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Liar, liar, pants on fire


Disgruntled liberals who resent George Bush, Fox News and the rabid right have a new hero. Al Franken, the only "Saturday Night Live" comedian to become a Harvard fellow, confronts the opposition with all the brash, incendiary bluster of a right-wing talk show host.

Franken's new bestseller, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them (E.P. Dutton), sets out to challenge the popular idea that there is a liberal bias in the media. Franken is adept at pulling apart the rhetoric of pundits like Ann Coulter and Bill O'Reilly, exposing how they mangle statistics and maul opponents. His method is simple: After gathering facts to counter each lie, he attempts to confront each journalist. His savaging of Bill O'Reilly is especially successful.

No big surprise, huh? The talking heads of the extreme right are easy targets, as Franken himself admits: "Going after Ann Coulter is like shooting fish in a barrel."

Despite his swagger, Franken has limitations. He muddies the issue of Republicanism and race by questioning Southerners' right to call anyone a traitor: "You know who were the worst traitors in the history of our country? The Confederates. They took up arms against soldiers wearing the uniform of the United States of America ... So they could whip and torture black people?"

Franken spoils some winnable arguments because he cannot resist making sophomoric cracks. After watching Rich Lowry, the editor of the National Review, talk on national TV about how the Democrats have "feminized" American politics, Franken challenges him to a fight.

Here, Franken veers away from comic political commentary and uses humor to undermine fair discussion. Not only does he fail to refute Lowry's point, but he misses an opportunity to explore how the Republicans themselves use soft, Oprah-style language to sugarcoat harsh policies.

Straddling the line between politics and comedy gives Franken the perfect escape clause. He can take the intellectual high ground when he has a point, but when he doesn't ... well, he can always make a joke.

Franken's book is funny. Most disappointingly so when he confesses that he believed the biggest lie of 2003: George Bush's claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

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