Sen. Al Franken is back to telling jokes

July 7, 2017
Photo from Reuters

U.S. Senator Al Franken’s high-profile grilling of several of President Trump’s nominees earlier this year thrust him into the spotlight. His tough questioning of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Attorney General Jeff Sessions led many in Washington to wonder whether the Minnesota Democrat and former comedian has higher aspirations, perhaps even to the White House.

A newly released memoir, cheekily titled “Al Franken: Giant of the Senate,” has only added fuel to the idea. It’s hardly the policy-heavy tome that would suggest a serious bid, but Franken, one of eight Jews in the Senate, does lay out a progressive agenda for Democrats. He also reviews his own unlikely career path, from performer of absurdist satire to longtime writer and cast member on “Saturday Night Live,” followed by a three-hour daily radio show on Air America and several bestselling books that debunk right-wing conservative statements.

In the book Franken recounts his contentious campaign against Republican Sen. Norm Coleman in 2008, an election he won by just 312 votes, and his fight for reelection in 2014. The book also covers the 2016 presidential election and Franken’s opposition to President Trump and his administration’s policies.

In an interview with the Jewish Journal before his appearance July 8 at Live Talks LA with Chelsea Handler, Franken reflected on his journey and what comes next. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you decide to write this memoir?

After I was re-elected — and the first election was very, very close — the second one, I felt that the people of Minnesota got that I was a serious senator and a workhorse, and I felt like I could loosen up a little. And then in August of 2015 my wife and I were going to have our first vacation in years, just the two of us, at a lodge in northern Minnesota. And after that we were going to go to Africa on a Congressional Delegation trip (CODEL), which was going to be a little arduous. And I got to where the lodge was and she just said she couldn’t come because she was sick and wanted to get well for the CODEL.

So I was there at the lodge, I had five days, and I had told myself that I was going to write about all this at some point. And I thought, well, I’m going to start writing. I thought it could end up like The Shining, or it could work out. It was a lot of fun and it also helped me think about how I was approaching my job. It really just happened because my wife had a terrible cold.

Did you have any grand revelations while you were writing the book about your life and your role in the Senate?

It clarified my thinking about the role of the staff and the role of the Senator and also about what happened during the period between when I got there and when the Republicans took the majority. I was surprised when Trump won, of course, and I was about 90 percent done with the book. So I had to do a little revamping. It helped me think about my books about people lying, and my race in 2008 and being attacked for things I had written. And Trump somehow got elected, even bragging about things like sexual assault. And so it was really helpful for me to get perspective on where we are right now.

In the book you talk about how when you were deciding whether to run for Senate, you were concerned that you didn’t have the political experience. Now you see somebody like President Trump who has no political experience rising to power. In writing the book do you feel like you have a better sense of why Trump was elected?

I think that there’s been a culmination of things that I’ve been part of or witness to, or have critiqued. The books I wrote on Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich and on Fox are really about how our political discourse has coarsened and also how lying became somehow acceptable, and almost normative. Especially, I think, on the right. And how we started getting parallel universes where people are getting news that confirms their bias. And so we got to this extreme point where we are today, where we have a president calling the news media fake, and we have Americans divided by where they get their information.

Given your years of charting lies among the political right, did it surprise you that Trump won?

I was surprised, but I did also have an inkling. On Election Day I went on “Morning Joe” and I remember, I was right after former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, and she was celebrating already. And I was going, like, no, no, no, no. I’m the poster boy for close elections. Every Democrat better get out and vote. So I was nervous. It was a sinking feeling during the whole day. I didn’t think that was going to happen, but I was nervous that it would. And here we are.

Are you worried that the Democrats are spending too much time attacking Trump and too little time offering an alternative vision that might get voters excited for the midterm elections and for 2020?

I think you can do both at the same time. We definitely have to show an alternative vision. In terms of the Trump investigation and now that we have a special prosecutor, I’m on the Judiciary Committee and we’re going to ask Jeff Sessions to come appear before us again. There’s a role we have to play and there’s a role for both intelligence committees. But we’ve got to trust the special prosecutor is going to also do his job.

