WASHINGTON -- In a minute, you will learn all about how Al Franken chose the title for his new book on modern American politics. But first: a word or two about the titles he rejected. "I probably should have called it were too confrontational."
Instead, satirist Al Franken, best known for his appearances on "Saturday Night Live," settled on a kinder, gentler title: "Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations."
Leaning back into the sofa in his posh suite at the Jefferson Hotel, Mr. Franken -- who describes himself as a "mushball liberal Democrat" -- explains the compelling reasons for choosing such a title. "First of all, Rush is very fat," he says, his deep voice all analytical as he attempts to deconstruct his own work.
"And, secondly, I think we all agree there is far too much negativity in our public discourse these days . . ." He pauses. You hear the faint sound of gears shifting. Then: "And I just wanted to add to that."
Given the initial response to the title, "Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations," it seems safe to say: Mission Accomplished.
And not since "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat," it also seems safe to say, has there been such a deliberately provocative title.
Naturally, some people love it.
Naturally some people hate it.
And, naturally, the people who love it are liberals.
And, those who don't are conservatives.
Al Franken is in Washington to promote his just-off-the-press book, which he says is "about holding the right accountable . . . and using Limbaugh as a way of talking about the entire Republican revolution." He's already drawing the wrath of the Limbaugh faithful.
"I was on C-Span last night and got some irate calls," he says good-naturedly. "They were from 'dittoheads' -- or 'didiots,' as I call them. They didn't seem to get that there's a level of irony to the title. I taunted them a little and they just got angrier." He grins. A look of pleasure passes across his face. "So it was fun."
Fun for him, perhaps. But don't bring up Al Franken's book with the likes of Republican strategist Mary Matalin, who is one of the hosts of CNBC's "Equal Time with Mary Matalin and Dee Dee Myers." The very mention of the title elicits this response: "I think Al Franken is a hypocritical big fat idiot," she says emphatically, throwing the words back at you like verbal hand grenades. "I haven't read it, and I'm not going to read it."
Ms. Matalin, who describes herself as "a friend, a proud friend of Rush's," doesn't just take issue with the title. She questions Al Franken's whole characterization of Rush Limbaugh. Which she definitely does not find "funny."
"Does he [Al Franken] listen to Rush? The essence of understanding that show is to listen with some longevity, because it takes a while to explain his philosophy. He doesn't understand the show," says Ms. Matalin who was deputy manager of the George Bush re-election campaign in 1992 and is married to James Carville, the Democratic strategist who ran Bill Clinton's successful presidential campaign.
Dee Dee Myers, on the other hand, can't wait to read it. "I'm a big Al Franken fan. And when I first saw the title, my reaction was to laugh out loud. From my side of the aisle, there's a certain amount of indisputable truth to it," says Ms. Myers, who ended her job as White House press secretary on Dec. 22, 1994, and became co-host of "Equal Time" in May 1995.
Still, she admits: "I don't know how I'd feel if the book were called 'Bill Clinton Is a Big Fat Idiot.' But there's a couple of differences between the two. One, Rush is not the president. And two, he's made a career, made a fortune, out of castigating people. Castigating them for their beliefs, for their looks, for their politics. And I think if he can dish it out, he ought to be able to take it."
Of course, once people actually read the book -- which is to say, once they get to the "And Other Observations" part of the title -- they'll see that Rush Limbaugh is not the only ideological foe Al Franken hoists with his liberal petard. He also offers up opinions on:
* Newt Gingrich: "He's the father of the kid who spends a lot of time at your house."
* Cutting Medicare and Balancing the Budget: "Why not shoot the elderly into space? Stay with me. Because I'm not thinking about the budget here. I'm talking about science. Just think how many more manned space operations NASA could undertake if they didn't have to worry about getting the astronauts back?"
* Phil Gramm: "If you get beyond the fact that Gramm is ugly, mean, hypocritical, has a boob fetish, and drives his wife like a mule, he does have a certain folksy charm."
Some people might say the book is mean-spirited. Al Franken is not among them. "I call it mean -- but uncompromisingly fair," says the 44-year-old Harvard graduate. "I just hold them accountable -- especially Limbaugh -- for what they've said.
"The first time I turned Rush on, he was railing about 'feminazis,' saying feminism was established so that unattractive, ugly women could have easy access to the mainstream of society. Now it's my theory that he's sort of able to get away with this because he's clearly a sad, fat loser wounded by a pathetic history with the opposite sex."
Which brings up the question: What does Al Franken have against sad, fat losers?
"Nothing," he says quickly. "Listen, no one is more sensitive to overeaters than the creator of Stuart Smalley. So I feel for -- and Stuart definitely feels for -- Rush."
