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Al Franken: The Happy Warrior

Franken discusses the “depressing” Trump era, doing acid as a Deadhead and rediscovering his sense of humor in Congress

Al Franken: The Happy WarriorAl Franken: The Happy Warrior

While firmly rejecting any interest in running for president, Al Franken holds out hope for an electoral backlash against Trumpism in the midterms and beyond.

Mark Peterson/Redux

Last November, Al Franken had this great idea for a sketch.

Bits still come to him, unbidden, all of these years after Saturday Night Live. He doesn’t do anything with them. At this stage in his life, as a U.S. senator representing his home state of Minnesota, passing along a freebie to one of his friends in show business would leave Franken with little control over the final outcome. (“Many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip,” as one of his favorite sayings goes.) Anyway, the idea for the bit came after Donald Trump’s first postelection visit to the White House – that fleeting moment when, after meeting with Barack Obama, Trump seemed uncharacteristically humbled by the awesomeness of his new responsibility, and perhaps even spooked enough to lean on his predecessor for advice.

We open on an Oval Office set. You’ve got Alec Baldwin playing Trump, of course, and Jay Pharaoh would come back as Obama, Will Ferrell as W., Darrell Hammond as Bill Clinton, Dana Carvey as Bush Sr. And the ex-presidents have gathered to spin Trump a fiction: that each of them had consulted extensively with the man he’d replaced. “I gotta tell you, George was unbelievable,” Hammond’s Clinton would say, wrapping his arm Bubba-ishly around Trump’s shoulder. “I’d been governor for so long, but I did not know what I was doing when I got here. And here’s George, I beat him, and every day he was the first person I talked to – for an hour! – and he was the last person I talked to before I went to bed. And I just could not have done that first term without him!”

Franken, who is laying out the sketch for me in Washington one afternoon in May, pauses to loose a nasal, honking laugh. Unlike our current president, Franken laughs often, and loudly, both at his own jokes and at the jokes of others. “ ’Yeah, that’s how it’s done,’ ” he continues in a hoarse Arkansas drawl. “ ’You listen to the last guy.’  ” Franken shakes his head wistfully. He’d actually considered submitting this one. “I think I didn’t,” he admits, “partly because I was kind of hoping that was Obama’s play. That he’d go, like, ‘I can call you every morning if you want!’ I didn’t want to ruin it.”

Instead, Franken returned to the grim new reality of his current day job. He attended Trump’s inauguration, which he describes in his admirably incautious new memoir, Al Franken, Giant of the Senate, as “perhaps the most depressing moment I’ve had since I entered politics, though that record has been repeatedly surpassed since January 20.” That sentence was written before Trump’s sacking of FBI Director James Comey, the appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel in the Russia investigation, and the outrageous, near-daily series of concurrent leaks, most swirling around what looks an awful lot like obstruction of justice by the president. The bewildering ineptitude of the alleged misdeeds felt nearly as shocking as the misdeeds themselves, and simply keeping apace of the scandals can be exhausting, even for a sitting U.S. senator: Franken was commuting home from work one night when his driver told him the news about Comey. Franken said, “No! That’s crazy!” He chuckles at the memory, then continues, “We have to have patience [with the special counsel], because this needs to be done right. But it feels like it’s building, and like it has a life of its own.”

Al Franken recalls what it was like to attend Donald Trump’s inauguration. Watch below. 

In the foreword to Giant of the Senate, Franken describes his journey into politics as “the story of how, after spending a lifetime learning to be funny, I learned how not to be funny.” In the latter half of the 1970s he was part of the freshman class of SNL, where he very publicly inhaled (“I only did cocaine to stay awake to make sure nobody else did too much cocaine,” Franken quipped in James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales’ oral history Live From New York) and wrote jokes that, decontextualized, might not play in Lake Wobegon. One unaired SNL sketch opened on Franken’s actual Jewish parents dressed in concentration-camp uniforms, with Franken and his writing partner, Tom Davis, standing by as Gestapo officers. (Franken’s father, Joe Franken: “Alan, I’m sorry, we’ve had second thoughts about doing this.” Franken, angrily shouting: “You said you wanted to be on the show, Dad!”) Later, with books like Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot, he helped shape the modern comedic voice of lefty dissent – pointed fact-checking as mocking entertainment – that would become de rigueur on shows like The Daily Show and its many spawn.

In the genteel halls of the Senate, Franken, understandably, made a point of tempering that voice. For fans of Franken the comedian, author and righteous liberal pundit, his muted political persona during his first term could feel disconcerting, like something of an overcorrection. He started to loosen up after his comfortable re-election in 2014, but it is the unfathomable rise of Trump that has finally given Franken a moment perfectly suited to his particular talents: The man with a sixth sense for bullshit taking on the da Vinci of bullshit artists. With C-SPAN as his new stage, Franken has weaponized the gifts that proved so useful for comedy – a sharp eye, a sharper tongue, the ability to tease out the essential absurdity of a given situation and deliver the goods with maximum impact – within the target-rich environment that is the Trump administration, simply by removing the punchlines.

“Often what makes a really good joke a really good joke,” Franken writes in Giant of the Senate, “is that a number of ideas come together simultaneously.” When I ask him about his preparation for Senate hearings, he refers back to this passage, explaining that he’s after a similar “crystallization” of ideas in the brief number of minutes he’s allowed for questioning, by the end of which, ideally, “you go, ‘Oh, my goodness,’ and it’s really clear that either this person doesn’t know what they’re talking about or they aren’t being truthful.”

