Interview: Ben Wikler
The "Team Franken" member on his experiences working with Al, the reaction to the book, political activism and life under the Bush administration. Conducted November 13, 2003.

Those who aspire to positively affect this country's political landscape can only marvel at the accomplishments of 22-year old Ben Wikler. Born and raised in Madison, Wisconsin, Wikler is in his last semester of studies at Harvard, where his concentration is economics. Having previous worked for Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI), Jeffrey Sachs and Wisconsin gubernatorial candidate Ed Garvey, Ben Wikler was chosen last spring to be part of Al Franken's 14-person study group at Harvard. With Team Franken, Wikler was an integral part of shaping the #1 NY Times bestseller Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them.

In addition to being a full-time Harvard student, Wikler is also the co-founder of the Student Global AIDS Campaign and represented the SGAC at the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on AIDS in New York, the UN World Youth Forum in Senegal, and the International AIDS Conference in Barcelona. Further, Wikler is the editor in chief of the Harvard Review of Philosophy and a contributor to The Onion. Last week, talked with Wikler.

Why did you decide to apply to be a member of Team Franken?

I'm a huge Al Franken fan. He's really funny and I think his politics are great. Through middle school, high school and college, I've been working on comedy projects and politics, as an activist and a Democrat, and I never thought I could find a way to combine the two. When Al came to Harvard, I thought, 'perfect.' And it turned out more than perfect.

What were some of the things you thought you could bring to the 'Team?'

I contribute to the Onion, so I have some background writing comedy. I have also been active politically for about ten years, so I thought I'd be able to contribute funny ways to express ideas.

In the “Lies” book it says you took a term off from Harvard to help write the book. What exactly did you do, and how did that work?

Harvard is very nice about taking time off as long as you come back to complete your degree. I took the time off thinking that working with Al would be one project, working with a non-profit global AIDS advocacy group would be another project, and working as a research assistant for a professor would be a third project. That's how I started the semester. But I got more and more involved with the book, and ended up finishing the other two projects and working full time with Al.

I was living a ten-minute bike ride from campus. By late in the semester, on a typical day, I'd eat breakfast, bike to school, and meet up with Al in his office at the Kennedy School or the apartment he was renting. We'd have these huge stacks of paper from Team Franken, dossiers on different issues and people documenting lies and misrepresentations. The task was to funnel this into a book that was not outrageously dense, but still funny. So, my role was to help the filtration process, taking a huge amount of information and processing it down into jokes.

When you talk about the research, when Team Franken was formed, how did you divvy up the research responsibilities and what were they?

There were a lot of research responsibilities. It took a little while to get into a routine that worked. At the first meeting, we had 14 sort of fresh-faced research assistants and Al was pacing around a white board and brain-storming different stuff, writing down ideas that he had. Everyone was jumping in with more ideas and we came up with this huge whiteboard of different topics and we divided people into groups that looked into different issues and pretty soon it became clear that we needed to break it down into smaller chunks.

We came up with a strategy that worked great. Andrew Barr, also on Team Franken, got a job as an assistant for Al – sort of a master of research. His job was to work with Al to come up with homework assignments for each member of Team Franken. So each week, there would be an email that came out saying, “Rick, come up with ten bullet points about this topic and all of the articles and sources to back it up.” “Noah, come up with a history of right-wing think tanks.” Each person would have a job that they had to do. Each person would be responsible for reading a book, or listening to radio shows or going through Lexis-Nexis searches, coming up with a bunch of stuff and summarizing it all into a bullet point coversheet that we would put onto the top of the packet.

After this, we'd all have dinner at Al's apartment, as he says in the book. Franni would cook up a meal for us, which was one of the highlights of the experience. She's a terrific cook, and particularly her brisket. If there's one experience I don't think anyone would want to lose from working on Al Franken's “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them,” it's Franni Franken's brisket.

So we'd eat the brisket and we'd go around the room and say the most exciting stuff that we'd found. I would take notes on my computer and then when Al was sitting down to write, I would sort of feed him information on different topics and help him think of a way to frame or think about the issue. Andy would find the article or sources and we'd go through and find what we wanted to quote. That's sort of how we boiled down all this information. The dinners were a blast because we'd find all this information from different sources, read them out loud and give people a chance to react. Al refers in the book about the night when Ben Mathis-Lilley came in with Ari Fleisher saying, “There's a new sheriff in town, and he's dedicated to fiscal discipline” and I remember it turned into Al impersonating a sheriff, who was swaggering into the salon and talking about fiscal responsibility.