Our job is to have an alternate vision to what Republicans are giving us, and I think I do that in the book. I talk about Paul Wellstone and the concept of “we all do better when we all do better.” The press seems to want to also focus on Trump and to some extent it’s hard for us to get traction with the policies that we are putting out there.

In the last few months you have become well known for asking tough questions during Senate hearings. How did you prepare for the DeVos and Sessions and Gorsuch confirmation hearings?

Well, they were each a little different. With DeVos, I had a courtesy meeting with her. Before the courtesy meeting, I had heard from a few of my colleagues that had already met with her and basically I got the word that she wasn’t very well versed on education policy. And considering she was the nominee for education secretary, I was curious about that. And when we had our meeting I was actually very surprised at how little she knew. So mainly I just prepared a question about something incredibly basic in education policy, which is the growth versus proficiency argument. This is something that every teacher, every principal, every superintendent, every school board member and most parents know about. And when I asked the question it turned out to be a viral moment because she just had no clue about this very, very basic debate within education circles on how to hold schools accountable.

On Gorsuch it was reading the cases and his opinions. He’s been preparing all his adult life but I didn’t particularly buy his presentation of himself. This whole thing about “I go to the law,” it seems like he has a lot of pre-determined ideas of what the law says. And it seems like he doesn’t really believe in precedent. And he also has some very odd rulings, for example in the truck driver case. That was incredibly bizarre as far as I was concerned and I focused on that because of the frozen truck driver.

Conservatives accused you of political grandstanding. They said that the tough line of questioning was about you advancing your career. How do you reply to those accusations?

I actually hadn’t heard that. I thought they were really good questions. With Sessions, he filled out a questionnaire that the committee had given him asking him to talk about the 10 most important cases he had been personally engaged in. And he named four civil rights cases that it turned out he wasn’t engaged in. And so I thought that was a good line of questioning. I think that every line of questioning of mine was legitimate. And I hadn’t really heard that criticism.

A lot of interviewers have asked you about your presidential ambitions, which you’ve unequivocally disavowed. But have you given it any thought?

Well, I’ve given some thought to it because everyone keeps asking me about it. But I just don’t think that that’s something I want to do. I like the job I have. I like representing the people of Minnesota. And in 2020 I expect to run for reelection.

There’s been a lot of talk of impeachment with President Trump and you’ve expressed concern about what a Pence presidency might look like. Would you prefer that we have Trump for at least the duration of his first term?

Well, that’s not up to me. I think that’s going to be more about what the special prosecutor Bob Mueller finds. And I think we should let that take care of itself. I do believe that those of us on Judiciary have a role to play. I believe that those on the Intelligence Committee in the House and the Intelligence Committee in the Senate have a role to play in the investigation. I think part of that role should be determining how we can prevent this from happening again, prevent the Russians from interfering in our elections. I think that’s the primary goal of all those committees. But the special prosecutor is the one who I think will determine whether we have a there there on prosecuting people who were in the Trump campaign or associates of Trump and whether it gets to Trump himself.

I’d rather we actually not let them do this healthcare bill. And that’s where I’m really putting a lot of my energy and focus right now. That would be a terrible, cruel move on their part to take health care from people who need it the most and give a tax cut to people who need it the least.

I imagine your constituents in Minnesota are expressing a lot of concern about that right now.

Yeah. And a lot of them live in areas that Trump did very well in. And I’m co-chair of the Rural Health Caucus so I’ve been around my state hearing from them, and this frightens them, frankly.

In your interview with Marc Maron on the podcast WTF, you said you are “very Jewish but not devout.” In what ways do you think of yourself as very Jewish?

Well I think that’s an accurate statement. I’m not devout in the sense that I observe all the holidays. You know, I observe the High Holy days. I’m a Reform Jew, what can I say.

But I culturally am extremely Jewish. I think part of it has to do with, there’s a lot of Jewish comedians, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it seems to be part of the culture.

