Liar, Liar

Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right By Al Franken, E.P. Dutton, 379 pages, $24.95

The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception By David Corn, Crown, 337 pages, $24.00

The Book on Bush: How George W. Bush (Mis)leads America By Eric Alterman and Mark J. Green, Viking Press, 448 pages, $24.95

Had Enough? A Handbook for Fighting Back By James Carville, Simon & Schuster, 306 pages, $23.00

Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth By Joe Conason, Thomas Dunne Books, 245 pages, $24.95

Flip your TV over to FOX, open the pages of The Washington Times or a conservative magazine, or direct your browser to the burgeoning network of conservative Web sites and you'll see that the right-wing hate machine is alive and well. Not only was this network of commentary instrumental in pushing the "Gore is a liar" line into mainstream analysis of the 2000 election, it was absolutely vital to GOP victories in the 2002 midterms; legitimating the smear campaign against Max Cleland; endlessly pushing the tale of Paul Wellstone's memorial service; demonizing the Democrats' de facto leader, Tom Daschle; and effectively eliding the distinction between criticism of the Bush administration and irresolution in the face of terrorism.

After years of taking this abuse lying down, liberals have decided to land a few blows of their own and produced a small stack of feisty books to counter the screeds issuing forth from the likes of Regnery Publishing. The mainstream media have responded to this largely with a wave of hand-wringing over the decline of civility in American political discourse. And, indeed, there's nothing civil about Al Franken's Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, which calls Anne Coulter a "nutcase," describes Bill O'Reilly as a "lying, splotchy bully," and proudly recounts Franken's "bitch-slapping" of Bernard Goldberg. Nor is Joe Conason's discussion in Big Lies of conservatism's prominent philanderers a polite way to proceed. Writing a book detailing The Lies of George W. Bush, as David Corn has done, is rude from the get-go, but it's not clear what else liberals are supposed to do in the face of demonstrable falsehoods.

The unifying tone of the books, however, is less incivility than simply relentless critique of the president and the party that now controls all branches of the U.S. government. The Book on Bush by Eric Alterman and Mark Green is about as civil as a political book can get, offering a dense, encyclopedic catalogue of administration misdeeds, complete with copious footnotes to supporting documentation. It's less fun to read, but it clearly demonstrates a dislike of the president based on his actions, not some irrational hatred.

Corn, with an equally comprehensive approach, gives us a book that is only uncivil insofar as it is blunt in calling attention to facts that the mainstream press seems to find it untoward to note. The trouble is that after calling George W. Bush a liar in the opening line of the book, Corn has to make the same point in different words. Within just eight pages on tax policy we get "distortions and misrepresentations," "unsubtle distortions," "a transparent effort to engage in the most creative of accounting," and four other variations on the same theme. History may remark that the Bush administration's greatest contribution was to provide an impetus for the proliferation of ways to call someone a liar.

Franken's Lies, despite the similar title, takes a different approach, offering a scattershot review of administration falsehoods, attacks on FOX News personalities, a personal anecdote or two, and a parody. "Journalists are pro free trade," he writes, "precisely because they know their jobs are not at risk for exportation." As Franken writes, "[A] fourteen-year-old Bangladeshi might be able to sew my sneakers (and he did a great job), but there's no way he could write this book." Franken then has an apocryphal "Kharap Juta" try his hand at comedy and, predictably, the results are dismal.

Though Franken isn't at his strongest criticizing fiscal policy, he's in his element satirizing the media. FOX's claim to be fair and balanced, he writes, would be more plausible "if the rest of the media actually had a liberal bias. Or if FOX wasn't so obviously slanted to the right. Or if [Roger] Ailes weren't a cynical Republican ideologue with no regard for fairness or balance. Any of those things would add a lot to that argument."

James Carville offers us something of a third way, with a book organized along similar lines to Corn's and Green and Alterman's but punctuated by the occasional wisecrack. The price of the more freewheeling approach is a certain unevenness in quality. His first Cajun cooking tips are funny, but the shtick gets a bit stale. A "Homeland Security Fairy Tale," designed to highlight the administration's fall 2002 bait and switch on terrorism prevention, also doesn't work. Franken's book, too, is marred by a fairly long and not especially amusing "Operation Chickenhawk" chapter, where we see John Kerry leading a battalion of famous conservative draft dodgers up the Mekong Delta.

