Playboy: Has the media gone soft?
Franken: The media is biased toward making a profit, which means spending less money, which means less investigative reporting, which in turn means more celebrity reporting. On cable TV it means putting on two talking heads who are given a couple of articles in the green room. They read them and then go out and talk about school vouchers. They don't know anything.
Playboy: Do Washington reporters socialize too much with their sources?
Franken: I've done the White House Correspondents' Association dinner twice. Plenty of people in the room dislike each other, and that's nothing new in Washington. The first time I worked the dinner was in 1994. Al Gore was vice president, and I was sitting next to Tipper. I said to her, "I have a joke about your husband that my instinct tells me is over the line." "What's the joke?" she asked. I told her, "Vice President Gore reaffirmed his commitment to the environment today when he announced a new policy regarding the stick up his butt. Instead of replacing the stick every day as he does now, he will keep the same stick up there throughout the rest of the administration. This will save an entire rain forest." She told me to go with my instinct, so I didn't do the joke. But I love doing these dinners. The terrible part about it is people's desire to be offended in order to have an excuse to attack someone, especially someone like me, who has a known political bias. Irony is a dangerous tool if you're a comedian interested in politics, because what you say is taken totally out of context. I refuse to stop using irony. It doesn't matter where I do it anymore, because they're watching me. A while ago I told this joke: "John McCain is a courageous guy taking on the tobacco lobby, taking on campaign finance reform. But I don't get this war hero thing. He just sat out the war. Anybody can get captured. Isn't the idea to capture the other guy?" It got big laughs. The next day's Washington Times quoted it as if it weren't ironic. It said I was attacking McCain and didn't realize that he had been a prisoner for five and a half years and had been tortured in the Hanoi Hilton.
Playboy: When you make jokes like that, your critics start talking about the so-called culture war.
Franken: A lot of this culture war is absolute myth. Bill O'Reilly talks about his traditional values versus what he calls left-wing secular values. He has traditional values? He's a married man engaging in phone sex with a female employee who doesn't want it and has asked him to stop. Ann Coulter, in her book Slander, talked about the left's Marquis de Sade lifestyle. I've been married for 30 years, and Coulter is in her mid-40s, hasn't been married, dresses in miniskirts and looks slightly like a dominatrix. Who's she kidding? At my 25-year Harvard reunion there was a survey, and one of the questions was "Are you still married to your first spouse?" About 77 percent of my class said yes. It was well above the national average for 47-year-olds. We're a socially conservative group.
Playboy: You frequently clash with Laura Ingraham as well as with Coulter. What do you think of them?
Franken: Coulter writes books and an online column that she can't get syndicated in newspapers. She's made a career out of being outrageous. She's hideous. Last year's Time magazine cover story on her was ridiculous because it was unbelievably nice to her. The cover photo was unfair; there are ways to make her goodlooking. I called the managing editor of Time and told him it should have been the exact opposite--put somebody pretty on the cover and then write the real article on her. It should be absolutely scathing. Ingraham is pretty hideous too. I've debated both of them and haven't been impressed with either. One debate was on C-SPAN. It was Eric Alterman and I against Tucker Carlson and Ingraham, who said almost nothing. Carlson picked up the slack.
Playboy: How is your relationship with Tucker Carlson? He claimed, "Liberals deride talk radio as the choice of morons, racists and tobacco chewers."
Franken: They'll take any opportunity they can to portray liberals as elitist. Carlson was a good writer at The Weekly Standard. He was funny and smart when we did Washington Journal on C-SPAN. We've become estranged. He has a way of attacking people by saying they're not good to their staff. When he was on a book tour and was asked about me, he said, "I can tell you one thing. He doesn't treat his staff well." I passed that on to Andy Barr, my assistant. We both laughed. Andy wrote him a note. Carlson has said it about a lot of people. Politicians never treat their staff well. Barney Frank doesn't treat his staff well.
Playboy: You've accused Limbaugh of taking a crap on the ground and then raising dust to obscure the turd. Is he still the guy who pisses you off the most?
