THIS IS SUPPOSED TO BE a campaign stop. But there are no babies to be kissed, no Marines to salute. No brass bands. No American flags. Only beakers, petri dishes, and scientists packed into a classroom at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul. In other words: nerd central.
¶ At a long lab table, Al Franken sits up, straight as a slide rule, as a couple dozen graduate students present their research on alternatives to fossil fuels. He has two pens in his shirt pocket and a third he uses to take voluminous notes. He asks thoughtful, pointed questions, like those students everyone hated back in college. Mostly, he listens. He is—in a word rarely used to describe politicians or Al Franken—quiet. ¶ This is a former comedian, after all (or satirist, as he likes to say). A man who once wore a satellite dish on his head; who impersonated former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to his face; who gave the finger to U.S. troops in Iraq while dressed as Saddam Hussein (they appeared to love it); who once described Senator Norm Coleman, long before either man had reason to believe they’d be facing off on the November ballot, as President George W. Bush’s “butt boy.”
Sure, he cracks a few jokes at the U event (“So what you’re saying is,” he asks in mock surprise, “don’t give billions in tax subsidies to oil companies, but put that money into research?”), but mostly he sounds like a junior professor—like he’s gunning for tenure, not office. As the meeting comes to a close, instead of offering some cutting remarks, instead of slicing up his ideological foes with satire the way he once did in the vituperative books and speeches that arguably catapulted him here—into the most remarkable Senate race in the nation—he asks, with apparently genuine interest, if he could be sent a copy of everyone’s PowerPoint presentations.
“I’m running for office,” Franken says by way of greeting these days, shaking hands and slapping backs on the campaign trail. “I used to be in show business.” It’s meant to clarify: That was then, this is now.
But who is Al Franken now? It’s been 13 years since he left Saturday Night Live. About a dozen since his best-selling Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot instantly endeared him to Democrats. Nearly three since he and his wife, Franni, returned to his home state from New York and began exploring a run against Coleman. Three years of potlucks, spaghetti feeds, and small-town party meetings, where, by all accounts, he won over the right people and navigated the arcane Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party nomination process to become their anointed Senate candidate last month.
He probably couldn’t have picked a better year to run against Coleman, a career politician who will face the prospect of being associated with an unpopular president presiding over an unpopular war amid a terrible economy. But having never served in public office, Franken has had to explain himself solely through his less-than-common life experiences. It’s a challenge that is hardly unprecedented in politics, of course. Everyone from Ronald Reagan to Arnold Schwarzenegger has had to overcome similar obstacles. Yet it’s a task that can be particularly tricky in this state. “To run as a celebrity in Minnesota, you have to thread a needle,” says Bill Hillsman, who created the political ads that boosted Paul Wellstone and Jesse Ventura to victory. “People get tired of you, they don’t want you to be too big. If you’re too big for your britches, then Minnesotans like to take you down a peg.” Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College, agrees: “It’s a balancing act for Franken. He can’t appear to be on Qualludes or something, nor can he let it all fly.”
But it can be done, says Schier. After all, Minnesotans have already voted for such nontraditional candidates as Wellstone and Ventura (though it should be noted that Jesse, in a three way race, won office with 37 percent of the vote). Voters are no less likely to favor a former funnyman like Franken. It just depends on how he pitches himself. “People here are willing to accept eccentricity—Ventura and Wellstone had their share of eccentricities—so long as the candidate isn’t being fake, isn’t playing games with them,” says Schier. “That’s the challenge for Al Franken. The real Al Franken has to become apparent to Minnesotans in a way that they approve.”
It’s a challenge Franken still seems to be struggling with. As he tries to define himself with voters, does he play up his sense of humor, or play it down? Does he reveal, as at the U of M event, his inner geek? Or does he try to live up to the smart alek persona people expect?
Whether he can win in November may well depend on how astutely he draws these lines: between his past and present, between his public and private selves. Can he work within the system while inspiring the same fervor he did as one of its most compelling critics? Can he convince voters to take him seriously without being funny? Can he win, in other words, by being Al Franken—only a little less so?