It was totally informal. People were lying on the floor, people were balancing plates on their knees and on part of the couch, and by the end of the semester we all became a family.

On average, how much time did you guys spend per week working on Team Franken related-research?

I'd say 3-30 hours. Some weeks, some people had too many tests or papers and couldn't do anything, although most of the people could come to the dinner. Other times people would really throw themselves into the topic. Karl Procaccini did just heroic work talking to economists to prepare for the waitress and lawyer play and we ended up having a long list of several economists who broke down the different aspects of tax policy and bring us up to speed, so there were big and small assignments. Andy and I probably did the most time because we had become a little more than participating in the study group. Andy was hired as a research assistant. So, it was kind of a range. By the end of the summer, Andy and I went to New York and sort of the last few weeks as we were working on the book, I think we were putting in something like 70 hours.

Some conservative critics have criticized Harvard for allowing Harvard students to participate in a study group with Al Franken.  David Horowitz called the study group an example of Harvard being a "national educational disgrace."  Was it inappropriate for Harvard to allow a study group with Franken?

Well, I think it's outrageous that any university would allow its students to study, especially study issues of the day. I think Harvard parents would be angry if they knew their hard earned tuition money was going to give their children an educational experience that could have a real world impact. So I'm completely with Horowitz as far as that goes.

Initially, before the book came out, there were a lot of allegations against Al, that he was a puppet for the Clintons, he attacked Alan Colmes, he lied to John Ashcroft. Before the book came out and when you heard about these allegations, what were your thoughts? Were you surprised about what came out?

Well, the allegations I thought were hilarious. I thought AlFrankenWeb – your website – did a fantastic job with the smear watch, and continues to do a fantastic job. A lot of members of Team Franken check it regularly to find out the latest smears debunked. You know, at the same time there were rumors that Al was a puppet of much larger forces, there were also rumors that Al and Roger Ailes or Al and Bill O'Reilly had a deal where they'd create a fight in order to boost sales of the book.

In terms of lying to AG Ashcroft, that was a particularly amazing allegation since we print in the book our prank letter to Ashcroft, as well as the prank letter to a bunch of other conservatives, such as Ari Fleischer, and other folks who we ask to step up to the plate and tell America how they were abstinent until marriage. Despite the fact out that we explain the prank right there in the book, people act like they caught Al red-handed in a lie. By the way, none of them came forward and of course none of them came forward—because, with some exceptions, it's total hypocrisy. It's a sham. It's hard to imagine that George W. Bush practiced abstinence until marriage.

One of the right-wing attacks on Al for this cheeky letter that was an obvious prank, and that we advertised as a prank, doesn't note the actual point of the letter. They're just looking for an opportunity to call Al a liar. There's a huge difference between sending out a prank letter and then writing about it in the book and what Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter do, which is deliberately misrepresent the facts in order to push a political agenda. If the prank letter means that Al Franken lied, then Candid Camera is the most savagely dishonest show in television history.

When you're hearing all these attacks against Franken, did you get the idea that these people who are attacking Franken and his book hadn't actually read the book?

Oh yeah. That's the funniest thing. If you go on right now and read the customer reviews, I'd say right now 90% of the one-star reviews are from people who haven't read it. And there's a reason for this. I can't confirm it, but a friend told me that posted a link to the review page for Franken's book so that freepers could go on and do their freepy thing and get their freep on.

Ann Coulter, as you point out, in her rebuttal to Al's book, makes it clear that she gave it only maybe passing attention, or at least Ann Coulter-style attention. She accuses us of hiding the truth in our endnotes, which was hilarious, without mentioning the text of the book about Evan Thomas's grandfather being Norman Thomas. I haven't seen any intellectually honest attack on the book – well, it's hard to think of any intellectually honest attack on the book, period. But I certainly haven't seen an intellectually honest claim that the book misrepresents anything intentionally, and that's completely different from the right-wing books that are out there.

When you heard that Al was being sued by Fox, how did you respond? Were you one of the people that called up Al Franken and said, “This is great.”?

Yeah, I'm very proud of my role in it. It was a very exciting moment. A Republican friend of mine at Harvard – and, Mr. Horowitz, there are many Republicans at Harvard, not necessarily Republican friends of mine – emailed me and said, “Can you believe this?” with a link to an AP story. I started jumping up and down and then immediately got on the phone and tried to tell Al about it, but Al was on vacation in Italy at the time, so I called Andy. He had been on the phone all day with people from the book, publishers and Al's editor, and everyone was trying to find Al and no one could. Andy and I tried to scour through travel listings and tourist info for where Al Franken could possibly be staying. We knew that it had 8 rooms, and 14 people and a workout room and we kept googling those facts and sort of trying to find this place.

