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Starring Al Franken (as Himself)

Can a comic turned candidate convince voters he's ready for prime time?

Starring Al Franken (as Himself)
Photo by Mike McGregor

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Franken conducted his seven USO tours almost as fact-finding missions, spending as much time with the troops as possible, says Owen, who often joined him. And during downtime at the radio station, Franken would call think-tanks and journalists seeking answers to questions he had on Iraq or any other subject. “We had to reach to find stuff that he hadn’t already intellectually owned,” says Norton. Franken’s most productive radio banter, he says, was often with people whose viewpoints he valued, even if he didn’t share them: conservative thinkers—or his unlikely friend, Watergate planner turned radio host G. Gordon Liddy. Franken’s transformation from satirist to political junkie was by then complete. “He has such an active mind,” says Wikler. “He was really good at math growing up—even a lot of his jokes use numbers in interesting ways—and comedy was one outlet for that, but in politics, the numbers affect human lives and he likes to dig into those details.”

When Franken returned to Minnesota in 2005, however, he still wasn’t certain whether he’d run for office. Ultimately he decided, once again, that someone had to do something. Also, the DFL elite had been hinting. Walter Mondale told him, “Your great gift is that you’re brilliant and you’ve been in the middle of this debate for a long time. People like you have got to help [Democrats] describe ourselves, the fundamental drive and dreams that we have, in a way that most Americans can feel it.” Franken’s value—his celebrity, his instinct for saying what others felt—had been perceived. If he had long been the Democrats’ team mascot, inciting the fans from the sidelines, he was now invited to join the game itself, to take the mound and see if he couldn’t save the day.

“I’ve spent my career as a comedian,” he said in announcing his run. “Minnesotans have a right to be skeptical about whether I’m ready for this challenge, and to wonder how seriously I would take the responsibility that I’m asking you to give me.” Everyone would be waiting, he knew, for him to fall on his face.

Al Franken may be the only man who could say—and proudly—that everything you need to know about him is contained on the walls of a bathroom. A half-bath, no less, the townhouse’s so-called Nixon bathroom.

Neatly framed on the wall: a letter Elvis Presley wrote to Nixon asking to be made “a federal agent at large”; a photo of Nixon famously giving the victory sign as he leaves the White House for good, which was actually taken by Owen; a letter from Nixon’s personal secretary declining Franken’s request, when he was still at Saturday Night Live, for the ex-prez to make a guest appearance (sorry, she writes, that he can’t appear on “your special show”). Near the toilet, not coincidentally, is a copy of Nixon’s resignation letter initialed by Kissinger.

They’re the sort of political tchotchkes a presidential museum might have. The whimsical culmination of a news junkie’s obsession. A political satirist’s goldmine. But just as Nixon was no ordinary president, these are no ordinary souvenirs. They represent a paradise lost for one who longs, as Franken does, for the time when government more or less had the country’s interest at heart. They represent a political tipping point where humor can hold back the disappointment only so much before anger kicks in, where even the jester debates whether to exchange his bells for a sword. And in Franken’s mind, the damage wreaked by the current crop of his ideological opponents makes Nixon seem like a harmless joke—bathroom humor.

When it’s time to depart for a campaign stop in Faribault, Franken and several campaign workers pile into one of the family’s two Ford Escape hybrids. There’s an empty yogurt container rattling around, and what appears to be a script from the hip HBO comedy Flight of the Conchords. Andy Barr, the campaign’s spokesman—and co-manager until veteran Stephanie Schriock was recently brought on—briefs Franken on energy issues, but he already knows the stuff well enough to expound on cellulosic fuels and carbon sequestration like the topics were subjects on last night’s news.

Shooting the breeze with Franken can feel intimidating to the average interloper: aim low and you’re asking to be ignored; aim too high and his satirist’s instinct for sniffing out hubris may earn you admonishment (albeit hilarious). “Don’t show off,” advises Julie Mayo Haddad, formerly one of Franken’s literary agents. “Don’t banter.” Don’t mistake, in other words, the comedic persona for the man. “You don’t make small talk with Al Franken,” she says.

Arriving at a homey coffee shop in Faribault, Franken wastes few words of introduction before explaining his Senate priorities to a select group of energy executives and university professors, gathered to hear his take on the green economy, the lucrative intersection between conservation and commerce. “I’m ready to make this state an epicenter of renewable energy,” he declares. We should be manufacturing wind turbines, hybrid cars, he says. “This is an administration that has suppressed science to a degree almost unprecedented in our history.”

And soon he’s reminiscing: “I was 6 when Sputnik went up. We invested in science and math. We won the space race by unleashing the genius of America. We need a new direction and I believe this is it. Minnesota will lead the nation and the world.”