At the Ramada in Albert Lea, local Democrats are gathering for their county convention, some suited up, others in overalls and hunting jackets. They set out homemade cookies, slap on stickers supporting their favorite candidate, and greet each other like the familiar faces they are. “Is Lonesome Bob in the room?” the emcee asks at one point, tracking down a delegate (he is). It’s been a rough year for the region, with factory jobs fleeing, local boys bogged down in Iraq, and a sinking sense that the Bush administration couldn’t care less. Many of the most upset folks seem to be Franken supporters.
“This town is totally hopeless,” says a large, garrulous man in a jean jacket and goatee. “Lot of people don’t have the cha-ching.” He lost a good-paying job at a local plant and now sells furniture at Slumberland. Coleman, he says, is a “Bush lap-dog—just the mention of his name gets my blood boiling.” Franken, he says, seems unlikely to sell out, more likely to speak out. “It makes your eyes mist, makes you proud of your country.”
“You gotta be making noise,” says a fellow Franken supporter, “get some feathers ruffled.” Adds her friend: “There are two kinds of people in America today: those who are full of hope and those who are full of fear.” Franken, these women believe, fears nothing.
Franken arrives, hugs the intern handing out his campaign material, and strides to the podium. At 57, he looks less like Stuart Smalley, the hapless self-help guru he played on SNL, and more like one of Smalley’s better pupils: confident and a bit barrel-like, his arms swinging at his sides.
He’s introduced with a pun bad enough to make even a non-comic wince: “I’d like to think his name stands for Albert Lea Franken,” the emcee says. Franken—though his name is actually Alan—is gracious. Albert Lea, after all, is a sort of hometown for him. He moved here from the New York City area, he reminds the crowd, with his parents and older brother, Owen, when he was 4. His father opened a quilting factory here. Two years later, the business failed and the family moved to the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park, where his father, who had never graduated from high school, found work as a printing salesman and his mother became a real-estate agent. When Franken recounts this slice of family history, it’s a strategic move—countering the carpetbagger notion by laying his middle-class Minnesota cards on the table—yet also so straightforward that you wonder if he’ll slyly turn toward a camera and bellow, “Live from New York!”
But soon the old acid leaks out. “I wrote a book called Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot,” he says, spitting out fat like a hunk of gristle. “I’m not afraid of Bush,” he declares, “I’m not even afraid of Dick Cheney.” (Yeah, but you didn’t go hunting with him, someone shouts.) “And I’m sure the hell not afraid of Norm Coleman.” In an era when most candidates are loathe to even mention their opponent by name, it’s a reminder that politics is personal to Franken—these are real people deciding our fate—which hardly seems revelatory until you realize how few other politicians actually talk like this.
Franken’s pitch is appealingly simple: get the bad guys out, get the good guy in, and things will inevitably improve. “It amazes me that a man can be in his fifties and have such idealism,” former Nixon speechwriter Ben Stein, whom Franken debated a few years back, once said. This almost child-like forthrightness, however, is driven by deeper desires, says Katherine Lanpher, Franken’s former radio co-host: “He really, truly burns with this fever to make the world a better place.”
Franken’s opponents say his style is too simple, too personal. “It’s hard to see how somebody who seems to detest the people who disagree with him will work with them [in Washington],” says Ron Carey, chair of the Republican Party of Minnesota. But for many Democrats, such directness is the essence of Franken’s promise and appeal. What if all it took was someone unimpressed by business as usual and unimpaired by politeness? What if it really was that easy?
In 1957, the Soviets sent the first satellite into space, but they might as well have been aiming it straight at 6-year-old Al Franken for all the impact it had on him. “We were Sputnik kids,” Franken says of his brother and himself, science and math nuts in the era of Erector Sets and chemistry kits. Joe and Phoebe Franken encouraged their boys’ academic interests, and though Owen went to public school, it was decided that if the family could swing it, they would send Al to the elite Blake School in Hopkins, where his talents could be more closely cultivated. Owen wound up attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Al, too, might have become a mathematician, a chemist, or an astronaut if he hadn’t found the world, even as a child, so pathetically hilarious.
