Al Franken: You Can Call Me Senator
The satirist and comedian has a new role: statesman.
Paul Wellstone didn’t mind taking unpopular positions. In 1990, his first year as junior U.S. senator from Minnesota, he voted against the Gulf War. President George H.W. Bush’s reaction: “Who is that chickenshit?” An equal-opportunity offender, Wellstone was the only Democrat to vote against President Bill Clinton’s welfare-reform bill. And when the second Bush administration was rounding up votes for an invasion of Iraq, Wellstone said he heard from Vice President Dick Cheney: “If you vote against the war in Iraq, the Bush administration will do whatever is necessary to get you. There will be severe ramifications for you and the state of Minnesota.”
Wellstone voted against the war, but Cheney never had to retaliate. On October 25, 2002—just two weeks after the Senate vote—a plane carrying Wellstone, his wife, his daughter, two aides, and two pilots crashed in northern Minnesota. Twenty thousand people jammed into a Minneapolis arena to mourn. The eulogies lasted three and a half hours.
Al Franken ’73, who was a friend of Wellstone and had raised money for him, was among the mourners. By then, he had traded comedy for political and media commentary. And there was much to comment on in Minnesota, for Wellstone had died just 11 days before the election and his opponent, Norm Coleman, had not exactly stopped campaigning in the days after Wellstone’s death.
Six months after the election, Franken certainly did not fail to note Coleman’s hurtful assessment of his predecessor: “To be very blunt—and God watch over Paul’s soul—I am a 99 percent improvement over Paul Wellstone. Just about on every issue.” And Franken devoted 29 pages of his next book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right (2003) to Wellstone and the media coverage that had painted his memorial service as a partisan political rally, rather than a remembrance of a cherished friend. To say Franken was livid would be to understate: “Rush and the Republican Party and the Weekly Standard and the Wall Street Journal and Fox—and then it was CNN and MSNBC and all the newspapers that wrote hundreds of stories—got it wrong….Sometimes I wonder why people do what they do for a living and how they feel about their work. What is it about their work that gives them a sense of a job well done? As a comedian, I know I’ve done my job when people laugh….What do you suppose gives Rush Limbaugh that warm glow?”
Franken grew up sharing what he calls the “basic Minnesota values” of Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, and Paul Wellstone—universal healthcare, fairness for the little guy. Because Minnesota had regularly produced progressive candidates, Franken had never given serious thought to political office. But with Wellstone gone and no charismatic Democrat on the Minnesota horizon, he began to consider the possibility of running against Coleman in 2008.
For an established politician, that would mean endless dinners in small-town community halls—and fending off challengers. For Franken, the bar was considerably higher. It wasn’t just that he was a neophyte who lacked a campaign team. And it certainly wasn’t that he feared his opponent; Franken had little respect for Coleman, whom he called, in print, “a suit.” Franken’s problem was his résumé: a long career as a comic, followed by a decade of attacks on the Republican right. In 2008, if he got that far, he would be running not only against Coleman, but also against Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, and every pundit who thought his candidacy was a bigger joke than any he’d written for Saturday Night Live.
Alan Stuart Franken, now 60, was born in New York, but his father, seeking opportunity, moved his wife and their two sons to Minnesota when Al was young. Joe Franken was a printing salesman, yet Al attended Blake, generally acknowledged as the most exclusive private school in Minneapolis. How did that happen?
There is no better question to ask Al Franken. In his Senate office, settled into the obligatory leather couch, he leaned forward and looked back.
“My brother and I were Sputnik kids,” he began. “My parents told us, ‘You boys have to study math and science so we can beat the Soviets.’ I thought that was a lot of pressure to put on an 11- and a six-year-old, but my brother and I started playing math games in the living room.”
Franken turned out to be a whiz in science and math, and when his brother went off to MIT, the family began to look for a better secondary school for Al. As it happened, Blake was looking for kids just like him.
“Blake was a school chartered for Protestants,” Franken said. “In the 1950s, it started to lose the ability to get enough kids into top colleges. They needed kids who would score well. And they said…‘JEWS!’”