I was firing off emails to Team Franken, which has an email list, and I was sending links to all the different news stories and getting more and more excited. This was the day before I was leaving for vacation. We started out at something like 440 on, and then we went to 142. Then I checked again and we were like 90, then 70 and when I went to bed we were like 24, and then the next day I wake up and we're 14. I was packing and checking the rankings because they were so exciting and finally there's this email from Al over the list and apparently one of the emails I sent, the person who was on vacation with Al – Noah McCormack – read the email, saw the story and told him about it. And, as the story goes as Al's told, before he went to bed that night, he was reading “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell, which is about how sometimes it just takes one little thing to push a cultural phenomenon over the brink and then there's a huge explosion. Al was thinking about his book and marketing, about how to get his message out, and he went to bed thinking, 'Must find tipping point, must find tipping point.' He was woken up by Noah saying, 'Al, we're being sued by Fox,' and he said, 'Good!' and he went back to sleep.

A common criticism against Al is that he's sort of preaching to the choir, and that's from Bill O'Reilly, that his book only serves to continue malice from the political left and convince people that have already been convinced. Do you think Al's made an impact on the American public or is it just preaching to the choir?

I think absolutely it's had an impact on the public in general. There are a few reasons for that. One of the reasons is that it's funny. In stark contrast to Bill O'Reilly, it's intentionally funny and people can read it looking for laughs, even if they're conservative. People come up to Al, they come up to me, and other members of Team Franken – from both parties – and they say they read the book and whether or not they agree with everything, they say they had a great time with it. G. Gordon Liddy would not have had Al on if it didn't have some appeal beyond people who wildly agree with it. There's an Ann Coulter style of humor that consists entirely in being more outrageously ideological than rational people would dare to be, and that's not the type of humor that Al Franken does. His humor is comedically sophisticated, or comedically-centered – the center of gravity is comedy – and politics is a thing to be funny about. Now, I think this book is sort of more serious and political than his other books. There are more serious messages. There are maybe two beating hearts to it, and one of them is a comedy heart and the other is a political heart.

But the next thing is, it's not a far-left book. It's a center-left book, a Bill Clinton, New Democrat book. I think it gives a voice to a lot of people who never hear their opinions expressed on TV, and it's doing that in a way that's exciting and creates a dialogue. The fact that the right is reading and reacting to it – or reacting to it without having read it – means that the idea that he's preaching to the converted is crazy. If he was preaching to the converted, Bill O'Reilly wouldn't have anything to say about it. So, you know, that's another thing.

Oh, on this note—some people attack the book for going after right-wingers but not going after the left. I'd like to direct such people to the subtitle: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. If you go on and order the book Quilts! Quilts!! Quilts!!! : The Complete Guide to Quiltmaking, which by the way has an average rating of five stars, you shouldn't get angry when you realize the book discusses quilting but hardly mentions other popular sewing projects. Lies isn't about the left, it's about the right.

Anyway. Another reason I think the book isn't just preaching to the choir is that it is making politics fun and exciting. It might increase partisanship, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. You know, voter turnout goes up when people become more partisan. Right now it's gone down not because people are saying, 'Good grief, I wish the two sides would stop shouting and calm down so we can get a some calm, rational analysis. Then I'd really jump in.' That's not it. It's that people don't care and don't find it interesting. I think if you make people care about it, and make it more interesting, you bring more people into the process. The idea that people are turned off by heated rhetoric is a criticism against Al and other writers constantly, by people especially in the mainstream media. They say people like Al Franken are dividing politics and turning people off. And I think no, they're dividing politics and turning people on, and when there are two sides and people articulating clear values, then people will think it's worth choosing a side.

We often see Al Franken the author, the comedian, the political activist, but we rarely get to see Al Franken behind the scenes. Having spent a lot of time with him, how would you describe Al? Is he really mentally unstable, as Fox alleges?

