Al Franken: A Se­ri­ous Man Is the na­tion ready for a co­me­dian in the White House?

Forward Magazine - - Opinion - By David Wal­lis

Ron­ald Rea­gan had it. But both his pre­de­ces­sor and his suc­ces­sor, Jimmy Carter and Ge­orge H.W. Bush, re­spec­tively, didn’t. Bill Clin­ton had it in spades, so did Ge­orge W. Bush and Barack Obama. And the cur­rent pres­i­dent de­cid­edly lacks it. “It” is the po­lit­i­cal tal­ent to de­ploy hu­mor to make a point, con­nect with a voter on a rope line, charm the press at the White House Cor­re­spon­dents’ Din­ner, dis­arm a doubter or sav­age an op­po­nent.

As Dan Glick­man, agri­cul­ture sec­re­tary dur­ing the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion and a scholar of po­lit­i­cal hu­mor, once put it dur­ing a lec­ture at The Na­tional Press Club: “Hu­mor is a strate­gic tool of the po­lit­i­cal trade, a means of punc­tur­ing pom­pos­ity, de­fus­ing tense sit­u­a­tions, at­tract­ing al­lies and even get­ting peo­ple to fo­cus on se­ri­ous is­sues.”

En­ter Al Franken, stage left.

The for­mer “Satur­day Night Live” writer and cur­rent sen­a­tor from Min­nesota re­cently pub­lished a cap­ti­vat­ing mem­oir, “Al Franken: Gi­ant of the Se­nate” (Twelve Books), that ex­plores the chal­lenges of mak­ing the jump from writ­ing gags on “Week­end Up­date” for laughs to writ­ing laws with life-and-death con­se­quences for con­stituents. On one hand, Franken at­tracts more at­ten­tion than most ju­nior sen­a­tors be­cause of his celebrity and his abil­ity to mock an op­po­nent. On the other hand, he con­sciously sup­presses his comedic in­stincts in a con­tin­u­ing quest to be taken se­ri­ously by col­leagues, the press and, most im­por­tant, vot­ers.

As he writes in “Gi­ant of the Se­nate”:

I could be funny in the of­fice, but only with mem­bers of the staff, not in meet­ings with visi­tors. It was also okay to be funny on the floor with my col­leagues, as long as I wasn’t loud enough to be picked up by C-SPAN mi­cro­phones. And, for God’s sake, no phys­i­cal hu­mor!

Franken’s book man­ages that del­i­cate bal­ance, suc­ceed­ing in both be­ing funny and sober — an en­ter­tain­ing med­i­ta­tion on the sad, yet often hi­lar­i­ous, state of our na­tion’s pol­i­tics.

Un­like most mem­oirs by politi­cians, the book was clearly writ­ten by Franken him­self: “It poured out of me” in five days, while he was se­questered in a cabin at a North­ern Min­nesota lodge, he told me dur­ing a re­cent in­ter­view in Washington, D.C.

Franken the co­me­dian, for in­stance, flays his col­licky col­league, Repub­li­can Sen­a­tor Ted Cruz: “Here’s the thing you have to un­der­stand about Ted Cruz, I like Ted Cruz more than most of my col­leagues like Ted Cruz, and I hate Ted Cruz.”

In a chap­ter ti­tled “Cracks in My Soul,” he dead­pans, “Prob­a­bly the most en­joy­able part of pub­lic service is the fund-rais­ing.”