As a second-grader, Franken couldn’t stomach the cutesy “I’m a little teapot” show that his female classmates staged, and organized some boys to satirize it in a sketch of their own—his first parody—which left the girls in tears. Franken had absorbed the humor his father loved, all the classic Jewish comedians of the era on television: Jack Benny, Henny Youngman, Buddy Hackett. Until recently, Franken would tell one of Hackett’s jokes at rallies, parties, even on A Prairie Home Companion, despite the punch line involving a certain male organ. (In the Franken documentary God Spoke, he appears surprised when he’s advised to lay off the joke if he runs for office.) In his stump speeches now, he often channels Youngman with this line: “We’ve been married 32 years,” he says of his wife, Franni, “many of them happy.”
Franken’s father also endowed Al with his political instincts. Joe Franken had been a staunch Republican, right through Roosevelt and Kennedy—until 1964, when the Republican presidential nominee, Barry Goldwater, opposed the Civil Rights Act. A card-carrying member of the NAACP, the elder Franken told Al that no Jew could ever stomach such a stance.
At Blake, Franken combined his political and comic interests in theatrical collaborations with his friend Tom Davis, creating such satirical songs as a mock Ku Klux Klan march called Superpatrioticanticatholicsegregatious (“Even though we’re idiots, we claim to be sagacious”). Franken’s mom eventually brought the boys to Dudley Riggs’s Brave New Workshop, the sketch-comedy theater in Minneapolis, and had them informally audition with skits and a home movie featuring Davis as Superman.
Riggs was among the progenitors of improvisational comedy and his space was among the area’s first bohemian coffee shops, drawing beatniks and other countercultural types. Police occasionally raided the joint. The theater was still controversial when Franken and Davis arrived in the late 1960s. “Anytime we opened a show with anything political in it, we got a brick through the window, so the windows kept getting smaller and smaller,” says Riggs. Franken, sporting a ferocious wit and a Jim Morrison–like mop of hair, seemed right at home.
Though he headed to Harvard University on a scholarship in 1969, Franken returned home on breaks to perform with Davis at the BNW, and Riggs soon arranged college tours. It was on one such tour that the duo lingered in Los Angeles, crashing at the apartment of Pat Proft, a fellow Workshop alum who went on to co-write the Naked Gun films. Proft remembers an evening stroll with Franken through a down-and-out L.A. neighborhood and encountering a guy walking “about five Doberman pinschers. They were rough, these dogs. And Al whispered, ‘Let’s attack him.’ We laughed so hard. He’s fearless.”
Franken had graduated cum laude in social relations and behavioral sciences by then—though an aptitude test suggested a career in camp counseling or jazz (despite the fact that he doesn’t play an instrument). “I said that’s pretty much pointing to comedy,” Franken jokes. He and Davis were performing at the fledgling Comedy Store club in L.A., about to give up and continue the tour Riggs had arranged, when Lorne Michaels called them to New York—on the basis of others’ recommendations—to become writers on a new show: Saturday Night Live. They were the only cast writers Michaels hadn’t personally met—and the youngest.
Franken made his name in comedy thanks to SNL, winning five Emmys for television writing and producing. But in many ways, he has remained that Sputnik kid, a stout believer in American ingenuity, in our ability to conquer space, the Soviets, and any other barrier through brains and willpower. “We’re a country that responded to Sputnik with science,” he says, “and when we responded we came up with all this good stuff—transistors, hard plastics….” He trails off, lost in a mixture of memory and indignation. James Norton, a producer with The Al Franken Show on Air America, says the nostalgia fuels Franken’s politics: “He’s really angry and passionate about what happened to the America he loves.”
