A Satirist Gets Serious

by Jeff Fleischer

(World Jewish Digest, June 2007)
Al Franken

Al Franken

In 1999, humorist Al Franken published “Why Not Me?,” a satiric account of the rise and fall of a fictional Franken presidency. These days, he’s hoping for a much happier ending to a real-life campaign as he moves from political commentator to political candidate.

In February, the 56-year-old comedian and radio host formally announced his long-expected candidacy for the U.S. Senate. Franken is running as a Democrat in the 2008 contest for the Minnesota seat currently held by freshman Republican Senator Norm Coleman.

If successful, Franken would become the fourth consecutive Jewish senator elected to fill a Minnesota Senate seat, following Coleman, Democrat Paul Wellstone and Republican Rudy Boschwitz. While making his decision, Franken often joked that, if he ultimately faced the Brooklyn-raised Coleman, “I’d be the only New York Jew in the race who actually grew up in Minnesota.”

It’s still too early to predict Franken’s ultimate odds, but he looks competitive so far. He raised $1.3 million in the first quarter of 2007, compared to $1.5 million for Coleman—despite the fact that Franken didn’t start raising funds until after his Feb. 15 announcement. And polls have shown him gaining ground on Coleman since he announced his candidacy.

“I’ve been thinking about running for a long time,” Franken told World Jewish Digest. “Basically, I haven’t been very happy with the direction of the country the last six years, and I don’t like the job our current senator is doing. There’s a lot of stuff I want to get done. We’ve got to change the direction of the country, and there’s a lot at stake.”

To some, the idea of a comedian as a serious politician might take getting used to. But like Jesse Ventura, the former pro wrestler and radio host turned Reform Party governor of Minnesota, Franken brings a background in current-events discourse to the table, along with his celebrity.

“I think the analysis of people who say he’s a comedian and therefore he won’t be looked at seriously is 100 percent wrong,” says Bill Hillsman, the Minnesota political- ad guru who worked on successful campaigns for Wellstone and Ventura. “It’s the fact [that] he has this notoriety that makes people who might not otherwise be that interested in politics want to know what he has to say.”

Before becoming a political commentator, Franken was probably best known nationally for his career as a writer and performer on Saturday Night Live, where he worked from 1975-1980 and again from 1985-1995. One of the show’s original writers, he earned five Emmy awards for his time at SNL, where he created skits such as the popular self-help spoof “Daily Affirmation with Stuart Smalley” and impersonated the likes of Pat Robertson and Henry Kissinger.

“It’s an advantage to him in this race that he’s got a name and that he’s been on a bigger stage,” says Hillsman. “To some degree, Minnesotans like that, and I think that will be a big part of getting voters to look at him and really listen to him.”

Of course, it also helps that he’s spent more than a decade immersed in political debate.

Franken co-anchored Comedy Central’s election coverage in both 1992 and 1996, and wrote about politics for magazines including Rolling Stone and Newsweek. After leaving Saturday Night Live, he also published 1996’s “Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot,” the second of his six books to make The New York Times’ bestseller list. In it, he poked fun at the corpulent conservative talk-show host by using Limbaugh’s own words and actions against him, a process he’s described as “verbal jujitsu.” And he used his criticism of Limbaugh as a jumpingoff point to discuss issues like social security and health care.

“The body of political satire work we did on Saturday Night Live is something I’m very proud of,” Franken says. “But we never felt it was the job of the show to have a political ax to grind one way or the other, so we tried to keep it down the middle or wherever the humor took us.

“When I left the show, I thought, ‘Now I could do my own political views.’ That was when the 1994 [Newt] Gingrich revolution was ascendant, and they were trying to dismantle the safety net, the education system, the E.P.A. [Environmental Protection Agency]. I didn’t like that crowd, so I took them on head-on.”

While writing another humorous factchecking tome, 2003’s “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them”—this time taking on Fox News and other conservative media outlets and commentators— Franken says he learned from a Gallup poll that 21 percent of Americans reported getting most of their news from talk radio. So when the founders of the new liberal radio network Air America approached him about hosting a show, he signed on for a three-hour daily broadcast.

“He was my top choice,” says Sheldon Drobny, the Chicago-area venture capitalist who co-founded the network. “When we started Air America, I knew we needed a recognized talent who was also very political and very knowledgeable. I had seen Al, both in person and as a standup comedian and lecturer, and I’ve also obviously seen him on television. I thought that he would bring a branding to Air America and a great talent.”