But the bulk of “Gi­ant of the Se­nate” in­cludes Franken’s policy po­si­tions (such as the in­tri­ca­cies of agri­cul­ture reg­u­la­tions), leg­isla­tive ac­com­plish­ments (gal­va­niz­ing forces against the Time Warner-Com­cast merger to pro­tect ca­ble con­sumers), a re­count of his lengthy re­count against Repub­li­can in­cum­bent Sen. Norm Cole­man in 2008–2009, as well as in­spir­ing anec­dotes about brave, no­ble con­stituents — in other words, the kind of book politi­cians often put out be­fore a run for the White House. Al Franken, the 66-year-old Jew who’s most fa­mous for play­ing the ef­fem­i­nate, af­fir­ma­tion-spout­ing Stu­art Smal­ley, in the Oval Of­fice? Though Franken main­tained that he’s not run­ning for pres­i­dent, he’s ar­guably good enough, smart enough and, dog­gone it, peo­ple — at least 58% of Min­nesotans, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent poll — like him.

That’s no joke.

Franken, dressed in the stan­dard-is­sue sen­a­to­rial cos­tume — dark-blue suit, red tie, full head of gray­ing hair, de­signer tor­toise shell glasses — re­tains one at­tribute from his SNL days: TV teeth. He often flashed a bright-white, cam­era-ready

“He’s fear­less”

—ALAN ZWEIBEL, FOR­MER SATUR­DAY NIGHT LIVE WRITER

smile dur­ing our lengthy chat in the liv­ing room of his chief of staff ’s mod­est town­house near the Capi­tol. When I asked Franken what he thought of Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan’s elec­tion post­mortem be­seech­ing Democrats to “talk to those peo­ple who take a shower after work, not those who just take a shower be­fore work,” Franken chuck­led and of­fered a re­tort: “There are peo­ple who ac­tu­ally take a shower be­fore work and then after work, be­cause they’re go­ing out for the evening.”

But he quickly piv­oted to policy; “Se­ri­ous Al” grabbed the mic.

“It’s true, we lost a lot of bluecol­lar work­ers and we lost a lot of peo­ple who are non-col­lege ed­u­cated, and those used to be

our peo­ple,” said Franken. “They have seen no growth in their in­come, while peo­ple at the top seem to be get­ting ev­ery­thing.” He then picked apart the House Repub­li­can’s bill to il­lus­trate his point.

The Amer­i­can Health Care Act, which the Repub­li­can ma­jor­ity rammed through the House, would slash gov­ern­ment sub­si­dies for health in­sur­ance for low- and mid­dle-in­come Amer­i­cans and en­able in­sur­ers to charge clients more in ac­cor­dance with their age, ef­fec­tively shred­ding Oba­macare’s ban on pric­ing cov­er­age based on pol­i­cy­hold­ers’ pre-ex­ist­ing con­di­tions. Franken slammed the Repub­li­can House’s bill as “crazily bad” for many of the very vot­ers who deserted Democrats in 2016.

“Higher-in­come vot­ers, up to a point, will get more sub­si­dies, lower-in­come vot­ers will get less sub­si­dies, so those are go­ing to be the peo­ple that shower after work by and large,” Franken noted.

De­spite Trump’s rough (crit­ics would say dis­as­trous) start, many vot­ers ap­par­ently are stick­ing with him. Ac­cord­ing to a Washington Post/ABC News poll con­ducted be­fore the James Comey im­broglio, only 2% of Trump sup­port­ers regret their vote. I men­tioned a New York Times ar­ti­cle in which sev­eral Trump fans were re­cently in­ter­viewed at a South Carolina steel plant; they con­tinue to praise the pres­i­dent as good for busi­ness be­cause of his tough trade rhetoric and his at­tack on reg­u­la­tions.

“This has hap­pened be­fore,” Franken re­sponded, un­doubt­edly re­fer­ring to “Rea­gan Democrats” who aban­doned Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Walter Mon­dale in 1984, but who were ul­ti­mately wooed back by Bill Clin­ton. “We lost these peo­ple be­fore and we gained them back — and we have to gain them back by talk­ing about economic jus­tice and about things like paid leave. So many of… my con­stituents in Min­nesota have seen the price of child care sky­rocket. We need child care, we need early child­hood education, we need things that make life a lit­tle eas­ier for these peo­ple — for all peo­ple, so that they can do their jobs and take care of their fam­i­lies.”