Al is a terrific guy. He's a really decent, nice guy. If you've seen him on a book tour or on TV, you basically know him already—he's not one of these people who is Dr. Jekyll in public and Mr. Hyde in private. His central nervous system is located in his funnybone instead of his spine—his knee-jerk response to things is to see what's funny about them. Remember in the book, how he says that when he was in a helicopter after a USO visit to Kosovo, and people started taking shots at the helicopter, how his first reaction was to think how funny it would be if he became the first combat casualty of the war? Well, that's exactly what he's like in real life.

He spends a lot of time with his family, with Franni and Joe and Thomas and his dog, Kirby. And he works incredibly hard. He was putting in a gigantic amount of time on the book—and then as soon as it was over, he was spending all of his non-family time finishing a movie script with his friend Geoff Rodkey. When I was staying with the Frankens in July, we'd get up around 10 or 11 and then work for fourteen or fifteen hours. We'd stop only for meals and a little break before dinner. It was exhausting, but it was also exhilarating, because he's so funny. We were constantly cracking up. Unlike some comedy people, he has a very generous sense of humor: he laughs at his own jokes, and he also laughs at other people's jokes. When you're around him, you wind up laughing all the time.

In terms of the Fox allegations, they were just talking trash. But it's true that he doesn't pull punches. I was in the room for a lot of the phone calls that Al describes in the book, and I can tell you: I'd hate to have him catch me in a lie. He doesn't let you dodge or explain it away. He's very serious about honesty and integrity, and he doesn't let people off the hook. He's polite on the phone, but totally firm, and would just stay on the line and let the person try to come up with some explanation for their lies. He holds himself to a high standard, and holds other people to the same standard. You know, setting pranks aside. Remember the Wellstone chapter in the book? To me, that's the book's moral heart. Al knew from the beginning that we'd have that chapter. One Wednesday night, we (TeamFranken) came over for our regular meeting and dinner, and all fourteen of us crammed in with him into his room at the apartment, sitting on the bed and the heater and the floor, and watched the video of the Wellstone memorial. By the end, all of us had tears on our faces, Al included. He took the lies about Wellstone and the memorial personally. He doesn't wear his emotions on his sleeve, but he really, really meant what he said in that chapter.

Al, unlike some of his targets, doesn't make a big deal out of his humble origins. In the book, he talks about sending his kids to a private school and giving corporate speeches. I think Al can do that without making everyone hate him because he's authentically not from a privileged background. One of his running jokes is artificially inflating his ego, pretending he's a snotty megalomaniac—adopting this alter ego of a self-important celebrity. It shows up in a lot of his books. But it's a joke. He's not that way at all. Here's an anecdote: I went to a book signing with him in Madison, my home town. It was huge—1800 people. After the signing, we needed a ride. Someone from the bookstore offered to drive us, but warned that she had a very small car. First of all, Al could have asked for a huge limo, or even a cab, but he didn't. And secondly, when we got to the car, Al insisted that I sit in the front seat and that he squeeze into the back. It was one of those cars where you fold the front seat down to climb into the back, and Al was all scrunched up back there. I'm about 6'4”, so sitting behind me, Al's knees were practically touching his chest. He made it into a joke. He just has no sense of entitlement, isn't a prima donna, still sees himself as a regular guy. He always treats his staff really well, treats his fans well, treats people respectfully. Unless he's making fun of them, or in the case of right-wing liars, unless he's holding them up to scorn and ridicule.

I guess this sounds like I'm sucking up because he's going to be my boss this spring, but working for Al has been the highlight of my life. He's a role model, a great friend, and a great mentor. And he's a comedic genius.

Looking at you personally, you've done a lot of work with Global Justice, Student Global AIDS campaign, and worked in political campaigns. Where does this passion for politics and activism come from?

I think it comes from growing up in Madison, Wisconsin. Wisconsin is the birthplace of progressive politics in America, and there's this contrarian and populist political excitement that still runs through it. I grew up being represented by Russ Feingold, and my representative in the House is Tammy Baldwin. My members of Congress were my heroes, real public servants. Feingold and Baldwin always have a lot of young people involved in politics, and a lot of grassroots campaigning.

In high school I got involved in Ed Garvey's campaign for governor, in 1998. He didn't accept contributions over $100. He had a Winnebago loaded up with high school students, people who couldn't vote, and we traveled with him to pig roasts, county fairs, and parades in different towns and different parts of Wisconsin, handing out fliers and giving out candy. It was just exciting stuff and so positive. In a lot of parts of the country it's easy to see politics as a dirty business and be very cynical, but for me, I came from a place where that wasn't true.

That's what we speak to in the Wellstone chapter. I think Al Franken grew up in a similar environment, where politics can be something more positive and more fun.

