The Magazine

Radio Free Liberal

Don't bet on any left-wing Limbaugh succeeding.

Mar 10, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 25 • By WILLIAM TUCKER
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"AL FRANKEN IS A VULGAR EGOMANIAC." That's the title of the book I'm going to have to write someday--if Al Franken becomes the new Rush Limbaugh. Chances are, he won't. Earlier this month, Sheldon and Anita Drobny, a wealthy Chicago investor couple, announced a $10 million project to fund a liberal radio network, starring Franken and designed to counter the baneful influence of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, & Co.

"The concern has been around for years," the New York Times solemnly reported. "Hillary Rodham Clinton first mentioned a 'vast, right-wing conspiracy' in 1998. But the sentiment has taken on new urgency with the rise to the top of the cable news ratings of the Fox News Channel, considered by many to have a conservative slant, and the Republicans gaining control of the Senate in November."

Does the phrase, "They just don't get it!" resonate?

Limbaugh and Hannity did not rise from obscurity through being sponsored by some sugar daddy. They have achieved fame and fortune solely by connecting with their audience. Fox skyrocketed after 9/11 when people got tired of CNN's subtle anti-Americanism. Oh well, it's not easy being a Democrat these days.

Franken, a former "Saturday Night Live" writer, had his political coming-out party in 1996 with the book "Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot," which became a No. 1 bestseller. In fact he'd been a staple on the Democratic circuit for years. (He once threw a touchdown pass, using Bill Clinton as a decoy, at a Renaissance Weekend on Hilton Head.) Franken's style plays well with hard-core Democrats, but will it find an audience on the popular airwaves? That's hard to predict.

First, Franken is a vulgar egomaniac--so much so that he probably wouldn't dispute the description. For vulgarity, here's his response to a proposed constitutional amendment to criminalize desecration of the American flag:

Amendment XXIX--makes it a federal offense to take a whiz on the Statue of Liberty.

Amendment XXX--allows states to punish anyone "hocking a loogey" on a reproduction of the Declaration of Independence.

Amendment XXXI--makes it illegal for a tourist visiting the Lincoln Memorial to take a picture of a nude child sitting on Lincoln's lap.

Franken is so unrelentingly vulgar that you soon realize it's his essential rhetorical trick. The index to his book lists only references to Limbaugh's weight and body parts. But of course vulgarity doesn't mean he'll flop commercially. Think Howard Stern.

On the egomania side, Franken once did a "Saturday Night Live" skit in which he announced that while the 1980s had been the "Me Decade," the 1990s would also be the "Me Decade." "By 'Me' I mean 'Me, Al Franken,'" he intoned with admirable self-admiration. Franken is smart enough to realize he is an egomaniac--which is the basis of much of his humor. But will large audiences be amused?

Rush Limbaugh's self-mockery-- he has "talent on loan from God"--shows that egomania can work as shtick, but his act will be excruciatingly difficult to follow. Limbaugh set out to be funny and informative and popular--all of which place huge demands on any performer. But he never labored under the added burden of backers expecting him to do the heavy lifting for an entire political movement.

The Drobnys want radio success, and they want to save the Democratic party. They believe liberal radio failures--Mario Cuomo and Jim Hightower being the most notable--occurred because their shows were "sandwiched into a schedule crammed with conservatives." Thus their plan to have a schedule crammed with liberals. They're willing to invest $200 million over the long haul. They'll need every penny.

What liberals still can't admit is that Limbaugh, Hannity, et al. have won vast audiences because they discuss serious issues in a way that isn't done anywhere else. Satire is part of the package, but only part. "What really [will make] this work is tapping into Hollywood and New York and having a huge entertainment component, where political sarcasm is every bit as effective as Rush Limbaugh is at bashing you over the head," a Drobny spokesperson said. Well, maybe. Or maybe they will create a clown party, consigned to permanent opposition.