Al Franken's lying lies

Posted: Oct 13, 2003 12:00 AM

Al Franken had 14 Harvard researchers working on his best-selling new book, "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them." With this much manpower, he should have been able to produce a work of scholarship worthy of Gunnar Myrdal or Edward O. Wilson, instead of a loosely knit collection of anecdotes padded out with cartoons. But never mind -- what I can't figure out is why I never heard from Franken's extensive research staff.

Franken devotes a chapter in his book to a challenge he made to me in the summer of 2000 to a fistfight. He had found objectionable a speech I made that was broadcast on C-SPAN. In it, I decried the feminization of American politics and culture, which set Franken's comedic synapses to sputtering slowly, until he landed on the idea of asking me to fight him in his Manhattan, N.Y., parking garage.

In his book, Franken describes me as "terrified" when he challenged me over the phone. He knows this is false. During that conversation and a subsequent one, we were both jocular, which is why we eventually ended up having lunch instead of combat. But I was amused and tempted by his offer, and talked seriously to people about taking it up on grounds that it was an open invitation to bruise an obnoxious twerp. This represented a rare and lucky opportunity -- Howard Dean, for instance, will probably never ask me to punch him.

And it would have been a decidedly low-risk encounter. Franken stipulated during his challenge that he was nearly 50 years old and suffered from chronic back pain -- a kind of plea for mercy before we even got started. If you would have to pick the male "type" represented by Franken, you would put him in the "Richard Simmons category." The short, bespectacled, curly-haired actor's film career consists of playing a lisping character named Stuart Smalley. John Wayne he is not.

But after a day of thought, I chose to turn him down. Doing physical violence to someone for no good reason except his insipidness wouldn't just be wrong; if it were established as a general principle, it would have led to someone pummeling Al Franken most days of the week. Besides, true masculinity depends on controlling your impulses and walking away from unnecessary fights, no matter how tempting.

In any case, the exercise would have been pointless: If I had hurt Al Franken, it wouldn't have proven anything about the truth or falsity of my contention that American culture has been feminized. This is apparently lost on Franken, upon whom much is lost. In "Lies," he argues in two keys, juvenile and sophomoric, and when those two modes fail him, he gets someone to draw cartoons for him. He suggests in his book that I abruptly stopped talking about the creeping wishy-washiness of American life, scared out of this theme by his terrifying challenge to me.

Nonsense. I have discussed the theme in pretty much every speech I delivered since then. I talked on Fox News and other networks after the 9-11 attacks about the nation's new appreciation of masculinity. And I have written columns about the topic, most recently in a piece knocking Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry for his recent resort to quick (and probably fake) public tears.

Most of this information would have shown up in a Nexis search, or -- even better -- a brief phone call to me by one of Franken's phalanx of Harvard researchers (whatever happened to veritas?). But there is a phrase in journalism, "too good to check." It's used about those convenient claims that probably won't withstand fact-checking, so you don't bother. This is exactly what Franken did.

He preferred to rely on incomplete information in order to create an untrue impression. This is a deception, a kind of lie. A small one, perhaps, but telling. Al Franken has had great success with his book about lies and lying liars. And why shouldn't he? He knows of what he writes.