Al Franken Talks 'Lies'
“I couldn’t think of anything less appealing than molding the minds of tomorrow’s leaders,” Franken writes in his new best-selling book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. “Unless it was spending fireside evenings sipping sherry with great minds at the Faculty Club. Yawn.”
But in spite of Franken’s witty jabs at Harvard’s so-called prestige, he arrived in Cambridge last January eager to explain to 14 students in his hand-picked KSG study group that they were going to help research his next book, which would reveal hidden conservative biases in the media.
Franken says this collaborative effort produced a volume full of facts, detailed research and humor that has paid off: the book has been number one on the New York Times’ non-fiction best-seller list five weeks in a row. But the book also brought Franken together with an enthusiastic group of students who would soon bond over their political passions and home-cooked meals from Franken’s wife.
This family-style group of dynamic liberal politicos called themselves TeamFranken.
The Making of TeamFranken
The KSG first asked Franken to be a fellow three years ago, but he declined so that he could stay at home in New York City with his son, then a sophomore in high school. But he promised to come to Harvard when his son was a high school senior, and so last year, he says, his time was up.
He says he called the KSG to ask what it meant to be a fellow, and Harvard told him he was supposed to “be a resource.”
“So I thought about it and I was beginning to get mad at [President] Bush again,” Franken says. “So I’ll write a book. They said, ‘You can have a study group.’ [I asked] ‘What can I teach them? To research my book?’ They said ‘Sure.’”
So Franken spread the word around campus through e-mail lists and KSG announcements that he was running a study group.
TeamFranken member Stephen Rabin, a KSG student, says he was astonished that Franken was coming to Harvard.
“They nonchalantly announced the list of fellows and I’m scanning the list and I see Al Franken,” Rabins says. “My eyes popped out of my head.”
Franken received applications from 90 students detailing why they wanted to be in his study group.
“I wanted people who were political and I interviewed them to see if they had a sense of humor,” Franken says.
But he says that he warned the students not to be too humorous in their application.
“He said don’t try to be funny. You have to work really hard. You can’t be funny,” says TeamFranken member Benjamin Wikler ’03-’04.
Franken’s skill at uniting the serious craft of politics with a touch of humor dates back to his high school days.
“I got interested in politics during the civil rights movement and then Vietnam. It was important in our house,” Franken says, adding that he would team up with a classmate to make funny announcements during morning chapel in high school.
Franken continued to espouse his liberal principles at Harvard in the early seventies.
“When I was here, we were marching against the war and going to Washington and getting gassed and not going to class and striking,” Franken says. “But the kids now are political, too. These guys are pretty intense…[but] it’s a very concentrated group.”
Study group participant Noah McCormack ’04 says he believes that Harvard has more people who are left of political center, and those demographics may explain the large applicant pool.
“Being at Harvard, where there is an abundance of people who share the core assumptions of Al’s book, definitely provided reinforcement and helped us produce the vast amount of work necessary for the book,” McCormack says.
After two rounds of interviews, Franken selected 14 students for TeamFranken—nine KSG students and five undergraduates.
Although the group was geographically diverse, a good number of the students came from New York City, Franken’s hometown.
“We had the West Side and the East Side of New York covered, and even a little bit of downtown,” quips McCormack.
But member Andrew G. Barr ’04 says the team came together over the purpose of the book at the very first meeting, where Franken argued that the liberal bias in the media was a myth.
Wikler says when TeamFranken covered a white board with scribbled notes at their first brainstorming session, it seemed to foretell the overwhelming number of ideas that was to flow from the group.
Barr says it took a while for the nervous group to settled down.
“I felt like I had 14 students and I had to make sure their time was being used properly,” Franken says. “I felt this tremendous burden at first to make sure everyone had a good experience. Finally the students said, ‘Al, cool out.’”
Franken jokes that even though the KSG serves pizza with every meeting—he calls calling the Institute of Politics the Institute of Pizza—the group turned to another source for bonding: Franni Franken’s home cooking.
“She was far and away the most valuable member of TeamFranken.” Barr says. “I think Al was new to having all these over-eager helpers….We would meet at Al’s apartment and Franni would fly up and it made everyone feel more comfortable.”
“We had our mouths full of food and we couldn’t talk to each other,” adds McCormack.
Wikler says although the students disagreed at times, TeamFranken became a cohesive group.
“There were lots of internal politics, but we all became like family,” he says.
The Birth of a Book
TeamFranken’s weekly meetings, spent heatedly exchanging ideas and sharing research, intellectually stimulated all the students involved and eventually produced a hard-hitting factual book, team members say.
Franken says the students had “tremendous energy,” and Rabin jokes it was hard to get a word in edgewise.
“We’re talking all over each other and incredibly excited,” Rabin says.