Conason's discussion of the same topic is perhaps his book's strongest, leveraging what could have been nothing but a series of below-the-belt hits into a sophisticated discussion of right-wing attacks on liberal patriotism and a defense of liberalism's honorable record on national security. Relative to the others, Conason's book is an outlier, focusing less on specific instances of dishonesty than on broad thematic tropes that distort the overall national discourse. Each chapter begins with a widely accepted assertion -- "Conservatives believe in color-blind equality, while liberals cynically exploit the victimization of blacks and other minorities," leads chapter seven -- that Conason proceeds to debunk. But his counter-generalizations are tempered with evenhandedness, as when he writes, "Both major parties and politicians of varying ideologies are implicated in cronyism, too, even if some benefit far more than others."

Such caveats highlight an important difference between the new blunt liberalism and the hard-edged conservatism to which comparisons are all but inevitable. The mainstream press has tended to treat these two genres with a kind of moral equivalence, noting the strident tone and partisan demeanor of both while ignoring the question of accuracy. But where the liberal authors deal in abstractions and generalities, they provide appropriate disclaimers that a generalization is just that, and authors disinclined to hedge stick to specific, factual assertions.

In a discussion of "tort reform," for example, Green and Alterman write, "According to the federal National Practitioner Data Bank, from 1991 to 2001 malpractice lawsuit payouts grew an average of 6.2 percent annually. BusinessWeek noted that this was 'almost exactly the rate of medical inflation' during this period and they dismissed as 'a myth' the claim that '[R]unaway jury awards are forcing insurers to raise rates.'" This is perhaps not the most gripping prose the world has ever known, but as analysis of the problem it's more convincing than anecdotes about spilled McDonald's coffee or the president's beloved line, "No one was ever healed by a frivolous lawsuit."

Many pundits would have it that this new angry liberalism portends the Democratic Party's doom. In this view, the Republicans supposedly wrecked their ship on the shoals of their own anger in 1996 and '98 only to be revived by a dose of sunny optimism and "compassionate conservatism" in the new millennium. If the Democrats want to win, the thinking goes, best to swallow the rage, admit that Bush is a hell of a nice guy, and debate policy. Indeed, it is true that the GOP went astray when the party gave itself the angry public face of Newt Gingrich, but the partisan conservative press on cable, on the radio, and in print is in many ways more crucial than ever in securing Republican success today. The Bush administration, after all, while obtaining tax cuts and handouts for wealthy donors and well-connected corporations, has done strikingly little to shrink the size of the federal government or to turn back the cultural tide that moral conservatives abhor. Conservatives might well get restless but for the success of the right-wing media in stirring up their passion against the opposition.

Democrats could use some of the same passion, though aimed, I would hope, at a more substantive agenda. These books -- along with the success of, the founding of the Center for American Progress, and ongoing efforts to create a progressive radio network -- seem to be at least part of what the doctor ordered.

The real problem with this emerging genre is that while each book has its merits, one doesn't want to read all of them, and I trust that few will. Despite stylistic differences -- from Carville's down-home folksiness to Corn's deadpan to Conason's indignation -- the content remains rather similar. Once you've heard the story, you don't necessarily want to hear it again, especially as it thus far lacks a happy ending. The ability of the right's authors to find an audience for screed after screed has always struck me as somewhat puzzling, and reading more ideologically congenial works has not brought about much enlightenment in this regard. Franken's, and to some extent Carville's, gift for satire helps sustain interest -- The Daily Show, after all, stays enjoyable week after week -- but not everyone can do comedy well.

Let us hope, at least for the sake of novelty, that we won't need new renditions of the genre. A glance at the president's most recent budget proposal indicates that in the event of re-election, there'll be no shortage of new examples for another book about government by deception. But will anyone want to read it? At the end of the day, one has to hope that, with their spines restored, liberal writers will have the opportunity to return to the business of remedy. Exposé is just a means of getting there.

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