I asked Franken whether Amer­i­cans should re­ceive a man­dated two-week hol­i­day a year as well, but he gave a nu­anced, prac­ticed an­swer without com­mit­ting to a po­si­tion that could later be spun as anti-busi­ness by a foe. He replied that “there are a lot of peo­ple in this coun­try who couldn’t take that two weeks. They need the in­come and they need to work … that’s why we are for in­creas­ing the min­i­mum wage.”

He then went on to quote, as he fre­quently does, his friend Paul Well­stone, the lib­eral Min­nesota sen­a­tor who died in an air­plane crash while cam­paign­ing in 2002: “I ded­i­cate the book to him,”

Franken, 66, cred­its Ju­daism for in­spir­ing his comitt­ment to so­cial jus­tice. He grew up in a re­form mid­dle-class home in the Min­neapo­lis sub­urb of St. Louis Park — “It was called ‘St. Jewish Park’ by a lot of peo­ple,” Franken said. “We were 25% Jewish… but in Min­nesota that’s a shtetl.”

The old neigh­bor­hood also pro­duced other prom­i­nent Jewish Baby Boomers: New York Times op-ed colum­nist Thomas Fried­man, film­mak­ers Joel and Franken said. “We all do bet­ter when we all do bet­ter.”

Ethan Coen, and pro foot­ball coach Marc Trest­man. “We had a great education sys­tem and pub­lic school sys­tem, and it still does,” Franken ob­served, adding, “We don’t vote down bond­ing is­sues for schools, we just don’t.”

“My dad didn’t grad­u­ate high school and my mom didn’t go to col­lege — they re­ally be­lieved in education,” Franken added.

Also, “we be­lieved in good gov­ern­ment and we be­lieved in com­mu­nity.”

Though Franken’s fam­ily mem­bers “weren’t that de­vout,” he was no WASH (White An­glo Saxon He­brew), either. “I went to tem­ple and was con­firmed, and Rabbi Shapiro, who was our rabbi, was a great rabbi. One of the things in [the Coen broth­ers’ film] “A Se­ri­ous Man” that made me laugh were the three rab­bis, be­cause it was kind of par­al­lel to what we had, but Rabbi Shapiro… quoted Hil­lel and said, ‘It’s not enough to be just, you have to jus­tice.’”

Franken re­called his po­lit­i­cal awak­en­ing — sit­ting at home as a teenager, watch­ing the net­work nightly news­cast with his fa­ther, Joseph Franken, who was a “Ja­cob Jav­its Repub­li­can,” a cer­tainly en­dan­gered, maybe ex­tinct species of socially lib­eral GOP law­maker. “We ate din­ner on tray ta­bles — [and] watched the civil rights move­ment and demon­stra­tions in the South with wa­ter can­nons and dogs on the demon­stra­tors. My dad would point to the TV” — Franken wagged his fin­ger at an imag­i­nary TV — “and say to me and my brother, “No Jew could be for that!... No Jew could be for that!’” Franken’s fa­ther soon reg­is­tered as a Demo­crat, given the widespread Repub­li­can op­po­si­tion to civil rights.

Though Franken said he sup­ports Is­rael “in my bones” and op­poses boy­cott, di­vest­ment and sanc­tions, he sees the Jewish state’s treat­ment of Pales­tini­ans as a modern civil

‘No Jew could be for that!’ Franken’s fa­ther told his son about the mis­treat­ment of civil rights protesters.

rights strug­gle. He backs a twostate so­lu­tion, judg­ing set­tle­ments on the West Bank as “com­pletely coun­ter­pro­duc­tive to Is­rael’s longterm in­ter­ests.”

“When Pres­i­dent Trump said he didn’t care for a one-state so­lu­tion or two, to me it just showed again that he doesn’t know what he’s talk­ing about,” Franken said. “Of course, we have to have a twostate so­lu­tion…. You can’t be both a democ­racy and a Jewish state.

