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Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them by Al Franken (E.P. Dutton, 368 pages, $24.95) In a gentler time, Al Franken and Arianna Huffington carried on a “Politically Incorrect” affair on national television, jousting over politics and sex, between the sheets, so to speak. Their Comedy Central routine, “Strange Bedfellows,” was a highlight of the 1996 presidential campaign. Franken praised her with the “beautiful but evil” moniker; Huffington gently chided his liberal orthodoxy (back when her declared politics were a fair bit right of his). Alas, there is little room in today’s spectrum for such Cary Grant-Doris Day political pillow talk. Sharon Stone’s ice pick is under every bed. Today, the he-said, she-said, of American politics is waged between Franken and omnipresent conservative commentator Ann Coulter, she of the modest manifesto for action in the Islamic world: “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity.” By comparison, it was practically a love letter for Coulter to label NBC’s Katie Couric as “the affable Eva Braun of morning TV.” If one were hoping Franken and Coulter might team up for a “bedfellows” reprise � maybe on mutual friend Bill Maher’s HBO show � Franken’s new book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, probably dims the romance before the first date. Two of his early chapters are entitled “Ann Coulter: Nutcase” and “You Know Who I Don’t Like? Ann Coulter.” Lies does not pretend to be a bipartisan olive branch; it’s more of a two-by-four swung with vigor at decidedly right-of-center politicos, pundits, and journalists. Franken continues to be one of America’s funniest writers, bringing to the political landscape the kind of slap-happy, comedic banter that Dave Barry delivers to daily life. But make no mistake, Franken sharpens his knives on the same stones as Coulter, with agendas and grudges ripe for the carving. The current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. remains Franken’s animating purpose. “Bush lies about important things,” Franken riffs. “Like the economy, his tax cuts, education, our reasons for going to war, and drunk driving. But I think he lies only when he feels he has to.” It’s a fair bet that if you admire Bob Jones University, are devoted to the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, or think Bill and Hillary really did engage in a vast conspiracy that included serial murders and drug trafficking, then Franken’s book won’t make it to your nightstand. It’s hard to know why Fox News would have, or should have, cared so much about Franken’s book, or his views. Lies is tart, catty, and over-the-top comedy, but it’s hardly a withering treatise likely to serve as a blueprint to derail the cleverly built, right-leaning juggernaut that Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes have crafted in the Fox News Channel. The wan trademark lawsuit that Fox filed based on its “fair and balanced” slogan merely guaranteed that Hillary Clinton’s book wasn’t a lonely, liberal best-seller on Amazon this summer. That Franken makes much of his living these days giving well-paid corporate speeches to core conservative constituencies of the FNC � and probably goosed his bookings based on all the hoopla � should only increase his great affection for the network’s Bill O’Reilly, whose thin-skinned ire over the book appears to have fueled the suit. Sports fans are always looking for sparring rivals to spur interest, and in the O’Reilly-Franken tilt, we’ve got the makings of a one-fall, no-time-limit cage match that makes “Smackdown” look like shuffleboard. O’Reilly, multimedia master of the “No Spin Zone,” has got the power, money, and stomach for the fight. After all, he was apparently able to persuade a powerful network that easily could have ignored a funny, liberal rant, to file a silly lawsuit. Franken clearly warms to this tangle. Appearing at a book conference with O’Reilly, where each was hawking his latest work, Franken recounts that O’Reilly was not amused by the admittedly unflattering picture of him that adorns the gallery of purported fibbers on the Lies dust jacket. “Bill, we’d love to have a picture of you from The Factor,” Franken deadpans. “Something of you lying. Anything with your mouth open would work.” Forget Clinton-Dole. This is the Point-Counterpoint that would give “60 Minutes” the juice the politicians couldn’t deliver. O’Reilly lauded the Fox suit in a cranky New York Daily News op-ed piece, which probably shocked the network’s own bookers and marketers with the whopper that “[t]he accusation that Fox is a conservative network is pure propaganda.” Yet, he raises a fair point about Lies that should not go unnoticed. O’Reilly contends that Franken’s work can’t be labeled satire essentially because O’Reilly believes it’s destructive and mean-spirited. He has stumbled into two truths about Lies. It is gleefully mean, as the author might concede: “this book brings to a new level the politics of personal destruction that have come to define our era,” Franken declares. Further, O’Reilly’s right that Lies is not strictly a satire. It is a satirical work that features an underlying current of content analysis and fact policing which often amounts to amusing “gotchas” about misstatements, mischaracterizations, and misapprehensions. In dissecting a sea of Coulter’s footnotes, and Sean Hannity’s one-sided television banter with Alan Colmes, Franken brings a humorous bent to the task that Eric Alterman undertakes in his provocative book What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News. Franken legitimately asks whether the accusation of left-wing media bias � the closest thing the Right has to a holy grail � isn’t a relic, given that Al Gore’s press coverage had significantly fewer positive and significantly more negative stories, according to content analysts who carry a sheath for no one. Of course, Messrs. Hannity and O’Reilly could surely challenge this premise on the Journal‘s op-ed pages, on either of their nationally syndicated television and radio platforms, or in their own briskly selling books. In the aftermath of Fox’s clumsy promotional campaign for Lies, and the book’s quick ascent on the best-seller list, it would be a mistake to spend too much time focusing on what Franken says. He’s trying to get under some pretty sensitive skins, and he does it in inventive and incisive ways. What’s more important is that he’s saying it at all. And the same goes for Coulter, Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh. Many political columns have marked Lies, and Coulter’s nearly annual verbal shanks, as the latest evidence that a poisonous culture is ruining our politics and debasing our dialogue. OK, maybe a little. But it tends to get lost in the shuffle that readers are buying entertaining books by people of wildly varying political bents that are about something. As Franken told Salon several years ago, “I don’t want to do comedy stuff that doesn’t have to do with anything.” He may be caught up in the illegitimate-Bush-presidency thing, but there are ideas hiding amongst Franken’s jokes and jabs. They aren’t Coulter’s ideas, true, but she seems to have no trouble getting hers into the light. In a persistently divided political landscape, maybe there’s hope that a stark 2004 choice, say W versus Howard Dean, could bring odd bedfellows together again, after all. Pass Al and Ann through a metal detector, give them separate beds, and enjoy the show. Brad Risinger is a partner in the Raleigh, N.C., office of Smith Moore.

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