This interview was conducted by Heather Robinson and appeared in Heeb’s “Guilt Issue” (Summer, 2004).
Al Franken single-handedly smashed the stereotype of the humorless liberal. The former Saturday Night Live writer became one of the most important voices of the American Left with his best-selling books, Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot, and Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. With his new talk show on the liberal Air America Radio, he’s facing down his nemesis, Rush Limbaugh, on Limbaugh’s home turf. When Heeb caught up with Franken after his stand-up act at “Not Quite Kosher,” an event for Jewish college students in Pittsburgh, the comic-cum-pundit was itching to get serious.
In Lies, you joke that God commanded you to write the book. Do you feel a moral imperative to be the voice of the Left?
Well, not to be the voice of the Left, but to fight back against the right-wing sleaze machine. That’s what I want to do with this radio show: to be funny, but also to do research and inform people. The mainstream press has moved to the Right in this country, and reporters are so afraid of being called liberal that they’ve wimped out: They wimped out on the road to war, on doing investigative reporting on weapons of mass destruction. They relied on the administration, which relied on sources like Iraqi deserters in whose interest it was for us to go to war. There was an intelligence failure, but there was also a real attempt to manipulate. Essentially, we had faith-based intelligence.
Sometimes it seems like the religious Right has a better understanding of Israel’s right to exist, based among other things on Jewish history, including the history of persecution, than some extreme leftists have.
Well, I’m for Israel’s right to exist. I have trouble with a lot of things Israel’s done over the last number of years, including building illegal settlements. I believe they have provoked and caused terrorism. That’s not to excuse terrorism. I think there’s a lot of blame to go around, including toward the rest of the Arab world that stokes this fire and does not help the Palestinians. I think Arafat created Sharon, and if he had at least given Barak and Clinton an answer, we wouldn’t have Sharon. I think you’re absolutely right that the history of persecution, and the Holocaust particularly, gives Israel more right to exist. By the way, a lot of right-wing Christians support Israel, because according to prophecy, before the Second Coming can occur, the Jews have to be in Israel. Of course, they also believe that when that happens, every Jew will die a fiery death, at which point I predict the coalition between the neo-cons and the right-wing evangelicals will disappear.
In the countries whose residents hate us, are we actually making these people’s lives worse in any concrete way, or are we and Israel just the scapegoats for rage they feel—but cannot express—against their own repressive governments?
Well, we support regimes like Saudi Arabia’s. We make a sort of deal with them, which is that we’ll sell them arms, they’ll sell us oil. We pay for the oil, and they don’t create any infrastructure in their country. The people resent that, so the leaders make a deal with their fundamentalists: You teach Wahabiism, and we’ll fund you and we’ll fund Wahabiism throughout Pakistan and the rest of the world. There’s this amoral understanding, and we have a piece in it. But this isn’t about hating America. I just went to Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan to support our troops. It was my fourth USO tour. I love this country. We are, in my mind, the hope of the world. We have to be; we’re the only remaining superpower. But you have to love your country like an adult loves somebody, not like a child loves its mommy. And right-wing Republicans tend to love America like a child loves its mommy, where everything Mommy does is okay. But adult love means you’re not in denial, and you want the loved one to be the best they can be.