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Al Franken and Olivia Wilde: Calling a Lie a Lie

Before his election as the junior senator from Minnesota by a narrow margin in 2008, Mr. Franken, 66, was a longtime writer and performer on “Saturday Night Live,” beginning in its debut season. After leaving “S.N.L.,” he became a nationally syndicated radio host and wrote a series of best-selling books of political satire.


Hilary Swift for The New York Times

In the Senate, Mr. Franken has stood up for liberal causes and, early in the Trump administration, proved himself an incisive examiner in confirmation hearings, particularly those of Betsy DeVos for education secretary and Jeff Sessions as attorney general. Mr. Franken’s best-selling memoir, “Al Franken: Giant of the Senate,” was published last month.

Over a late-afternoon meal at the end of May at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Midtown Manhattan (grilled salmon and mixed vegetables for both), Ms. Wilde and Mr. Franken discussed truth and lies — both in “1984” and in contemporary politics — as well as their first meeting, when Ms. Wilde was a child.

Philip Galanes What a pair: explorers of truth in 2017, no less.

Al Franken It’s adorable to think I made a living by pointing out that people were lying. And people seemed to care about it back then. Now we have a president who calls the news media the enemy of America.

Olivia Wilde It’s straight out of “1984.”

PG But you write about liars with such brio. Why is that?

AF It’s my basic belief in the way things ought to be.

PG But four books? Is there a Rosebud moment here?

AF No, no, no. My parents always told me to tell the truth. But everyone’s parents told them that, right? Politics ought to be based on actual facts and objective truth. That’s hard to find sometimes.

OW We’ve been raised to think, “Politics is dirty; politicians are liars.” I think it’s great that you’ve worked against that cliché by calling out lying as outrageous behavior — which it is. But now we’ve hit another level of outrageousness because there’s no source that is universally trusted to fact-check. Some of that went out the window with internet journalism. People may not even question the source. If it’s on CNN, a huge part of the country will say: “Fake news!” So, what’s the end of that?

PG Isn’t that what “1984” explores, the chaos and fatigue of nonstop propaganda?

OW Yes, and it’s not pretty.

PG I first saw the play in London two years ago.

OW It was all about [Edward] Snowden then. Big Brother and the N.S.A.

PG But now, after the election of Trump, it’s impossible not to connect Orwell’s “two plus two equals five, if the State says so,” with inaugural crowd sizes and suspect budget math. Did you get involved with the play before or after the election?

OW It came to me after the election. I needed a way to manifest my daily outrage. And I wanted to talk beyond my own choir. The great thing about Broadway is that it’s seen by so many different types of people. And the great point of this play is that we have to get beyond “groupthink” and start thinking for ourselves. I don’t plan to convert large groups to the left, not if they came in as Republicans. But I want everyone to leave the theater questioning what we’ve been told and knowing that’s our job.

AF You can do “groupthink” without anyone lying. Everybody can be wrong on an issue — like Vietnam for a long time. That’s a danger on Capitol Hill that’s neither a right nor a left issue. You worry about yourself.

PG Is it unpleasant going into the Senate, knowing you’re probably never going to agree with anyone who isn’t in your caucus?

AF That’s not the case. The problem is: Are they truly listening? Right now, we’re going through this health care nightmare. The House passed a horrendous bill, and the Congressional Budget Office scored it: 23 million people lose their coverage. It’s not a fact, but that’s their score. And if the bill became law, it would end the protections of people with pre-existing conditions. We lose all the progress we gained.

PG Let’s explore that. We have a president who campaigned on the promise of a new plan with better coverage than Obamacare. And House leaders are still claiming no loss of coverage in their plan. Is this classic “1984” double-think, the truth and a lie existing in people’s minds simultaneously?


Hilary Swift for The New York Times

OW I don’t think we know.

AF There are so many different lies to unpack here. During the campaign, Trump said he would not cut Medicaid, but this has about $1.5 trillion in cuts: more than $800 billion for this health care plan and over $600 billion in other savings. I go all around Minnesota, talking to people at rural hospitals and community round tables. People are literally crying about this. They say: “My mom gets her home health care through Medicaid, and she will lose it if this happens. My husband and I work. We don’t know what we’ll do with her.”

