Liar, liar.

Media criticism.
Aug. 27 2003 4:56 PM

Liar, Liar

Liberal writers steal a rhetorical trick from the conservatives.

The best way to gain the momentary advantage in a debate is to call your opponent a liar, his every statement a falsehood, and his gist pure propaganda. Your sucker-punched foe will gasp, the audience will move to the edge of their seats, and the flustered moderator will struggle to regain control of the conversation. It makes for great theater and will suppress the fact that you were losing the debate for a couple of minutes.

Over the past decade, conservative TV and radio personalities—Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, et al.—have used variations on the liar-liar-pants-on-fire technique whenever they run into trouble or out of imagination to unhinge their ideological opponents. So, too, has fellow-traveler Bill O'Reilly, who dodges the conservative label. Liar-liar works magnificently against the TV rookie, the minor-league humanities professor blinking into the camera from a remote studio in the Midwest. But it can also give an emotional seizure to the media-savvy third-term congressman sitting in the studio with the host.

As television's conservative performers know, if liar-liar fails, your next fallback is to call your foe depraved, unpatriotic, or immoral. Wrapped between hard covers, these blustery allegations can become best-selling books: See Hannity's Let Freedom Ring, Savage's Savage Nation, Coulter's Slander, and also-rans by Mona Charen ( Useful Idiots) and Tammy Bruce ( The Death of Right and Wrong). Coulter's latest best seller, Treason, charts virgin rhetorical territory by accusing Democrats of assisting foreign enemies in overthrowing the United States.

Liberals and lefties, who know a thing or two about the politics of vituperation, have never held back from ridiculing conservatives. In recent years a bevy of such titles by James Carville, Michael Moore, Jim Hightower, Al Franken, Molly Ivins, and others have sold well. But libs and lefties have generally shied away from calling conservatives liars—at least on their dust jackets. But no more. Having realized their side is getting whupped in the court of TV, three liberal/lefties who are talk-show regulars have incorporated the "L" word into the titles of their new books. Comedian and former Shorenstein Center fellow Al Franken takes on Republican politicians and the greater media culture, including Hannity and O'Reilly, with Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. New York Observer columnist and Clinton apologist Joe Conason holds the laughs as he surveys similar territory in Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth. David Corn, Washington editor of TheNation,has a similarly themed book coming out next month that focuses solely on the president's serial prevarications, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception. (Disclosure: Corn is a friend, and I read part of his book in manuscript.)

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Franken, Conason, and Corn aren't just ginning it up. They accurately document the right's most egregious lies and acts of hypocrisy. They uncover Coulter's loony untruths, dissect President Bush's tax cut claims, and rebuke him for his insincere promise to lead a more decorous political debate. If you ever doubted the GOP's fondness for "crony capitalism" or its pork-barrel duplicity, you'll find the complete story here. And so on. But in excavating conservative bullshit, these writers begin to resemble their colleagues on the right: Their primary mission isn't to uncover lies and reveal the truth. If it were, they'd chart the deceptions and propaganda emanating from both political wings. Their only goal is to win one for their side. (This criticism applies more to Franken and Conason than it does Corn—you can't expect a book about Bush's lies to also be about Clinton's lies. And Corn acknowledges in his intro that Bush isn't the first White House liar and that Clinton lied, too. For a comprehensive lefty takedown of Clinton's lies, see Slatecontributor Christopher Hitchens' 2000 book No One Left To Lie To: The Politics of the Worst Family.)

The unspoken premise of the liar-liar books—no matter who writes them—is that the other side lies and mine doesn't. Of course, neither wing has ever told it straight, a fact all liar-liar books neglect. The rise of the liar-liar book coincides with the proliferation of political talk on TV and radio—especially TV—where the liar-liar dynamic rules. When Crossfire, Hannity & Colmes, Buchanan and Press, and the other shows recruit on-air guests, they approach the task like casting directors. They pre-interview potential guests to make sure they'll fulfill the binary requirements of the drama—left-right, pro-anti, skins-shirts. Those without an ax to grind need not apply.

Their ideal guest is a water carrier for his political class, somebody who is as adversarial as a prosecutor or as one-sided as the leader of an opposition research team. If, by chance, the water carriers stumble, the script calls for the hosts to step in and save the segment with the appropriate conservative or liberal platitude. Given the structure of the shows, it's inevitable that these "debates" have degenerated into "Your side is lying"—"No, your side is." And it's only logical that TV hosts and guests have had the commercial sense to use the shows as infomercials to drive partisan viewers to bookstores to buy their books.

The popularity of liar-liar TV and publishing indicates a deepening interest in politics, but only for a political conversation that's narrow enough to entertain simple-minded viewers and readers, many of whom regard politics as one of their hobbies, like clogging or license-plate collecting, or worse yet, as their secular religion. To dismiss the liar-lair books as preaching to the choir misses the whole point: The devout demand a Sunday sermon, and the last thing they want to hear is an open-minded lecture about atheism.

Liberal scriveners may improve their team's political lot by matching the conservative investment in liar-liar stock, but it will come at the expense of their credibility. I suppose that when consuming liar-liar books in pairs, say Sean Hannity's versus Joe Conason's, the average reader might come within spitting distance of political reality. But having read too many of these books for my own good, I've concluded that if you're interested in which wing lies more, you're probably not very interested in the truth.

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