It was almost inevitable that Blake’s Jewish wrestler and honor student glided into Harvard, graduating cum laude in general studies. But his real field of concentration was comedy. In Minneapolis, he’d worked up an act—some improvisation, some sketch comedy—with his Blake classmate Tom Davis. By Franken’s senior year at Harvard, Davis was sleeping on his couch.
For Franken, graduation meant migrating to Los Angeles with Davis and doing improv at the Comedy Store. A William Morris agent suggested they assemble material for the kind of show they’d like to be on. “Our 14-page submission was very efficient—I can’t believe how brilliantly efficient it was,” Franken says. “It wasn’t right for any of the big comedy shows. But it was ideal for a show that didn’t exist yet: Saturday Night Live [SNL]. I think Tom and I were the only writers Lorne [Michaels, the show’s creator and executive producer] hired whom he hadn’t met” (see “Comic Sutra,” July-August 1992, on Harvard comedy writers and performers).
Franken was with SNL from its launch in 1975 until 1980, and again from 1985 until 1995, among the longest tenures of any of the show’s writers and performers. His range was vast. He pranced the stage as Mick Jagger, frequently appeared on the Weekend Update news segment, lobbied for the 1980s to be called “The Al Franken Decade,” and invented Stuart Smalley, a stunningly lame self-help guru whose core message was “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” Michaels thought so highly of him that he wanted Franken to succeed him as producer; the network’s refusal is the main reason Franken leftSNL for five years in the early 1980s.
Franken had, for decades, used politics as grist for comedy on SNL. Leaving the show liberated him from the network censor, giving him more freedom to mock what he has described as “conservative Republicans…taking over the country.” His method was only slightly subtle. Some people, he observed, “live to find stuff to be indignant about. And it’s pretty unattractive. That’s why I decided to take a more likable path and be a wiseass.”
He began by getting into pajamas and climbing into bed—on Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect television show—with then-conservative Arianna Huffington. “I remember one night the script called for us to end our segment with a pillow fight,” Huffington recalls. “I’m not sure why, but Al really hauled off and smacked me with his pillow. Hard. For a moment, I saw stars…but I recovered in time to deliver my next punch line. I’m not sure if it had anything to do with that fateful Franken wallop, but I soon saw the light and stopped defending Republicans—in bed or anywhere else.”
Television meant brief segments. Bigger targets awaited. For Franken, Rush Limbaugh was a dream subject for a book. He was, literally, larger than life. (“I am not one for psychoanalyzing public figures. I wouldn’t, for example, attempt to create a psychological construct to explain why a desperately insecure man would weigh three hundred pounds and have difficulty sustaining intimate relationships.”) He was a fantasist. (“The man who says Reagan belongs on Mount Rushmore never voted for him.”) And he was a stooge for the reactionary rich. (“If Reaganomics didn’t work, Rush is the carnival clown hired to distract the crowd while paramedics carry the mangled bodies from the derailed roller coaster.”)
Franken had his publisher send Limbaugh an advance copy of Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot (1996)—and a note: “Al thinks it would help sales if you talked about the book on the air.” Limbaugh didn’t take the bait. (Nor did Limbaugh—or, for that matter, O’Reilly, Hannity, Coulter, or Roger Ailes—respond to requests for an interview or for a memo detailing Franken’s errors in his books.)
For Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, Franken aimed higher: the entire conservative “news” establishment. This was a massive research project, but Franken was then a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy. (“After my varied and celebrated career in television, movies, publishing, and the lucrative world of public speaking, being a fellow at Harvard seemed, frankly, like a step down.”) And, looking around a campus of Bright Young Things, he saw an opportunity to involve a cadre of interns. Thus was born Team Franken, 14 students from the College and Kennedy School who focused on Fox News and were rewarded with weekly dinners at Franken’s rented home in Cambridge. “Very collegial,” recalls Madhu Chugh, M.P.P. ’04. “Like what I imagine a story conference was like on 30 Rock.”
“The work was propelled by outrage and then finding the humor in it,” says Ben Wikler ’03, who was hired as soon as he told Franken he wrote for The Onion and did stand-up comedy. He would go on to accompany Franken to Iraq on one of his seven USO tours. “We’d sit on a bunk writing jokes. It was a blast.” Payment was personal; Franken spoke at Wikler’s wedding.
Lying Liars is a granular, take-no-prisoners effort—Team Franken even deconstructed Ann Coulter’s footnotes. Hannity, Paul Wolfowitz, Peggy Noonan, Richard Perle, and Newt Gingrich had cameos, but the real prize for Franken was Bill O’Reilly, M.P.A. ’96. “O’Reilly had said he won the Peabody Award, which is the most prestigious honor in television,” recalls Liz Topp ’98, Franken’s secretary during this period. He hadn’t. His show had won the Polk Award—also notable, though somewhat less so than a Peabody—and won it the year after O’Reilly left the show. “I believe I was the one on LexisNexis when we came upon that fact,” says Topp. “It was a Eureka! moment that kept on giving.”
Literally. In a head-on confrontation at the Los Angeles BookExpo, Franken expounded—at length and in considerable detail—about O’Reilly’s “lie” and his refusal to acknowledge anything worse than a “mistake.” O’Reilly, who is not known for Zen calm, fired back: “This guy accuses me of being a liar, ladies and gentlemen, on national television. He’s vicious, and that’s with a capital V, a person who’s blinded by ideology. All he’s got in six and a half years is that I misspoke, that I labeled a Polk Award a Peabody.”
“No, no, no,” Franken interrupted.
And then it got really crazy.
“Shut up! You had your 35 minutes! Shut up!” O’Reilly shouted. “We’re supposed to be on here for 15 minutes and this idiot goes 35.”
“This isn’t your show, Bill,” Franken retorted.
A few months later, Fox News sued Franken and Dutton, his publisher, alleging trademark violation of its “Fair and Balanced” slogan. “This is an easy case, for in my view the case is wholly without merit, both factually and legally,” Judge Denny Chen said as he ruled against Fox. “It is ironic that a media company that should be seeking to protect the First Amendment is seeking to undermine it.”
The publicity could not have been more beneficial to Franken. On the mere announcement of the suit, a month before publication, Lies moved from #489 on the Amazon.com sales ranking to #1. It was, Arianna Huffington told Franken, “as if Bill O’Reilly walked up to you and handed you a million dollars.”
Attacks from conservative pundits may have helped Franken’s books reach the top of the New York Times bestseller list. They also cemented his image, for followers of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, as a flamboyant, angry extremist—a clown. On radio, Limbaugh led the attack: “Franken won’t quit [the Senate race] because he doesn’t know how to get a real job….He’s a pathetic figure.” In Franken’s home state, Limbaugh’s listeners agreed. “I think it’s impossible to overstate the hostility Minnesota Republicans feel toward Al Franken,” Carleton College political scientist Steven Schier said. “He will be a very useful fundraising tool.”
But Franken had a magic weapon—his wife.
Franni Bryson met Franken at a Harvard freshman mixer, when she had just started Simmons College and he had just arrived in Cambridge. He asked her to dance, got her a ginger ale, and called the next day to ask for a date—walking the Freedom Trail. Their relationship was seamless; both had grown up in homes where they watched the evening news and talked about current events over dinner, both had a strong commitment to social justice. It didn’t hurt that she thought he was funny. They married in 1975.
In 2005, with their two children launched, the Frankens made an important decision. They moved from Manhattan to Minneapolis, so Al could begin to explore a Senate run. The year before, he had begun hosting a three-hour daily talk show on Air America, a progressive talk-radio station.
Franken was unquestionably the biggest star on the poorly financed radio network. He was less admired in Minnesota, where “a strain of confrontational, angry politics” and the ascendancy of evangelical politicians seemed to be crowding out the bipartisan politics of Franken’s youth. So when Franken began to campaign in earnest in 2007, his chances looked bleak. “He was very honorable,” says Senator Charles Schumer ’71, J.D. ’74, of New York , who was then chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “He told [Senate majority leader] Harry Reid and me that if he didn’t think he would win, he wouldn’t run.”
Franni had her own style of campaigning. She baked apple pies and auctioned them wherever she spoke. She knocked on doors in sub-zero weather. And at every gathering, she spoke of her husband as a crusader in the tradition of the state’s famous liberal senators.
That was a hard sell.
Many voters remembered Franken mostly as the Saturday Night Live comedian. Some knew him as a scourge who lived for the moments when he could prove that O’Reilly, Hannity, and Coulter are factually challenged. Only a relative handful were aware that as the host of the radio show he liked to call “The O’Franken Factor,” he spent much of his time in serious conversation with writers and politicians who shared his deep interest in public policy.
With only a few weeks left to campaign, all signs pointed to a close election, with the comedian probably losing.
So Franni made a 60-second commercial. “We’ve been married now for almost 33 years and we’ve been so blessed in so many ways,” she said, looking right at the camera. “But we also had some bad times. And at one point I struggled with alcohol dependency. How could a mother of two fabulous, healthy children be an alcoholic? When I was struggling with my recovery, Al stood right by my side and he stood up for me. After what we went through, Al wrote two beautiful movies [When a Man Loves a Woman (1994) and Stuart Saves His Family (1995)] that are shown in rehabs all over the country. The Al Franken I know stood by me through thick and thin. So I know he’ll always come through for Minnesotans.”
What was her husband’s reaction when Franni told him she wanted to make this commercial?
“I didn’t ask him,” she says. “It wasn’t his decision.”
And the kids’?
“It wasn’t their decision, either. This wasn’t focus-grouped. I went with my gut.”
“Unbelievably brave,” says Franken’s campaign manager, Stephanie Schriock, of the ad. “That moment was the first time we actually started moving ahead.”
As it happened, the election was so close—out of almost 3 million votes, Norm Coleman had an initial 215-vote lead—that a recount was mandatory. In January 2009, after the statewide hand recount, the Minnesota State Canvassing Board certified that Franken had received more votes on election day. Coleman challenged the results. A three-judge panel conducted a seven-week trial that cost both sides millions in legal fees and produced a stack of evidence 21 feet high. In April, the panel affirmed Franken’s victory. Coleman appealed. In June, eight months after the election, the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld Franken’s victory—by 312 votes.
“I know why you dragged this whole thing out,” President Barack Obama, J.D. ’91, joked when Franken was sworn into the Senate on July 7, 2009. “You like all this attention, don’t you?”
“A sad day for America,” said O’Reilly on Fox News. “Al Franken is blatantly zealous, a far-left zealot.”
Both remarks were predictable. What wasn’t was Franken’s explanation of the key to his victory. “If it hadn’t been for my wife,” he said at a victory rally in Minneapolis, with a catch in his voice that suggested tears might follow, “I would have lost—by a lot.”
During the long months when he was waiting to learn if he was going to the Senate, Franken adopted “a counterintuitive strategy, totally against my nature”—he kept his mouth shut. This had a curious effect. “Minnesotans’ image of me went up,” he recalls. “‘I like the way you’re handling this,’ people would say. I wanted to reply, ‘But I’m not doing anything.’”
As a senator, Franken has tried to do a great deal, almost entirely behind the scenes. He considers himself “the second senator from Minnesota” —that is, second in seniority to Amy Klobuchar, not the sixtieth Democrat in the Senate—and his media policy proves it: he is generally available to reporters from Minnesota newspapers, but not to national media or the Sunday television shows. And he does not respond to provocation. Republican James Inhofe, the senior senator from Oklahoma, once called him “the clown from Minnesota.” In the old days, Franken would have itemized Inhofe’s positions and asked who the real clown was; now, not a peep.
His longtime friend Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, helped devise this low-profile approach to Franken’s first few years in the Senate. “If the camera comes to you and you take advantage of that, it will reinforce the view that you’re not just a celebrity but a comedian—and an angry comedian at that,” he told Franken. “Be a workhorse, not a show horse.”
Many were surprised when, just days after being sworn in, Franken—the most junior member of the Judiciary Committee—took his turn asking U.S. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor some fairly technical questions. “Al never went to law school, and on this committee, that meant he started with a considerable disadvantage, but he was remarkably effective—and a very helpful ally in combating the spin that a judge isn’t in the judicial mainstream if she’s not a Republican,” says Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, a fellow Democrat on the committee and, of late, Franken’s squash opponent. Franken, in his best senatorial mode, deflects all praise: “Staff. It’s all staff.”
“Air America was a good career move,” an education in public policy, he explains. “A three-hour show, five times a week, heavy on policy, with guests like Elizabeth Warren [the Harvard Law professor now running for the Senate] and Thomas Ricks [who was, in those years, covering the military for the Washington Post]—and I read my guests’ books, or parts.” And he learned to repress most of his natural exuberance. “I used to go on Franken’s radio show, all ready to be jocular,” New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has said, “and what he wanted to talk about was the arithmetic of Social Security, or the structure of Medicare Part D.”
Franken has carved out unanticipated areas of interest. His first bill: providing service dogs to disabled veterans. When he learned that companies choose the credit agencies that rate their financial soundness, he drafted a bill, passed by the Senate and now being reviewed by the SEC, to make that impossible. He’s badgered Internet and cell-phone executives about consumers’ rights to privacy. He sponsored legislation that denies government money to defense contractors that force employees to agree not to sue them. “And he’s always looking out for Minnesota,” says Charles Schumer, recalling a trade bill that saw Franken defying the president and splitting his vote. “He’s made it clear that Minnesota comes first.”
Minnesotans have noticed. In the state, Franken’s most recent approval rating hovers around a respectable 49 percent. (Klobuchar’s is 59 percent—the highest in the Senate.) He flies back to Minnesota often. (“Coach,” he says. “And cheap motels.”) And he reminds his constituents that if they’re in Washington on a Wednesday morning, he serves a breakfast of Mahnomin Porridge (a rib-sticking blend of wild rice grown in Minnesota, hazelnuts, maple syrup, heavy cream, and dried cranberries and blueberries) in his Senate office.
Then there is his outreach to his colleagues in the Senate. On their birthdays, he sends them handwritten notes, with a postscript: “I know we’re all busy, so when my birthday comes around, feel free to add a few words and re-gift it.” This past Christmas, Franken started a Secret Santa gift exchange in the Senate, across party lines; more than half the chamber participated. “I thought Secret Santa would be a good way to cut through the partisan divide here in the Senate,” he told the New York Times. “Who knows, maybe it will create some unlikely friendships.” And Franni has brought her apple pies to Judiciary meetings “on days when we had contentious work to do.”
It is said that the U.S. government is broken, that the people’s business can no longer be done there. Certainly, Washington is an easy target for a comedian. And there, in the center of the action, is Al Franken, an outburst waiting to happen. Franken has said that the Senate is “not the world’s greatest deliberative body.” But when asked about several senators who might be below the standard of the institution, he resists the temptation to turn his colleagues into punch lines. “Everyone who’s a senator,” he says, with a diplomat’s smoothness, “got here for a reason.”
Still, there was that stunt during the gridlock over the debt ceiling last summer. The government was in danger of shutting down. That would mean no Homeland Security at airports and no border guards. So when Franken took center stage in the Senate, he held up a big sign: WELCOME TERRORISTS. “Before we default,” he said, “we have time to make this sign for all points of entry….”
“I really debated that,” he says. “Instead of reporting the point I was making, the media made the sign the story. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have presented the idea as a sign.”
As for his dealings with colleagues, he says, he prefers to use humor: “It’s a way of getting them to know me and like me.”
“You don’t want to confront them when they lie?” he is asked.
“I do feel a lot of frustration when I hear colleagues say things that I don’t think are thought through, shall we say, and actually aren’t accurate,” he concedes.
“What do you do to relieve that frustration—scream into your pillow?”
“I don’t want to be a scold,” he says, “but I make an effort to have my staff call their staffers and ask for…clarification.” Then he smiles, and, like the Al Franken he used to be, he laughs—very briefly—at his own joke.