PG I know you’re not a mind reader, but …

AF I’d be a liar if I said I was a mind reader.

PG So, are these guys lying, or have they somehow convinced themselves that raising my annual insurance premium to $2 million is not taking my insurance away?

AF I have to believe there are people who know they are lying.

PG Because it’s one thing if they’ve convinced themselves that a lie is the truth. It’s another if they just don’t care about people having health insurance.

AF Sometimes, it ain’t so cut and dry. But I had a colleague tell me that the easiest person to fool is yourself.

PG To be fair and balanced about this, there is a Democratic version of this problem, too. When President Obama said, “Don’t worry, you can keep your doctor …”

AF Yup. He shouldn’t have said it.

PG Was he selling or lying or just really hoping it would be true.

AF I’m not sure why he kept saying that. First of all, no one can definitely keep their insurance because insurance companies make the decision whether to offer the same damn insurance. But it was embarrassing and bad that he said it. And it opens us up to the same charges we’re heaping on everyone else.

PG But aren’t we all “Lying Liars”? I am. When my dad killed himself, I told people he had a heart attack — for years.

OW That’s understandable.

PG And when I’m fighting with people, I say I’m sorry long before I really am.

OW But that’s for the greater good.

PG So, make the distinction between a lie you can live with and one you can’t.

OW We all carry technology in our pockets. And we’re somewhat aware that it’s being made by people who aren’t being paid enough in unsafe conditions. But we make allowances because we’ve decided that it’s necessary. We’re sort of lying to ourselves. There’s a complexity in how we accept truth. The problem comes when we start creating our own truth to support potentially dangerous decisions, like the president is doing. But as regular people, we all lie to protect each other’s feelings.

AF Why tell someone their butt looks big?

OW Is it going to help the situation?

AF My point is: Take that extra step to check yourself and your life. Taking the basic, important truths seriously is something that a healthy person does. I also think that as a kid, you learn that lying makes you sad. Remember breaking something in the kitchen and lying about it, that overwhelming guilt you felt?

PG I still do! So, what lies do you tolerate from your kids?

OW I’d be really impressed if my 7-month-old lied to me because she’d be talking.

AF You’d go, “Aren’t you precocious?”

OW But I’ll ask my son, “Did you brush your teeth?” He’ll say, “Yeah.” And I’ll say: “You did not. I was standing right here.” It’s funny. Kids lie without any real strategy. That’s why Trump seems so much like a toddler sometimes. His tendency to lie, when it’s clearly a lie, is something small children do. They also bully and take toys from each other. It’s something you’re supposed to grow out of by the time you’re 70.

AF Having some shame is a good thing.

PG Let’s go back to your constituents who are terrified about Medicaid cuts.

AF And I’m talking about constituents who live in big Trump areas.

PG I understand. So, are they thinking: “Republicans lie to me; Democrats lie to me. Might as well blow the whole thing up”?

AF Some people take sides. You’re on a team, and that’s that. The first iteration of the G.O.P. health bill, which was better than the one that passed, had 17 percent support from the American people. That’s the exact same number as Americans who said they’ve seen a ghost.

PG Go back to the Trump supporters. Is part of them saying ——

AF “Oh, I’m angry.” Yes.

PG How does that work? Why be mad at the politicians who are giving your mother the home health care she needs?

AF People are mad because in the last 40 years or so, life has become harder for the middle class. There’s been a real squeeze. It isn’t a birthright that your kids are going to be better off than you anymore, and people are mad about that. I don’t want to place complete blame for this on anyone. But we progressives have a different theory than my conservative friends on this. We saw a lot of misunderstanding of race and immigration in this campaign. And to me, that means not understanding that we need immigrants.

OW That we are immigrants.

AF Except for some. We have 11 tribes in Minnesota.

OW Yes, everyone but them. But can you explain why some people seemingly don’t act in their own self-interest on policies like health care and tax cuts?