Franken made his radio debut March 31, 2004, with Al Gore and former Sen. Bob Kerrey among his first-day guests. While the Air America network struggled financially at times (it declared bankruptcy in late 2006, without going off the air), it also gained more than 60 affiliate stations during Franken’s three years there. Combined with its streaming online edition, “The Al Franken Show” reached more than 1.5 million unique listeners.

While considering a Senate run, Franken moved his show from New York to Minnesota in 2006. He broadcast his final show on February 14 and immediately began holding events around his home state.

Franken grew up in the heavily Jewish Twin Cities suburb of St. Louis Park until heading to Harvard University, from which he graduated cum laude in 1973. He says his political involvement came largely from his parents, including his father’s conversion from a lifelong “good-government Republican” to a Democrat in 1964.

“He was a Republican all the way through Roosevelt, never voted for him,” Franken says, chuckling. “Which I think is hilarious; the best president who ever lived he didn’t vote for. But in ‘64, because Barry Goldwater was against the civil-rights bill, my dad was just incensed. We’d watch the TV news, see sheriffs siccing dogs and turning fire hoses on civil-rights demonstrators. And my dad would say, ‘That’s as wrong as you can get, and no Jew can stand for that.’ He voted for Johnson and, in 1968, supported Eugene McCarthy and became an anti-war activist. This 60- year-old anti-war activist who would go out with his cardigan sweater and his pipe and try to get arrested.”

As for Franken’s politics today, he says health care is the biggest domestic issue facing the country. “I feel we have to get to universal and get there fast,” he says. “Not necessarily single payer and maybe not national. It could be each state, a 50 laboratories sort of thing.” He has also called for an “Apollo Project” approach to weaning the country off fossil fuels, with wind power, solar power, biomass, and both corn and cellulosic ethanol among the potential solutions. “It just seems like a win-win-win-win-win,” he says, “in terms of keeping our environment clean, addressing global warming, creating high-tech jobs, being good for farmers, and the balance of trade and national security.”

On foreign policy, Franken—who has taken part in seven USO tours, including four in Iraq—has been a consistent critic of the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq and its handling of the aftermath. He’s also criticized the Bush administration for its reluctance to pursue Mideast peace talks, which Franken supports.

“The bottom line is Israel should be able to live in peace inside secure borders, with neighbors who accept its right to exist and without rockets fired in its cities,” Franken says. “You need a partner for peace, and it doesn’t seem like Hamas can be that partner unless it accepts Israel’s right to exist and renounces violence as a means to achieve diplomatic ends. The war in Iraq has actually hurt Israel a lot by empowering Iran, stoking jihadism and helping Hezbollah in both those ways.”

As a man running for a serious job, Franken spends most of his time on the stump discussing serious issues. Not that his funny side doesn’t come through, as he peppers his speeches with jokes and funny anecdotes. It’s a mixture that served him well when he previously campaigned for other candidates or against Bush’s proposed changes to Social Security.

In order to voice his views in the Senate, Franken must first win the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (the party’s full name in Minnesota) primary in September 2008, where Minneapolis attorney Mike Ciresi is the toughest competition. Both Ciresi and Franken have promised to refrain from attack ads against each other and to support the primary victor.

“One of the problems with running in Minnesota,” Hillsman says, “is the primary is so late that you have to figure out how to run your general-election campaign at the same time you’re running your primary campaign … The hard part for somebody like Al is going to be not to play too much to the partisan particulars of the Democratic race that you lose credibility with the independents.”

With a primary win, Franken would face Coleman. The former Democratic mayor of St. Paul, who switched to the GOP in 1996, won the seat in 2002 after then-Senator Wellstone died in a plane crash less than two weeks before the election. Coleman defeated Wellstone’s lastminute ballot replacement, former Vice President Walter Mondale, with 50 percent of the vote, and the Democratic Party has identified his seat as vulnerable.

Franken, who was friends with Wellstone and campaigned for him, often quotes the late senator’s mantra that “the future belongs to those who are passionate and work hard.” To that end, he’s already begun a packed campaign schedule of question-and-answer sessions, DFL breakfasts, spaghetti dinners and hot-dish contests in all corners of the state. While Coleman’s campaign has issued fundraising e-mails that attack his Hollywood connections, Franken received donations from some 10,000 contributors in the first quarter, so there’s already a base of support.

“Communication is the name of the game in politics, and he’s a great communicator,” Drobny says. “He obviously has a great sense of humor, and he knows his facts. He really researches things, so he won’t be outsmarted. Radio was a new challenge for him, just as running for the senate will be. He’ll do a terrific job because he works very hard at whatever task he’s given.”

Jeff Fleischer is a Chicago-based journalist who has written for publications including Mother Jones, The Sydney Morning Herald, The New Republic, Mental Floss and Chicago magazine.

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