From SNL to the Se­nate

Policy - - Book Reviews - Re­view by James Baxter

Al Franken

Gi­ant of the Se­nate. New York, Grand Cen­tral Pub­lish­ing, 2017.

Al Franken’s Gi­ant of the Se­nate is an ex­cel­lent book, and an even bet­ter au­dio­book. The dif­fer­ence is, when read by him, Franken’s won­der­ful sto­ries and self-dep­re­cat­ing wit come through in his dead­pan, slightly nasal Min­nesotan ac­cent. Any­one who has ever seen the co­me­dian-turned-con­gress­man will have no trouble imag­in­ing he’s right there be­side you, telling you some of his best anec­dotes from a life of try­ing to make peo­ple’s lives a lit­tle bet­ter.

Un­like his ear­lier books, which evis­cer­ated the worst of the con­ser­va­tive move­ment in the U.S., Franken’s lat­est is a light­hearted, mostly un­apolo­getic look at his own life. From his fa­ther’s strug­gles in busi­ness to Har­vard, to Satur­day Night Live, back to Har­vard, to broad­cast­ing and then into pol­i­tics, Franken weaves a nar­ra­tive that shows how his choices led him to his post as ju­nior Sen­a­tor for Min­nesota.

If the book has a weak­ness, it’s that Franken opened the door to his days at SNL but took mostly a hands-off ap­proach. There were a few sto­ries of ex­cesses and ri­val­ries, but if hear­ing tales out of school about Lorne Michaels and his as­sem­bled casts is the goal, the reader will be dis­ap­pointed. It’s in­ter­est­ing and some­times tragic, but you can’t help but feel Franken just wasn’t will­ing to tell the whole story. In­deed, he says as much.

He does talk poignantly about the ad­dic­tion strug­gles of his part­ner in writ­ing and on stage, Tom Davis. He also talks about how, dur­ing his early years of mar­riage while at SNL, his wife Franni Bryson was left to fend for her­self and turned to the bot­tle. Th­ese two re­la­tion­ships and the strug­gles they en­dured went a long way to­ward fram­ing Franken’s views to­ward men­tal health, ad­dic­tion and the fail­ings of the U.S. health sys­tem.

Not sur­pris­ingly, as Franken’s mem­o­ries draw closer to the present, so too do the raw emo­tions that they bring out in­ten­sify. Franken leaves no doubt that he blames the con­ser­va­tive com­men­ta­tors and the Repub­li­can Party for all that ails the United States, es­pe­cially the Mid­west, but mostly buries his anger in his acer­bic hu­mour, which is what makes this book so en­joy­able. Even if you dis­agree, you can’t help but laugh.

And his dis­ap­point­ment in some of the peo­ple in the GOP is pal­pa­ble. He says no man has done more to ruin pol­i­tics in the U.S. than Mitch McConnell, though he ad­mits to lik­ing him as a per­son. He strug­gles with his per­sonal ap­pre­ci­a­tion of At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions, whose friend­ship he en­joys and whose pol­i­tics he ab­hors.

Through­out the book, Franken is care­ful to not break the car­di­nal rule of the Se­nate: talk­ing smack about other Sen­a­tors. In­deed, it’s some­times un­com­fort­able to see the lengths to which he goes to be re­spect­ful to­ward peo­ple who clearly in­fu­ri­ate him. But Franken is only hu­man and when it comes to Ted Cruz, Franken sim­ply can’t con­tain his an­i­mus.

“I prob­a­bly like Ted Cruz more than most of my other col­leagues like Ted Cruz, and I hate Ted Cruz,” Franken quipped. “He’s kind of a toxic guy in an of­fice, the guy who mi­crowaves fish.”

And that’s the take­away from the book. Franken has made a ca­reer in com­edy, where col­lab­o­ra­tion is crit­i­cal to suc­cess—mak­ing peo­ple laugh. In the Se­nate, he laments how a few bad ac­tors—Cruz be­ing the worst— have ru­ined it for ev­ery­one.

“Ted Cruz isn’t just wrong about al­most ev­ery­thing,” Franken says “He’s im­pos­si­ble to work with. And he doesn’t care that he’s im­pos­si­ble to work with.”

De­spite his frus­tra­tion, Franken strikes a gen­er­ally up­beat and hope­ful view of the fu­ture. While, like most peo­ple, he wor­ries about what the Don­ald Trump pres­i­dency will hold for the world, he be­lieves that the mostly-good peo­ple on both sides of the aisle will keep Amer­ica and the world from the abyss.

In­deed, he seems to rel­ish the chal­lenge.

James Baxter is Ed­i­tor and Ex­ec­u­tive Chair of iPol­i­tics. james­bax­ter@ipol­i­

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