You've been involved in a lot of efforts to combat AIDS. Do you think the United States and the Bush administration have been doing enough to help stop the problem?

No, it's not doing enough. It's doing much more than it used to be doing, and I give it a lot of credit and applause for that, but increasingly it's doing it wrong and it knows that it's doing it wrong. I think that – I want to think that, and I hope that – President Bush would genuinely like to do something to stop AIDS around the world, but before he made his big announcement in the State of the Union address of his emergency plan for AIDS relief, the White House kept stopping increased AIDS funding from going through the House and Senate. The Democrats support it, and some Republicans leaders support it. Henry Hyde, who helped with the impeachment, is a huge supporter of global AIDS, and also Jim Leach. These are conservative Republicans who understand this is the biggest crisis facing humanity. Colin Powell said he had never seen an enemy more terrifying than AIDS. He has said that it's the biggest problem in the world, bigger than terrorism. He has said this repeatedly. Kofi Annan said this repeatedly. And if you look at the facts you see this is true.

But somehow, before the announcement, President Bush repeatedly blocked increased AIDS funding. Then he announced his fifteen billion dollar plan. When you look at the details, most of the money is going to come after he's reelected – assuming he's reelected – so it's very little cost up front but he's getting all the credit right away. He needed to put on a humanitarian face to counterbalance the war on Iraq that he was planning. Then the Republicans and the Democrats in the House and Senate said look, every infection we fail to prevent today means ten more infections down the road, every death we fail to prevent means ten more orphans down the road, so they changed the Bush proposal to $3 billion this year, $3 billion next year, $3 billion for five years, instead of the $2 billion this year and the rest down the road. They improved it, and the President approved it. He signed the bill for $3 billion a year for five years in a big Rose Garden ceremony. Then he went to Africa, and at every stop, he promised to fully fund the AIDS initiative and he got huge applause from it, and support from editorial pages and everything.

So he comes back and he sends a letter to the people working on the budget in the House and Senate demanding that they reduce it to $2 billion, demanding that they cut a billion out. That means, you know, tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people would die in the next few years because the money is not there.

Not only that, but he blocks efforts to increase the amount of funding that goes to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. The Global Fund is a multilateral institution that works in the way that foreign aid works best, which is to get people who are going to receive the aid to come up with the plan themselves for how to use it. The Fund helps to make sure the proposal works and gives the money to do it. That's how the Marshall Plan worked, and that's how successful plans work. That's even how the Bush administration claims it wants foreign aid to work. They've talked about it in several speeches. But that's not how they actually do things. Bush's plan is to let the Global Fund go bankrupt. Bush creates an entirely separate, new system. It's the same way that their foreign aid goes to Iraq. They're not letting the Iraqis figure out how the money's going to be spent, they're bringing it out from Washington, they're handing out contracts to US corporations. That's how we gave out foreign aid during the Cold War. It's a failed system.

So, I'm not really impressed by what President Bush is doing. Bush is justifying his funding cut by saying that you can't spend $3 billion because there's no way to use it— at the same time as he ignores the way to use it. The NY Times compared it to the old joke about the kid who kills both of his parents and then asks the judge for clemency because he's an orphan. President Bush is denying funding to the place that knows how to use it and then saying we can't fund because we don't know how to use it.

Is there someone you're going to support in the presidential primaries?

Whoever gets the nomination I'm going to be completely behind. But there is one person who I'm really excited about. The Dean campaign is really inspiring, and I think a lot of the candidates have a lot of good things to say, but to me Wesley Clark is just the person with the best chance to win and also the person who would be the best president. I think he's brilliant, he has a profound understanding of foreign policy, he has a profound understanding of economics, he taught economics at West Point, he's studied politics and economics at Oxford on his Rhode Scholarship. In interviews, when he speaks in depth, he displays the type of pragmatism and understanding of how to get things done and the willingness to do what's best to solve a problem, and not necessarily what's the most politically expedient. It's just the opposite of what the Bush administration is doing and I think he'd make a fantastic president. Full disclosure: for the last month or so, I've been advising the Clark campaign. But I'm speaking for myself and not the campaign, of course—I haven't run this by them or anything.

What's next for you in the future? Are you going to work with Al or do something else?

I'm graduating this February and – fingers crossed – if the progressive radio network does get up and running, then I'll be working for Al Franken on the radio show.
Ben can be reached at

Picture of Wikler courtesy of Madison Capital Times.