Franken: Sean Hannity is the worst. He's completely humorless, a total hack. Hannity has no compunction at all about lying. O'Reilly and Limbaugh are sly. They have no interest in the truth. What Limbaugh will do is change something he said. That's kicking up the dust. It's about deliberately misleading people. O'Reilly does it on his TV show: Oh, is Bush's record on poverty not as good as Clinton's? Well, when Clinton was in midterm, the poverty level was 13 percent, whereas the level under Bush is only 12.7 percent. But the reason it is lower under Bush is that when Bush became president, the poverty level was at its lowest point in years because of Clinton. O'Reilly delivers information that is technically true but deliberately misleading. Coulter does the same.
Playboy: Conversion--almost in the religious sense--is a term we've occasionally heard on your broadcasts. You've teased Christy, a regular caller to the show, about converting her Republican boyfriend. You've noted that Blinded by the Right author David Brock crossed over as well.
Franken: Christy dropped the boyfriend. I don't think that was my fault. As for Brock, he made an amazing conversion. He had been a right-wing hit man writing for The American Spectator. He was the author of the Troopergate piece that ultimately led to the president's impeachment; Brock named Paula Jones, and she instigated the sexual harassment suit that led to the Clinton deposition that was the basis for the impeachment. The right loved Brock. He then wrote a book on Hillary Clinton. Everyone was expecting a hatchet job, but he approached it as a journalist and came back with a look at her that was pretty favorable. That incensed the right. Brock is gay, and that was fine with the right as long as he was doing its work. But soon he was on the outs. He went through a crisis of conscience. I don't know if it was about atoning, but he wrote Blinded by the Right, which exposes the right-wing smear media. We have him on the show to talk about the right's lying and smearing. Here's the irony: His American Spectator article led to Clinton's impeachment, yet I know that when Brock was starting his research center, he met with the Clintons to get help from their network of people. Talk about a guy who can forgive--that's Bill Clinton.
Playboy: What do you think is Bill Clinton's biggest regret?
Franken: I think Rwanda haunts him the most. We just let that slaughter happen. And I don't know how he can't regret Monica Lewinsky, because that changed history in such a way.
Playboy: What's your take on former presidents Clinton and Bush getting together to raise funds for tsunami and hurricane relief?
Franken: Smart. Good causes. My take is that it helps Clinton rehabilitate his image by appearing with George H.W., an ex-president who gained stature after the Clinton blow job as a president who didn't get a blow job.
Playboy: You were a strong supporter of Clinton's, but he was hardly the most liberal Democrat.
Franken: Liberal Democrats complained about his triangulating between the liberals and conservatives in Congress. He went down the middle. With the 1993 Deficit Reduction Act, Clinton did a good job of getting our deficit under control by changing our tax structure enough to give the markets confidence that we were actually going to address the deficit. He increased taxes on people at the top while beefing up the tax credit for those at the bottom. That set the stage for welfare reform. He passed the Brady Bill. He tried universal health care.
Playboy: And universal health care never got off the ground.
Franken: They made it more complicated than it had to be, which made it vulnerable to criticism. Hillary is brilliant, but she made mistakes there. That combined with the special interests that wanted to kill it. Talk about obstructionism. Bill Kristol basically sent out a memo to Republicans saying their job was to stop universal health care from happening. He didn't want Clinton to have this historic achievement. The thing I hate most about Washington is that people want to stop you from doing things just so you don't have the achievement.
Playboy: What about George W. Bush's achievements?
Franken: The Bush administration started off by saying that anything Clinton did, it would do the opposite. Bush felt Clinton was too involved in the Middle East. He felt Clinton paid far too much attention to Al Qaeda. Even things that were unquestionably successful, such as vesting FEMA with more money and authority, the Bush administration wouldn't do simply because Clinton had done them.
Playboy: Bush certainly altered Clinton's policy of close engagement in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Franken: But now we're more hands-on there than we were when Bush took office. Arafat's death was a huge development. Let's just hope, because anytime something encouraging in that region happens, it blows up in our face. It's great that Ariel Sharon pulled out of Gaza. That pullout was ultimately pretty peaceful--emotional but not violent. I'm pro-Israel, but I believe it has definitely had a hand in exacerbating the situation over the years. It has to recognize that in having been given a Jewish homeland, it has taken land from people, and I think it has contributed to the cycle of violence.