“To be truly sup­port­ive of Is­rael, you have to be truly sup­port­ive of Pales­tini­ans and their as­pi­ra­tions…. That is what my dad was talk­ing about, ‘No Jew can be for this.’ No Jew can be for build­ing these set­tle­ments in a way that will make it im­pos­si­ble for a twostate so­lu­tion.”

While Franken formed his pro­gres­sive po­lit­i­cal be­liefs dur­ing his child­hood, he ce­mented them in the writ­ing room at “Satur­day Night Live.” Alan Zweibel, a fel­low SNL alum, called his close friend among the most “po­lit­i­cally as­tute” of his col­leagues.

The bat­tle to get a sketch on the air could prove con­tentious, and Zweibel reg­u­larly wit­nessed Franken’s fe­roc­ity in the writer’s room and also on the squash court. “Not only did he beat me ev­ery time, but he’s fear­less,” Zweibel said speak­ing from the bar at the Fri­ars Club. “He bounces off of walls to get [the ball]. I re­mem­ber telling [producer Lorne Michaels] what the game was like, and Lorne said, ‘Well, his com­edy is the same way.’”

Asked for an ex­am­ple, Zweibel men­tioned a sketch ti­tled “A Limo for a Lame-o,” from the 1980 sea­son. At the time, Fred Sil­ver­man served as NBC’s pres­i­dent and the net­work was in last place. Yet while Franken waited for a cab in the rain, he watched Sil­ver­man saunter into a chauf­feured limo, which ap­par­ently galled Franken and in­spired his “Week­end Up­date” com­men­tary ar­gu­ing that Franken was more de­serv­ing of the limo than a guy who’s “been here two years... and he hasn’t done did­dly-squat.”

“He’s piss­ing all over the pres­i­dent of the net­work, the prin­ci­pal of our school, and no one else could have done it,” Zweibel said.

These days, Zweibel thinks his old friend has muted his out­rage: “Al has learned a lit­tle bit more where he has to be diplo­matic, where he has to be a lit­tle com­pro­mis­ing.”

Still, Zweibel ac­knowl­edged,

“when we watch him, there’s a nat­u­ral ten­dency to lean in.”

Per­haps to wait for the punch line.

Franken ‘just couldn’t stay out of trou­ble. … He was just let­ting rip with what­ever was com­ing against his cere­bral cor­tex.’ — LAWRENCE

JA­COBS, PO­LIT­I­CAL SCI­EN­TIST

Franken wasn’t much of a can­di­date in his first Se­nate cam­paign. He man­aged a wafer­thin 312-vote mar­gin of victory dur­ing a Demo­cratic wave elec­tion and against a scan­dal-plagued Repub­li­can, Norm Cole­man, and a poorly funded in­de­pen­dent, Dean Bar­clay.

Franken’s first cam­paign “was a bit of a dis­as­ter,” re­called Lawrence Ja­cobs, di­rec­tor of the po­lit­i­cal science de­part­ment at the Univer­sity of Min­nesota’s Humphrey School of Pub­lic Af­fairs. Franken “would get into these snide ex­changes with other politi­cians, young peo­ple, women, vot­ers; he just couldn’t stay out of trou­ble.… He was just let­ting rip with what­ever was com­ing against his cere­bral cor­tex.”

Also, Ja­cobs pointed out, “he wasn’t al­lowed to be funny. There was an awk­ward pe­riod where Al Franken would show up, peo­ple would be ready to laugh, and it would be sleepy-time Al.”