Every week, team members were assigned specific topics to research for the following week, and they say these assignments proved more engaging than any academic work.
“I clearly did much more work for this than for any of my classes,” he says. “None of us got paid, none of us got course credits. We did it for fun and experience.”
TeamFranken produced an extraordinary number of facts for Lies, members say.
“The book could have weighed as much as a filing cabinet,” Barr says.
Wikler adds, “We had enough research for six books and the reason the book doesn’t go on is because they made us stop adding pages.”
Wikler said Franken never made the team feel marginalized.
“We all went over chapters,” he said. “There was a shared sense of ownership over the whole thing.”
Although the facts seemed to emerge without end, members say it was difficult to research politically sensitive material.
“It’s especially hard when you’re writing a book criticizing people for drawing stupid conclusions from things,” Barr says. “If you’re trying to punish people for being intellectually sloppy, you have to be intellectually clean.”
And though the book’s humor has earned it acclaim throughout the nation, Franken and his team say the subject is serious.
“The lesson from reading this book is that anyone who reads critically should come across this stuff,” Barr said.
“I was motivated [to write this] because I was really distressed about what was happening in the country,” Franken says. “It’s funny but there are parts that aren’t. There are parts that are meant to be funny but are about really serious shit.”
Facing the Backlash
Since Lies’ release, Franken has faced criticism of his work from many corners—the book has sparked an accusatory column in the Los Angeles Times, a lawsuit from Fox News and an angry backlash over a prank Franken played on Attorney General Ashcroft and other right wing figures in the drafting of the work.
“I think the book really tapped a nerve,” McCormack says.
In September, David Horowitz wrote a scathing editorial in the Los Angeles Times that called Harvard one of the Ivy League’s “left-wing think tanks” and attacked the KSG for funding what it called a politically partisan book.
Wikler shrugs off the accusation, saying that TeamFranken’s liberal slant was clear to Harvard from the beginning.
“People criticize the book for looking at the right,” he says. “It’s in the title. The ‘fair and balanced’ is a joke.”
“It’s vindicating that we can expose these frauds for who they are and people can actually read it.” Rabin adds. “We never claimed we weren’t Democrats.”
Franken says that the KSG chooses fellows from both sides of the political spectrum. Before he became a fellow, he was asked to speak at the KSG by President Bush’s Republican cousin—a fellow at the time—whom Franken befriended while working at NBC.
“[Shorenstein] fellows aren’t [always] liberal,” Franken says. “They knew when they got me they were getting a liberal.”
Whether or not it was Harvard’s place to support a book that takes a stance left of center, the Shorenstein Center has acknowledged that the book has scholarly merit.
“The Shorenstein Center is not like the Carpenter Center,” Franken says. “It’s a pretty academic place. It’s not a run-away-with-your-imagination type of place. I assured them it was a serious book and it would be satirical and funny.’
The wave of criticism continued when it became public that Franken had written a prank letter to several conservative leaders asking for personal testimonies about their experiences with abstinence—on Shorenstein Center stationery.
Center Director Alex Jones said he was upset that the Harvard center’s name was being implicated in a prank of this nature.
“You could call it irony, I call it bad judgment,” Jones said in an interview last month. “It is inappropriate to use Shorenstein stationery to play a practical joke.”
Despite the incident, Franken says, both Jones and the benefactors of the Shorenstein Center have praised his book.
“So I don’t think it’s hurt my relationship with them,” he says. “I did feel bad about using their stationery to write a prank letter.”
“Al acknowledges he made a mistake,” McCormack said. “I think the Center was disappointed and somewhat upset, but I also think they put this incident in its proper perspective as a relatively small one without earth-shattering importance, and I think they have accepted Al’s apology.”
Franken says he even received a letter acknowledging his apology from Cardinal Edward Egan.
But the most publicized critique came in August, when Fox News sued Franken on the grounds that the term “fair and balanced,” which appears in the title of Lies, resembled the network’s own slogan too closely.
“I take full credit for getting us the best publicity ever,” says McCormack, who says it was his idea to add the phrase “fair and balanced” to the title.
“Fox is about as ‘fair and balanced’ as Mein Kampf,” Rabin adds.
Franken and his wife were vacationing in Italy with McCormack’s family when McCormack heard Franken had been sued. He came into the room where Franken was sleeping and gently prodded him awake to tell him the news.
“And I said, ‘Good,’ and went back to sleep,” Franken says. “I woke up a couple of hours later and got my e-mail. I just thought of good publicity…my feeling was that they would have no case, and that would be the best thing that would happen to us.”
McCormack says that before the lawsuit, Lies was number 388 on Amazon’s sales rankings.
By that evening it had reached number one.
“We opened a bottle of champagne,” he says.
—Staff writer Hana R. Alberts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.