I identify very much as a Jew. I had that very much pounded into my head. I was born in 1951 so not long after the Holocaust and that Jewish identity means a lot to me. I married out of the faith, I married a Catholic girl, but our kids are half Irish Catholic and half European Ashkenazi Jew. But they really see themselves as Jews. My daughter had a very Jewish wedding and she and her husband are raising their kids Jewish. My son married a woman who’s also half Jewish, and they identify themselves as a Jewish family. So it’s a bit of a cultural identity. I mean, my son lives on the Upper West Side, for god’s sake. They’re within spitting distance of Zabar’s.

You grew up in St. Louis Park, a first-ring suburb of Minneapolis.

Yeah, I grew up in the Jewish suburb of Minneapolis, St. Louis Park, which produced Tom Friedman, Norm Ornstein, the Coen brothers, and me, among others. It’s not that weird if you think about it because this is show business and journalism and academia. That’s not so odd for Jews.

Let me ask you something about your Saturday Night Live career. You’re probably best known for your character Stuart Smalley, which came out of going to Al-Anon meetings because your wife Franni and your writing partner Tom Davis were both struggling with addiction. You write in the book that Tom hated the character Stuart Smalley. What did Franni think of it?

Franni liked the character. You know AA and Al-Anon are very different. I mean they’re entirely the same but very different. There is a lot of the same language and slogans and basic thought that goes into it. It’s recovery and all 12-step programs have something in common. But she liked it a lot. She understood it and she wasn’t defensive about her addiction like Tom was. Tom didn’t like it because it was challenging to him.

Not only was she not defensive about her addiction, but she actually opened up about her struggle with alcoholism in an ad that aired during your 2008 Senate race. How did that decision come about and what impact do you think it had on the race?

Well, I write a chapter called “Franni Saves the Campaign.” So I think it made all the difference in the race. It basically was a very, very nasty campaign. As I write in the book, they took everything I had ever done in comedy and put it through the “DeHumorizer.” They made me out to be something I wasn’t, and she knew it and she wanted to talk about how I had supported her. And she did an ad that was incredibly effective. Two days after the ad aired we had a debate in a big gymnasium and it was full, with people on the floor and in the bleachers, and she got a standing ovation when she entered the room. So it made an enormous difference in terms of the way voters perceived me.

SNL is enjoying a resurgence right now because of the Trump administration. Do you still watch it and how do you feel about its portrayal of the White House?

I think they started getting their sea legs before the election. I think that the debates were really funny. Kate McKinnon’s Hillary was a very funny take on her and captured something about her. As I write in the book, we didn’t feel the job of the show was to take sides. And a good satirical show will take on the president. And this guy and the people around him, there’s a lot to work with. But I think the show has had a very good year, even taking away the political satire. I think Lorne [Michaels] made some really wise decisions about who he kept.

I think writing and performing have equal weight. The show always works best when both the writing and performing not only are strong but one doesn’t dominate. Because when the cast dominates you get a lot of the same recurring characters over and over again until you get sick of them. And when the writers dominate you get a lot of stuff that the writers find interesting, and the audience doesn’t find either interesting or funny. So I just think it’s been a good season all around. The Sean Spicer that Melissa McCarthy did was just, I saw that live and I went, oh my goodness, this is an instant classic. Hilarious. That was a spectacular moment of the show.

Will we see you on SNL anytime soon? Possibly hosting the show?

I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s in the cards.

You write often in the book about your need to bite your tongue as a senator. Do you feel like you’re able to let loose a little bit more now that you’ve put some time into the Senate?

Yeah. I felt like after my reelection, it actually turned out to be a bad year for Democrats and I won by over 10 points. And I felt like, not vindicated, but I felt like people in Minnesota got that I was very serious about the job and that I had been working very hard on their behalf. I had been very self-conscious about not being funny when I first got there because so much of the campaign had been about me as a comedian and putting my material through the “DeHumorizer.” I felt freer after the 2014 election. And this book wouldn’t have been possible, of course, in the first term.

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