Hilary Swift for The New York Times

PG Do we like voting against people we hate more than in our own interest?

AF We have to be very careful about saying that people are not voting in their self-interest. That’s one of the things that some people who voted for Trump don’t like about so-called elites: “I know what’s better for you than you do.”

OW That’s an important point. But the question of elitism is so interesting when it comes to this administration. This is a president who ran on opulence and showing off his gilded Saddam Hussein-inspired apartment. My frustration doesn’t come from needing to think that people were fooled by someone who doesn’t have their best interests at heart. I just don’t understand it.

AF Here’s what my Republican colleagues would say: “The government is bloated, and it hasn’t helped us. If you cut taxes, you reduce government spending.” But if you cut taxes at the top, it doesn’t trickle down. That’s been our history. We’ve also seen what happens, like during the Clinton administration, when we raise taxes at the top. All the Republicans said, “This is going to cause a recession.” But it didn’t. We had growth.

PG It turns out that “1984” was prescient on many levels: the constant screens, the disinformation campaigns, the endless wars. But one area it didn’t predict was how celebrity would become more important than ideology. Did you benefit from that?

AF Sure. Over the years, when I covered Republican conventions for Air America or Comedy Central, everyone would smile and go: “Hi, Al!”

OW Celebrity is something that can help you win elections, but you also had to work to counteract it.

PG Explaining risqué jokes that make sense for a comedian, but not for a senator.

AF It was a lot to overcome. But there were advantages, too. If I was going to a bean feed in Minnesota, people knew me from “S.N.L.” or the radio show or from my books. So, they came to the bean feed.

PG And your celebrity has probably helped you get documentaries produced.

OW Absolutely. But I don’t walk around thinking I’m a celebrity. I’m not picking up this fork as a celebrity. What I resent is when I express an opinion, some people will assume it can’t be true, or it must be self-serving, because I’m a celebrity. But I’m genuinely interested in sharing information. I grew up in D.C. Both my parents are journalists [Leslie and Andrew Cockburn]; my grandparents were journalists. And I happen to have a larger platform because I’m a celebrity. It’s something I struggle with.

AF Remember when I came to your house?

PG What? When was this?

AF How old were you, 15?

OW Yes, but I remember meeting you at a party when I was 12, and I was really excited because I wanted to talk about “S.N.L.”

AF You weren’t that excited at 15.

OW Well, 15-year-olds don’t get excited about much.

AF I remember coming to your house, and you went up to your mom and said, “Can I leave now?” After you left the room, I said, “Now, is your daughter aware that she’s beautiful?” Your mother nodded.

OW Oh, God!

AF Then I asked, “Does she have any idea what she wants to do?” Yes, she wants to be an actress. I thought, O.K., now it all makes sense. So, here are these two heavyweight journalists with a daughter who wants to be an actress. And they went with it. Didn’t fight it, at all. Did you go to college?

OW I did not.

AF A lot of politicians say, “I was the first member of my family to go to college.”

OW And I was the first member of mine not to. Luckily, my siblings made up for it. And the way my parents raised me had a really positive effect. Not to be impressed by anyone or anything shiny. They wouldn’t let me take shortcuts. But they trained me to believe that, with hard work, anything is possible.

PG Sort of like that Franken kid from Minnesota.

AF From St. Louis Park.

PG Let me end with a question about how your new book is being received: “Al used to be funny; then he ran for senator and hid his funny under a bushel. Now he’s funny again. So, he must be running for president in 2020.” But when you did the deal for this book, Hillary was going to be our next president, right?

AF This will throw your theory overboard, but it was even earlier than that. After I was re-elected [in 2014], my wife and I were going to have a vacation, six days at a lodge in northern Minnesota. But she got sick and stayed in Washington, so I had six days alone in a cabin. I’d always threatened to write about how I got into politics. But once I started, I was really having fun.

PG So “Fun with Franken” in 2020?

AF No, no, no.

OW I’m glad you wrote it. Your book made me more optimistic about our future.

AF Good. Because I think we have reason to be.

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