Kirk An­der­son, the for­mer ed­i­to­rial car­toon­ist at St. Paul Pioneer Press, voted for Bar­clay in 2008 be­cause he be­haved like “the adult in the room” dur­ing bit­ter de­bates. “I thought Franken was un­rea­son­ably par­ti­san and [would be] un­able to work with Repub­li­cans and be con­struc­tive,” he said. But by 2014, Franken had won over An­der­son and other vot­ers when he trounced busi­ness­man Mike McFad­den dur­ing a down year for many Democrats. He had cracked the code and was viewed as dili­gent. “He ac­tu­ally seems to read bills!” An­der­son wrote by email. “He re­ally knows his stuff, does the heavy lift­ing of policy anal­y­sis, and in the early go­ing, he kept his head down and made a con­certed ef­fort to get to know and get along with Repub­li­cans.”

Ja­cobs con­curred, cred­it­ing Franken for hir­ing a crack staff, de­vel­op­ing strong con­stituent ser­vices and do­ing the unglam­orous work nec­es­sary to mas­ter com­plex is­sues, such as net neu­tral­ity. “No voter is go­ing to cast their vote for a sen­a­tor based

on a fairly in­tri­cate set of rules, pro­ce­dures and busi­ness re­la­tion­ships in­volv­ing the in­ter­net,” Ja­cobs said. “Franken taught him­self that area and has be­come the Democrats’ kind of go-to per­son on that is­sue…. My friends who are staffers for Democrats, Repub­li­cans kind of give Franken good marks now: He works hard in com­mit­tees, he’s some­one who can work with col­leagues and be trusted.”

So after a show horse in the White House, will Amer­i­cans pine for a work­horse? Ja­cobs, for one, con­sid­ers Franken a po­ten­tial con­tender. “If you’re the type of per­son who’s will­ing to bet on the out­side chance with great odds, Franken would be your can­di­date. Franken chan­nels the rage of Democrats who are go­ing to be driv­ing the nom­i­na­tion process. He con­nects sur­pris­ingly well with dis­af­fected vot­ers.… He’s able to use his wit, his cyn­i­cism and his quick re­torts to his ad­van­tage. The rest of the Demo­cratic field looks like they’re mov­ing in slow mo­tion. Franken is go­ing at hy­per speed.”

Franken ac­knowl­edged that hu­mor re­mains a weapon and a vul­ner­a­bil­ity. He laments mock out­rage, and there are what he calls the “de­hu­morizer” ma­chines, where Repub­li­can op­po­nents re­cy­cle his hu­mor and sketches in at­tack ads scored with fore­bod­ing mu­sic. Cole­man, for in­stance, twisted one of his par­o­dies and pro­duced a com­mer­cial crit­i­ciz­ing Franken for “taste­less, sex­ist jokes” and for writ­ing “all that juicy porn.”

“I’m rare and unique,” Franken con­cluded, “in that I had a 35- to 40-year ca­reer in satire, and in satire you use things like irony and hy­per­bole and you push the bound­aries of taste, and all that made me vul­ner­a­ble of putting things though the de-hu­morizer and tak­ing them out of their con­text.… I learned very early that you can’t lit­i­gate a joke. When you’re ex­plain­ing you’re los­ing.”

Franken, for in­stance, turned down my re­quest for a Stu­art Smal­ley-es­que af­fir­ma­tion that Trump should re­peat each morn­ing to boost his ego. “I don’t do that,” he said flatly.

But, show­ing that he can be a good sport, he will­ingly in­dulged “my fan­tasy” about a 2020 TrumpFranken matchup: “What nick­name do you think Trump would give you? Franken paused and replied, “Not-funny Al.”

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COUR­TESY TWELVE BOOKS

DIN­NER AND DE­BATE: Al, third from left, at his fam­ily’s seder

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BUZ­ZWOR­THY: Franken dons a bum­ble bee cos­tume for a SNL sketch, circa 1975.

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NO CON­TEST: Sen. Al Franken cel­e­brates with his wife Franni Franken in front of their Min­neapo­lis, Min­nesota home on June 30, 2009 after win­ning elec­tion against Repub­li­can Norm Cole­man by a ra­zor-thin mar­gin.

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