The merry month of July 2009 had barely witnessed the spectacle of Al Franken eventually taking his seat as the junior senator from Minnesota when, immediately following the death of Walter Cronkite, Time magazine took an online poll to determine who was now “America’s most trusted newscaster.” Seven percent of those responding named Katie Couric. Nineteen percent nominated Charles Gibson. Twenty-nine percent went for Brian Williams. But the clear winner, garnering 44 percent, was Jon Stewart of The Daily Show. Either I missed it, or the poll failed to specify, in that wonderfully reassuring way that polls purport to do, what had been its “margin of error.”
A summer debate at the Oxford Union once resolved: “This House believes that the nation is slowly sinking giggling into the sea.” Do July’s antic politico-media developments mean that undergraduate humor has now triumphed definitively, and that the balance of power is held by the sensibilities of the combined teams of Mr. Stewart and Saturday Night Live? Although the answer to the second part of that question is certainly no (the balance of power will continue to be held by opinion polls and those who are in a position to commission and print them), the answer to the first part would appear to be yes. And even the answer to the second part might have to be somewhat qualified: if any one thing crucially undid the candidacy of Senator John McCain for the presidency, it was his nomination of Sarah Palin to be his running mate. And if any one thing undid Governor Palin as a person who could even be considered for the vice presidency, it was the merciless guying of her manner and personality by Tina Fey.
You may conceivably have forgotten that when, after the numbing assault on our civil society in September 2001, Mayor Rudy Giuliani wanted to signal some kind of return to “normalcy,” it was to the set of Saturday Night Live that he repaired. (They fed him some quite good lines, too: asked with due solemnity “Can we be funny?,” he responded, “Why start now?”) I distinctly remember wondering what, if they were watching it, the al-Qaeda leadership could possibly be making of this dialogue.
Long before the Weekly Standard crew disembarked at Anchorage for its now-historic call upon the lady governor, I myself once sat on a cruise-ship entertainment panel—sponsored off the imposing shores of Alaska by The Nation magazine—with Betty Friedan and Al Franken. In the spontaneous-humor stakes, I seem to remember outpointing Betty with relative ease, but I nonetheless noticed with slight envy that some “progressive” women in the front row would start laughing uncontrollably as soon as it was Franken’s turn to speak and, indeed, often before he had even opened his mouth. I’d already admired a Mick Jagger impersonation I’d seen him do in Washington (at a benefit for the National Committee for an Effective Congress) and an after-dinner performance he’d given at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in the Clinton era. Franken has a naturally comic face, very, very good deadpan timing, and an absolutely copper-bottomed, 100 percent, and unironic allegiance to every known tenet of the Democratic Party’s version of liberalism. In minor conversation at the ship’s bar, about the impending campaign of Hillary Clinton for the Senate (or rather, for her unopposed nomination to the Democratic machine’s ticket for same), I came to see that Franken’s secret asset was that he was really quite a hard-bitten and hard-line partisan.
The victory of Stewart in the race for anointment as the new Cronkite surprised me less perhaps than it will have surprised some of you. Not long ago, I was teaching a class on Mark Twain at the New School in New York and someone asked me who, if anybody, would be the equivalent figure for today. I was replying that I didn’t think there was one, though the younger Gore Vidal might once have conceivably been in contention, when someone broke in to say: “What about Jon Stewart?” I was thunderstruck at how many heads nodded, and I replied that I would know better next week, after my upcoming appearance on the show. I recall this now as winning me the most respect I have ever had from any class. The day after my appearance, I was at West Point to lecture to the cadets and was stopped everywhere I walked by young trainee warriors for America who had caught my act. This sort of thing can become heady.
It also has its vaguely alarming side. “Al Franken for Senator” is one thing (especially when the alternative is or was “Norm Coleman for Senator”). But Jon Stewart for Samuel Langhorne Clemens is quite another. What next? Stephen Colbert for Zola? Al Franken for Swift?
Franken very often refers to himself as a “satirist,” which is a piece of hubris that comes to him too glibly and naturally. One wants to say, on hearing or reading such a claim, “Actually, sunshine, we’ll be the judge of that.” Swift famously compared satire to a mirror in which people could see every face but their own: if Franken desires to be considered a connoisseur of the satirical, he might want to paste that line into his hat.
The best of his books, which is (I’ll call it for brevity’s sake) Lies, is in fact a fine if accidental illustration of the Swiftian maxim. The necessary clue appears as early as page 37, while Franken is having some easy fun tossing and goring the hapless Bernie Goldberg on the hoary old question of liberal bias in the media. Still, ask yourself who exactly gets himself caught in the following exchange of trick questions:
Why, Bernie asks, if CBS identifies the Heritage Foundation as a “conservative” think tank, does it not identify the Brookings Institution as a “liberal” think tank?
I don’t know. Bias? Or could it be because the Heritage Foundation’s website says their mission is to “promote conservative public policies,” while the Brookings website says it is committed to “independent, factual and nonpartisan research”?
But Goldberg, as Franken concedes at the outset, does not complain about the identification of Heritage as conservative. He complains about the non-identification of Brookings as liberal. It’s hardly a satiric smackdown to cite Brookings itself asking and expecting to be taken—as it is by Franken—at its own “objective” face value. That’s Goldberg’s accusation to begin with.
The next complaint Franken has is against Goldberg’s insistence that Rosie O’Donnell should be described as being as “liberal” as Rush Limbaugh is conservative. Once again, Limbaugh hardly pretends to be otherwise, while Ms. O’Donnell—held harmless by Franken—may well not deserve to be called “liberal” but is partly an apolitical nut and part echo chamber for the more dubious wing of MoveOn.org and even the putrid fringe of the “9/11 Truth” nutbags.
Some of the more tedious moments of my life have been spent on the Hannity & Colmes show (I still await the call from Bill O’Reilly), but Franken on page 99 decides to attack Hannity just where he is at his strongest, in a diatribe he broadcast against John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban. Of this pathetic yet sinister character Hannity made the debatable assertion that he “converted from anything-goes liberal agnosticism to hard-core Middle Eastern radical Islam.” Whatever may be said against this proposition, Franken notably fails to say it:
Before reading this, I had never considered the direct line between liberal agnosticism and hard-core, radical Islam. But Hannity has a strong case. So many of my liberal, agnostic women friends from college gradually relinquished their freedoms and decided to spend the rest of their lives in chadors, avoiding the gaze of man.
If this was being intoned on-air by Jon Stewart, the cue for massive studio-audience laughter would have been activated at the word chadors, allowing him to beam modestly and likably through the mildly suggestive last four words. On the page, however, it is less easy to hurry us right past the main point. A noticeable swath of campus feminist opinion, which is not alone in this respect, has in fact adopted an attitude of cultural relativism toward political Islam, and of decided non-neutrality against its militant female opponents such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali. And the current president of the United States, whom it might not be altogether inaccurate to describe as the Galahad of the SNL and Stewart generations, has made exactly one speech about Muslim garb—defining the wearing of the hijab as a human right and indirectly attacking those French secularists who have their misgivings about it.