Franken ends his speech, as he often does, by quoting Wellstone: “The future belongs to those are passionate and work hard.” And Franken shares many of Wellstone’s priorities: universal health care, investment in public schools. But Franken is no flaming liberal—he was for the war at first, as Wellstone never was—nor is he as impishly outgoing as Wellstone. When he slaps backs and shakes hands, that inane campaign ritual, it rarely appears natural. Born politicians—former president Clinton, for example—always seem like there isn’t anywhere else they’d rather be; Franken looks like he’d rather be talking about alternative fuels.

This, then, is his kind of event. “Hydrolysis—is that the right technical term?” he asks a professor regarding a method of energy production. “Or is that just taking hair off someone’s leg?” He’s off and running: “This is the kind of economic stimulus I’m interested in,” he’s says, “an industry of retrofitting—we should be retrofitting foreclosed homes, to make homes that use less energy. I like the approach Roosevelt had: Put the people to work on short-term infrastructure projects. Instead we have a president who seems obsessed with shopping.”

It all sounds logical enough, though in parting an exec wishes him good luck: “Once you get there,” meaning Washington, “you’ll have a hard job.” Franken seems momentarily fazed, as though it’d never occurred to him that it may be difficult; then he appears humbled, realistic. And for a moment you wonder: How confident is he, and how much of this is an act, boosting our spirits, selling the Democrats’ vision, as Mondale hoped? He soon recovers with a running joke from the campaign, an anti-jinx: “Oh,” he demurs, laughing. “Everything will fall into place.”

The Franken campaign got off to an unusually early start, and it was quickly determined that a lot of people—especially journalists—were paying more attention to Franken’s comedy on the trail than to his message. He’s run a straightforward campaign ever since. “He’s done everything in an extremely traditional, conventional fashion,” says John Van Hecke, a Minnesota 2020 think-tank fellow and veteran DFL campaign manager. “It’s a strategy he learned growing up here: You go out and meet people and talk to them. Ours is a middle-class democracy—people expect and enjoy meeting those who present themselves as candidates.”

That said, the campaign has a relaxed, personalized feel. At Franken headquarters, a seed-art portrait of Franken hangs in the reception area. Young volunteers make campaign calls not from formal call rooms but from cell phones while lounging in open, rec-room-like spaces. Until veteran political operative Schriock was hired in May, Barr—a 24-year-old former Team Franken member (known to some as “Scooter”)—had split managing duties with another campaign worker.

Barr followed Franken to Minnesota a few years ago to work on his political action committee, Midwest Values, which supported Democratic candidates. Franken’s loyalty is legendary—he’s retained his Twin Cities–based literary agents for decades and when Air America hit financial turbulence, Franken vowed to help keep his staff aloft with his own money. His personal company’s recent tax miscalculations, some have argued, stem from his long devotion to an accountant who eventually couldn’t keep up.

Yet some veteran campaign observers worry Franken isn’t personalizing the campaign enough. They say it’s a mistake to play down his unconventional background, with at least one suggesting he appears uncomfortably caught between his Washington-based media consultants advocating seriousness and Minnesotans wondering why he’s suddenly so sober-faced. His colleagues have noticed the change. “He’s struggling heroically—and appropriately, I think—to show his serious side, to be pragmatic,” says Norton. “Because he is a really funny guy.”

Franken’s final stop in Faribault is at a manufacturer of energy-saving windows. At the factory, a company executive holds out a book for him to sign, The Truth (with Jokes), Franken’s 2005 exposé of the Bush administration. The book’s title is an apt metaphor for Franken’s Senate bid, for on the campaign trail, his internal tug-of-war—between levity and his nascent political instincts—often plays out in surprising ways.

In the company’s boardroom, Franken quickly gets down to business, asserting that the U.S. is seven years behind in greening its economy and addressing climate change. “I want to introduce a law,” he says, “that no political appointee can change the language of a scientific policy paper without consulting scientists.” He trots out his line that this is a science-suppressing administration.

The company president takes the bait. “More than that,” the man grumbles, to which Franken responds: “Speak to that,” as though he were still on his radio show. “Well, they’ve suppressed the economy,” the man says. “Half a trillion we poured down the drain in Iraq.”

The president then explains how his firm is ahead of the curve on developing green technology. Suddenly, Franken is giving the man what can only be described as a fist bump. Mano a mano—tap—that’s for beating the Europeans to the market with the window technology. It’s the first fist bump, no doubt, in the history of U.S. Senate campaigns.

Franken laughs, as always, first and hardest. His eyes disappear into dark parabolas behind his trademark tortoise-shell glasses, his jaw drops, and a bank of white teeth emerges, like a marquee. Then he looks around to see if anyone else is laughing. It’s partly because, as Norton says, “he loves the limelight.” But it’s mostly technical, a performer’s instinct to gauge whether his audience truly gets him.

Tim Gihring is a senior writer at Minnesota Monthly.


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