were later dropped, and the County ended up paying damages in a federal civil rights suit.
But the life-changing consequences were not at all "negative." That motley band of environmental activists in Tamalpais and Corte Madera Creeks (who predated the founding of Earth Day by a year) caused the Army Corps to begin to rethink its concept of the "cost-benefit ratio" on such public works projects to include, as a benefit, the value of a natural, undisturbed creek.
I worked for years thereafter as a volunteer for various environmental organizations until the early 1990s, when I discovered that the environmental education I had begun in Maryjane's "Inventing the Future" course could finally be put to use for pay, writing grants and public education materials for such groups as TreePeople, the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Project, the City of Los Angeles Recycling and Waste Reduction Division and dozens of others.
I continue volunteering on Tuesday mornings as a docent for the National Audubon Society, leading tours of fifth and sixth graders at Ballona Wetlands, urban L.A.'s last remaining wetland. The wetlands have a big, concrete-lined flood control ditch (once Ballona Creek) running through them, but I look at it and dream of a future when that creek will be restored, even though most people believe that's impossible.
And Maryjane, who lives on in my head and my soul, says, "never take anything - including a ditch - for granted."
Dear Holt Uncensored:
The President's tax cuts are going to have a major negative impact on the availability of funds for school and library book purchases including his own LEAVE NO CHILD BEHIND.
Why? Because his tax cuts leave less government funding even for those programs where Congress has passed legislation and approved funding but the President has withheld the release of the money.
Here is a letter I sent to the New York Times, which explains how the tax refund benefits the rich and that there is no trickle down to us.
"President Bush's statement that the average tax payer will save $1083, under his proposed plan, was hard for me to figure out until I noticed that the President included Bill Gates in the averages. In this scenario, Bill Gates and me along with another nine tax payers are in the same room. While Gates saves, and like the administration I am being very conservative, only $7,500 in taxes, the rest of us save an average of $370 per tax payer.
"Now I know that Bill Gates is not going to be included in anyone else's group of ten people, but then there are, according to the Administration's own figures, tens of thousands of tax payers who are saving more than $7,500 each, while there are millions of us anticipating more than $1,000. but in reality only going get something less than $400.
"As my high school math teacher said, never trust an average."
Holt responds: Hey! This is a literary column, not a place for political harangue! (That's my territory.) It's a column about the uses and abuses of language and about sightings of "doublespeak" in which a bald-faced lie is paraded as truth, especially by our president. So thank you for this contribution to accuracy in language.
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.
"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
To subscribe, send a blank email to:
To unsubscribe, send a blank email to: