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 wrote 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, which shot to number one on the New York Times Bestseller List, 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 flays his colicky colleague, the Republican senator Ted Cruz of Texas: “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 fundraising.”
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 short 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 smile during our nearly hour-long 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 blue-collar workers, and we lost a lot of people who are non-college educated, and those used to be our people,” said Franken, who sat on his leg on a gray couch. “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.
Franken the undoubtedly referred to the “Reagan Democrats” who abandoned Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Walter Mondale in 1984 but returned home to back 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 vacation 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 future foe.
“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 said. “We all do better when we all do better.”
Franken credits Judaism for inspiring his commitment 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 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 do 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 the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, he sees the Jewish state’s treatment of Palestinians as a modern civil rights struggle. He backs a two-state solution, judging settlements on the West Bank as “completely counterproductive to Israel’s long-term 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 two-state 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 two-state solution.”
While Franken formed his progressive politics 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 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 wasn’t much of a candidate in his first Senate campaign. He managed a wafer-thin 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 across 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 many other Minnesotans, 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 dehumorizer 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 Trump-Franken matchup: “What nickname do you think Trump would give you? Franken paused and replied, “Not-funny Al.”
David Wallis, the former opinion editor of the Forward, is managing director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
David Wallis is the opinion editor of the Forward.