By Betsy Rothstein - 01/26/05 12:00 AM EST
The lobby of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel was dripping with many things liberal last Thursday, but please don’t mention the — gasp! — expensive fur scarves, beaded satchels, Ugg boots and sparkling inauguration party jewels being sold in the far corner by the check-in desk.
The biggest liberal in the lobby was none other than Al Franken, with his big, round head of brown curls, dimples and torrent of insults for President Bush. The comedian/political activist was there to launch his radio show on 1260 AM in Washington; it was simultaneously launching in Cincinnati and Detroit. Franken’s show debuted on the Air America Radio network in March 2004.
Franken was also there to give a room full of about 150 liberals something to smile about on a day that, for them, was filled with gloom.
“How many of you voted for Bush?” asked Franken, trying to rev up the audience before starting his broadcast.
A dead silence rang back.
He presented the audience with a set of rules: “I don’t want anything fake from you folks. I don’t want fake applause (they applauded loudly). I don’t want any fake laughter (they laughed as loud as they could.) “And I don’t,” he said, casting a glance toward this reporter, “want The Hill blowing smoke up my a--. But if it happens, it happens.”
Once on air, he declared his true feelings for Bush: “OK, that’s enough. I hate him.” The audience began clapping wildly. “I shouldn’t have said that, even if it’s true,” he continued. “This is a day to honor the office rather than the man, who I can’t stand.”
Relief and laughter. This was Franken’s purpose, as well as to gain notoriety for his program by setting up a makeshift radio show in the hotel lobby, where only VIPs could forage through the heaping plates of sandwiches and drink the fancy Asian teas and coffee.
Michael O’Brien explained his affinity for Franken: “I use this show as a drunk uses a lamp post — for support.”
Just watching the liberals flood into the seating area in all their shapes, sizes and hair colors was a show in itself. One woman arrived with flaming (obviously dyed) red hair that she had secured into tiny pigtails on the top of her head. One young man wore a T-shirt that screamed: “Bush Sucks.” That was rivaled only by another young man’s T-shirt that read: “F--- Bush.”
John Vonkerczek, who wore the “Bush Sucks” T-shirt, said that wearing the shirt elicits dirty looks from Bush supporters and newfound friendships with sympathizers. He said he came to escape the Republicans tromping through his neighborhood. “Today,” he said, listening to Franken is “more for enjoyment.”
One woman in the audience bided her time by reading Franken’s attack book on Republicans, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.
Scoring a few minutes alone with Franken before his show wasn’t difficult; his publicists are hot to traffic his show in Washington. Dressed in faded blue jeans coming loose at the knees, a red-and-white-striped button-down, a navy-blue blazer and worn Nike sneakers, Franken’s preppy attire reflected his relaxed demeanor. He was ready to let the Republicans have it on their special day.
But before that, he spent time with a camera crew filming a documentary about him. “I just came back from Iraq,” he said, looking into the camera. Franken said his GOP counterparts Rush Limbaugh and Fox’s Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly shouldn’t be condemned. “A lot of people criticize them for not going to Iraq. That’s not fair to them — they have no talent.”
Franken loves to badmouth his enemies and admitted he watches their shows and listens to their radio broadcasts for material. He admitted that Bush’s foray into a second term means more exposure for him. Of Limbaugh, he said, “He will just pull things out of his butt.” Of them all, he said, “I don’t consider them enemies. I consider them nemeses.”
He bragged about keeping O’Reilly’s alleged sexual-harassment scandal alive with an ongoing contest. Each contestant reads from the alleged phone-sex transcript. What does Franken really believe? “It was a he-said, she-taped sort of thing.”
The case settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
Franken receives his share of hate mail, and has some fun e-mailing his haters back, writing, “Thank you for your kind email regarding … my three-inch penis. Thank you very much.”
Just before air time, Franken contemplated what he’d say as Bush is sworn in for a second term. “I don’t like this president,” he said, hanging his head down for a moment of anguish. “I just don’t. I have real problems with the hubris and lack of intellectual curiosity. It’s very dangerous. He’ll talk about being a compassionate conservative, but he just isn’t.”
He admitted that it’s hard for him to listen to a Bush speech but said there is “entertainment value” to him. He said Hannity is worse than O’Reilly, but, for the sake of his program, he knows their value as well.