At Saturday Night Live, Franken was no Will Ferrell, running around in short shorts or going for the cheap laugh, even if he did once appear in his skivvies and a Mr. Arkansas sash (he still had his wrestler’s build then). His comedy was gentler and more directed—Stuart Smalley was both lovable and a caricature of the self-help craze. Over time, though, as the Republican right became the dominant wing of the party, he became more political and more devastated. It wasn’t Republicans in general that Franken minded—he wrote many of his political sketches with Jim Downey, a comedy writer he’s described as conservative but “not a knee-jerk conservative…. We kept each other honest.” It was the religious right that troubled Franken, and his shift from satire to politics corresponded, not coincidentally, with the remarkable rise of social conservatives in the ’80s and ’90s. He created a Pat Robertson impersonation portraying the Christian Coalition founder as an irreverent hypocrite, and he soon came to covet the anchor role of the Weekend Update segment, where he would have been able to comment on current events. In 1995, having been passed over for the job—his NBC bosses had judged that his comedy had become too political—Franken left the show.
Around the same time, the so-called Republican Revolution had swept dozens of conservatives into Congress, but something about their ascent looked funny to Franken—not ha-ha funny, Watergate funny. Franken, then as now, was convinced that most Americans hadn’t suddenly and dramatically lurched rightward. Instead, he came to believe that conservatives had been laying the groundwork—by playing up divisive issues and twisting the facts—to assert their agenda ever since Goldwater’s fateful loss in 1964. “Al is exceptionally astute at seeing inconsistencies in political policy and the like,” says his old mentor, Dudley Riggs. “If he succeeds in the Senate, it’s first of all because he’s very smart. But he’s also able to see through the bullshit pretty well.”
Franken zeroed in on those he considered to be media apologists for the right. In Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot, he stripped the plus-size pants off the radio ranter to reveal multiple marriages, a former reliance on government handouts, and other hypocrisies behind the right’s “family values” platform. He used the sort of in-your-face language that matched what he saw as the right’s scurrilousness. The book was a huge success, and Franken became a hero to legions of demoralized Democrats.
Even after the Limbaugh book, Franken was better known for his comedy than as a political figure. But in 2002, he was pulled back into politics by the death of his friend Paul Wellstone. Or rather, he was pulled in by the reaction of conservative pundits who promoted the idea that the raucous memorial service held for the senator and other victims of his plane crash was staged to rally Democrats. Then, just a few months into his term, Coleman, who may have benefited at the polls from the memorial backlash, said he was “a 99 percent improvement over Paul Wellstone.”
That was the turning point for Franken. Over the next three years, he would write two more exposés, host the marquee show of the new left-leaning Air America radio network, and return to Minnesota to explore a run against Coleman. “He saw the fact that the [backlash] was a part of Coleman’s victory as an example of why the truth matters,” says Ben Wikler, a former member of Team Franken, the Harvard University students who, in 2003, helped Franken research his book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. “It was personal to Al, a blow against how he thinks politics should be done.”
“I’ve never been in a physical fight,” says Franken. “But my dad did say, ‘If you stand up to bullies they usually back down.’” Franken pushed back relentlessly the way he knew best—through satire—bolstering those who felt, as he did, that the post–September 11 political dialogue had been hijacked by Republicans. “The year 2003 was kind of a dark time for many progressives,” says Jeff Blodgett, executive director of the Wellstone Action political-training organization. “Franken came along at a time when a lot of people were lying on the floor curled up in the fetal position. He helped pick people up and dust them off and get them focused on creating change.”
Franken’s critics, however, say his results hardly justified his means, accusing him of employing the same factual selectivity in making his points as those he criticizes. Franken, for instance, rebutted the notion of a liberal bias in the media with a study finding that Al Gore was negatively portrayed more often than Bush during the 2000 presidential race, but the study covered only the debates, before and after which Gore fared better, claims Alan Skorski, a conservative political media consultant in Washington and author of Pants on Fire: How Al Franken Lies, Smears and Deceives. Franken also defended Bill Clinton’s record on fighting terror, Skorski says, with selective information from news articles that, in general, condemned Clinton’s response.
Franken’s former researchers for his books and radio show, however, claim their boss was scrupulous to a fault. “Al was extremely academic, into facts and figures, sometimes to the detriment of the entertainment,” says Norton of the radio show. “It sometimes sounded like shock-jock radio—but with the facts checked. He’d want to know where the numbers came from. ‘Don’t tell me what I want to hear to win an argument,’ he’d say.”
