Features & Reports
Comment & Opinion
Interviews & more
  About Paul
  Links and Campaigns

The Truth (With Jokes)

A review of the new book by Al Franken

New Statesman, 9th December 2005

Is Karl Rove the Antichrist? Normally such a question would seem absurd, but reading the dark truth about Rove's exploits in Al Franken's new work of comic vitriol, I began to wonder. Could any mortal man be this evil? I even went to the Book of Revelation to see if there was anything there to confirm my suspicions. "Men worshipped the dragon because he had given authority to the Beast," it said, "and they also worshipped the Beast and asked, 'Who is like the Beast? Who can make war against him?'" Boy. I wish I hadn't asked.

I suspect that Al Franken, too, thinks Rove is the Antichrist, only the lawyers at Penguin wouldn't let him say so. Even if he had, it might not have been the worst accusation levelled at him in The Truth With Jokes, in which entire buckets of well-aimed acid are flung in the face of some of the most evil men in America - most of them, not coincidentally, leading lights in the Republican Party.

If this sounds like a recipe for 300 pages of tediously partisan righteousness, never fear. In the wrong hands that might well have been the result, but Franken is one of the funniest men in America, and this book is a laugh-out-loud refutation of the old lie that the devil has all the best jokes. He doesn't. Al Franken has a lot of them, and he tells them better.

Franken has written this book for three reasons. Because he is furious at the shameless lies being told by the self-serving corporate elite who now govern his country. Because he is sick of hearing people claim that George W Bush has "a mandate" to impose his extreme version of Christian neoliberalism on America. And because he has had enough of pundits claiming that the US population is newly right-wing and born again. As with his previous book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, an excoriating attack on the right-wing media that led Rupert Murdoch's Fox News TV channel to try (unsuccessfully) to sue him, Franken has employed his trademark style - nuggets of detailed research wrapped in a sugary coating of brilliantly dry humour - to excellent effect. The result is that The Truth With Jokes makes more serious political points and exposes more deceit by the powerful than most US journalism, while being funnier than most American comedy.

Much of the book explains how Bush and Rove (well, mainly Rove) won the 2004 presidential election by employing a three-pronged strategy of "fear, smears and queers". The fear came from a mix-ture of spurious terrorism alerts, scary TV commercials full of wolves, and a constantly repeated Rove-born message, which Franken paraphrases: "Voting for Kerry meant almost certain death for your children." Franken even has the figures - and the peer-reviewed psychology papers - to prove it.

The smears also came from Rove, and Franken is at his vituperative best as he dissects the outright lies told by Bush and hangers-on such as the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth", and the turncoat Democrat senator Zell Miller, who "gave the lie to the stereotype that Democrats can't be evil, vicious, lying fascists". By the time Franken gets round to explain-ing how Rove once smeared an opponent as a homosexual paedophile, even the author can't take it any more. He dictates the next chapter from his hospital bed as he recuperates from "Rove-induced septic shock".

Sometimes, you think you're about to join him. Witness the Senate leader Tom DeLay defending enforced abortions among sweatshop workers in the US colony of Saipan on behalf of his garment-industry buddies, while he furiously opposes, on behalf of Christ, a woman's right to abortion back home. Witness Bush's attempt to privatise (sorry, to "reform") social security for the benefit of the bankers who funded his re-election. Witness the Republican hack Peggy Noonan's direct comparison between Democrats and Hitler, after some of the former suggested that brain-dead Terri Schiavo, whom Bush was using as a political pawn to woo the religious right, should perhaps be allowed to die. It all makes you want to take a long, hot bath.

Future generations may look back on this book and assume that it is some advanced form of satire; that no government could possibly act this way and get away with it. Unfortunately, we know better. We also know that the US is stuck with Bush and his coterie for at least another three years - and that while they are in charge, America needs Al Franken more than ever.