Stuart Smalley, a character played by Mr. Franken in a series of "SNL" sketches, is one of Mr. Franken's most enduring creations. The milquetoast host of his own self-help show, Stuart is not a licensed therapist -- but he is a caring nurturer and a member of several 12-step programs who tries to help others. He begins each program by gazing into a mirror and reminding himself: I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!
Advice from Stuart
As for what Stuart would say to Rush -- who might be hurting after reading a book called "Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot . . ." well, Al Franken steps aside and suddenly Stuart is in the room nurturing Rush Limbaugh:
Well, you know, it's going to hurt a little bit. And that's OK. You're a human being. Let it hurt. Feel the feelings, you know. Just remember that, um, what other people think of you doesn't matter. It's what you think of yourself. And, you know, maybe it'll cause you to think a little, Rush. And think about, you know, how maybe you should take a little responsibility for some of the things you've been saying. And remember -- that when you're pointing a finger at someone else, there's really three fingers pointing back at you.
But then Stuart leaves and it's back to business as usual.
"I don't hate Rush," says Mr. Franken. "I really don't. I hate what he does . . . I think he's talented, and I think he does funny things. But I think he tries to have it both ways. When he says things that are offensive or misleading he will say he's an entertainer. But obviously his dittoheads believe that he speaks the truth. . . . I theorize the easiest job in America must be to be Rush Limbaugh's fact checker. Because his facts clearly are not checked."
Al Franken, on the other hand, hired a fact checker to do research for the book. The result is a hilarious send-up of a conversation between a fictitious Limbaugh fact checker and Mr. Franken's real fact checker. It's a conceit that allows Al Franken to repeat some of what he considers Rush Limbaugh's most egregious claims.
"He has said in his book, 'See, I Told You So' that there are more American Indians alive today than there were when Columbus arrived," Mr. Franken says, guffawing. "He has said that if you have a Bible on your desk at work, then you're guilty of religious harassment. And he has said that there are more acres of forestland in America today than when Columbus discovered the continent." He pauses. That ear-to-ear grin fills up his face. Then he swoops in for the kill: "Turns out Rush was off by about a quarter of a billion acres."
He's not heard anything from Rush -- whom he's never met -- about the book. "My publisher sent the book to Rush along with a note I dictated, saying 'Al thinks it might help sales if you mentioned the book on your show.' But I did actually contact his producer, Kit Carson, because one of the things I found out about Rush was that he went on unemployment as an able-bodied young man -- if you call weighing 300 pounds being able-bodied.
"And I said, 'I'd like to find the dates he was on unemployment and the duration.' And they called me back and said, 'As you might imagine, this is something we don't want to comment on.' I kind of imagined he wouldn't since he is someone who calls the poor 'piglets' for sucking at the government teat. And it turns out that he himself is a piglet."
It turns out that although Al Franken doesn't know Rush Limbaugh, he does know President and Mrs. Clinton. "I met him in 1988 and was incredibly impressed." He still is.
A Clinton fan
He's come to know the Clintons over the years. The Franken family -- including his 11-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter -- are regulars at the annual Renaissance Weekends, which the Clintons also attend. At a recent Georgetown book party for Mr. Franken, the first lady -- out on her own own book tour fending off charges that Hillary Rodham Clinton Is a Congenital Liar -- sent congratulatory flowers.
Surprisingly enough, at the same book party, several Republicans showed up. One of them was Arianna Huffington, a fund-raiser for Newt Gingrich and the wife of unsuccessful California Senate candidate and millionaire Michael Huffington. She's mentioned in the book but not too unkindly. Actually, Al Franken likes her. A lot.
He says: "I give Arianna all kinds of crap about Newt and about her guys. And she's just got a great sense of humor."
She says: "We met at the White House Correspondents Dinner and hit it off immediately. For me, Al's proof-positive that you can have a friend and disagree with a lot of his views. . . . I love seeing him with his kids and his wife. He's very real. But we have very different heroes and villains."
As for the title and tone of the book, well, Mrs. Huffington says she knows parody when she sees it. "I think it's important to make a distinction between parody and satire and straight writing. I lived in England for a long time so I'm used to satirical writing."
Al Franken is in the business of lampooning. He is, after all, the man who created the "Final Days" skit on "Saturday Night Live" with Dan Aykroyd freaking out as Richard Nixon. And the irreverent Gerald Ford bits.
Which makes it all the scarier to bring up this final question: Has Al Franken heard that Rush Limbaugh is on a diet and losing weight? Suppose he gets thin?
"Yeah, I've heard, and it scares the heck out of me," Mr. Franken says, laughing. "I hope he's getting thin because of the title of my book. And I hope every piece of cheesecake he passes, he sees my face on it."