His critics have had more success making an issue of his temper, suggesting that Franken has occasionally blurred the line between righteous anger and just plain anger. In retrospect, 2003 to 2005 might now be called Franken’s angry years, punctuated by blistering confrontations with FOX News host Bill O’Reilly, columnist Ann Coulter, and other right-wing propagators—who arguably were asking for it—along with moments of pure rage. “I’ve witnessed his temper,” says Skorski. Once, at a convention for conservative activists, right-wing radio-show host Michael Medved was supposed to interview Franken. When Franken learned that Medved had invited John O’Neill—leader of the Swift Boat veterans’ campaign against John Kerry and a “disgrace,” according to Franken—to join them for an impromptu debate, Franken knocked over his chair and “went ballistic,” Skorski says. “He apologized, but he does get angry.”
Norton allows that Franken would occasionally boil over in the office: “Al has sometimes blown his stack, particularly at stupidity.” But “his anger never got in the way of getting the job done. It was a non-issue.” Wikler says, “There’s a certain kind of pundit or politician who views it all as a game, as tactics—Al doesn’t have much patience for that. I think it’s an asset: He’s a very sweet guy, but somebody who doesn’t see it as a game. He takes this stuff personally.”
Franken admits that he can lose his temper, but says his anger has been very specifically directed. “I’ll plead guilty to being angry at people who don’t support our troops, for instance,” by claiming that criticism of the way the war has been conducted is unpatriotic. “And I don’t just get angry—I try to do something about it.” He recounts how he used his radio show to push for helmet liners, reducing the chances of brain trauma for soldiers. “Coleman says such criticism is bringing down troop morale. My response is: ‘Get proper helmet liners!’ And yeah, I get mad about that.”
Franken comes by his reactions honestly, says his brother, Owen, a photographer now living in Paris. “He gets teary-eyed emotional about these things, and he gets really angry and he has to watch that. He does yell at people, and I think he’s getting better about that. Wellstone got angry about things. It comes from the heart, really.”
Franken’s irritation sometimes leads him to take unusually direct action. In 2003, for example, he gathered top journalists from the New York Times, the New Yorker, and other publications at his Manhattan home for a meet-and-greet with John Kerry because he felt the presidential candidate would come across better in a smaller setting. And in 2004, Franken subdued a heckler at a Howard Dean rally by tackling the guy’s legs (“That was, like, really dumb,” he said later).
Those who know Franken aren’t surprised at all by such straightforward responses. Courtesy, pride, propriety—Franken has occasionally pushed these aside when they precluded what he felt needed to be done. “When no one else was going to do anything about something,” says Owen of his brother, “he’d decide that he would.”
The Franken townhouse, in downtown Minneapolis, is as much of a staging ground as living quarters these days, with laptops lining the dining-room table and campaign staff readying the candidate like a pit crew. “Wheels up in five minutes,” Franken is warned—time to head to another campaign stop. Franni, in her ubiquitous Twins shirt, lays out his suit. The couple met at a Harvard mixer, and their first 13 dates “were disastrous,” Franni says, only half-kidding, a series of bad movies and ill-conceived outings. Yet they’ve been a tight team ever since. Before Franken ended his radio show, on the day he announced his candidacy in early 2007, Franni kept tabs—file folders, actually—on the most conservative media personalities; she still listens to Limbaugh to stay abreast of his viewpoints. Raised by her father on Social Security survivor’s benefits and G.I. loans, the story of her childhood is a staple of Franken’s stump speech, having reinforced his belief in government’s role as an advocate for those who need one.
The living room offers little indication of Franken’s previous career. The walls are filled with family photos (their Harvard-grad daughter, Thomasin, a former teacher in the Bronx, now works on the campaign; their son, Joe, recently graduated from Princeton University with a degree in mechanical engineering), and the bookshelves are stocked with political and history tomes. “He’s obsessed with information,” says Norton. Wikler describes Franken in his radio years as an inveterate newshound: “Al was getting four or five newspapers a day, he’d carry [news articles] in his wallet he wanted to show you.”
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.