Progressives hungry for sharper left hooks have cheered Franken’s cathartic, prosecutorial interrogation technique, and to the surprise of his staff, and the senator himself, clips of Franken roughing up Trump nominees have gone viral. “I’ve always been tough in hearings,” Franken says, “but now we have an administration making some really bad appointments, so there’s a reason people are paying more attention.” His friend Mandy Grunwald, a veteran political consultant, once remarked after an especially ferocious grilling, “It’s not enough for you to kill these guys. You have to set them on fire.” When I remind Franken of the quote, he shrugs and says, “I put it in the book because I cop to it.” (“Maybe I wasn’t allowed to be funny anymore,” Franken writes. “But I could still let my id out once in a while by eviscerating some right-wing jerk.”)

Franken, one should also note, possesses an impressive fluency in the minutest of policy details. “Many people love Al because he’s funny,” says Sen. Elizabeth Warren. “I love him because he’s wonky.” During the confirmation of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Franken ventured deep into the weeds with a question on standardized-test data (against the advice of his staff) and elicited one of the most damning moments of the hearing, as DeVos revealed the depth of her ignorance on basic education policy. At other times, Franken’s Midwest accent slows to a crawl, as he wonders, Columbo-style, if the distinguished occupant of the witness stand could just clear up a couple of tiny things for him, slowly turning up the heat until, without even being asked, Jeff Sessions is blurting out a mistruth. “I did not have communications with the Russians,” Sessions told Franken – a misstatement of fact that forced the attorney general to recuse himself from the investigation into ties between Russia and the Trump campaign.

“During the Sessions confirmation hearing, Franken was a hero to me,” says Sen. Cory Booker. “He’s like a bloodhound. Once he’s got a scent, he’s going to keep coming and coming and coming.” Franken himself tends to deflect when asked about his higher profile, insisting it mostly has to do with heightened public attention to Trump’s appointees and the Russia investigation. But at one point, he finally allows, “I tend to be good at these things. And I think the Democratic base wants people to fight this.”

“Did Franken tell you our running joke?” Warren asks me. “The day I’m sworn in, I’m all excited. And Al sits down next to me and says, ‘OK, which one of us is the least-probable United States senator?’ And since then we’ve had this running thing, back and forth, where we’ll point to different aspects of our lives that would make us incredibly improbable candidates to ever win a Senate seat.”

Of course, neither Warren (married at 19, dropped out of college before earning a law degree as a young mother) nor Franken would stand a chance if the eligibility requirement of their “Least Likely to Succeed” contest was expanded to include the current resident of the White House. Could this be one of the reasons Trump’s moment has also become the junior senator from Minnesota’s? There’s no denying the pleasing symmetry at work here. Franken and Trump, a pair of outsiders, come to Washington from the world of entertainment – NBC, the two of them! – both gifted performers with not-inconsequential levels of self-regard, but each also carrying a wildly different skill set: Trump that of the professional celebrity, winking at the audience, understanding better than anyone how to sell a highly scripted version of “reality,” the whole seriously-not-literally business, and Franken that of the satirist, calling out untruths and hypocrisy, ridiculing the powerful, making bullies small. “If I’m being honest,” Franken writes, looking back at his migration from comedy into progressive activism, “my favorite part was always busting liars.” In Trump, he’s found no better foil.

One overcast morning in April, not far from downtown Minneapolis, Franken emerges from his modest brick townhouse wearing an official U.S. Senate windbreaker and carrying a suit jacket on a hanger. Franken has the squat build of a wrestler (which he once was, in high school), and his face, like the president’s, seems to have arranged itself around his mouth – in Franken’s case, not the mirthless pucker of a would-be king, but a joker’s toothy grin. When Franken laughs, his cheeks dimple extravagantly, and his eyes squint into a merry, knowing focus, searching out your own, to make sure you appreciate the joke as much as he does. It’s hard to imagine Trump ever doing anything similar, even in private, with his closest friends.

In the back seat of a black sport-utility vehicle, Franken flips open his briefing book. A little translucent wire connected to a hearing aid curls out from his ear like the hind leg of a mysterious burrowing insect. His first meeting is with the Minnesota Farmers Union, and for the next 20 minutes, Franken alternates between giving me an exhausting debriefing on the minutiae of ag policy and trying to call up a YouTube video of Jack Benny and Mel Blanc on his smartphone. “Benny was all about timing and his personality more than anything,” he says. In the clip, Blanc, wearing a sombrero, plays a Mexican named Sy who answers all of Benny’s questions by saying, “Sí.” “Now this, today, would never be allowed on TV,” Franken says.

I say it reminds me a bit of Abbott and Costello. “It’s not like Abbott and Costello at all, actually,” Franken says, shooting me a disapproving look, though it’s followed by another loud chortle. “ ’Who’s on first?’ is what you’re thinking of – but Benny was sui generis.” He adds, “Actually, Pat Roberts and I are big Jack Benny fans.” Roberts is a conservative Republican senator from Kansas. He and Franken trade old Benny lines when they bump into each other on the subway that runs beneath the Capitol. “You have to be 80 and a comedy fan to know what we’re doing,” Franken says.

By the time we arrive at the meeting hall in exurban Dakota County, it’s pouring. Someone from the building comes to Franken’s door holding a giant umbrella. He looks at me and says, “You’ll get a little wet. I’ll be fine.”

Inside, Franken takes questions from a roomful of farmers, mostly men, many of them senior citizens wearing plaid shirts. Franken speaks fluently about Canadian milk subsidies, crop insurance, ethanol support, potential changes in the farm bill, and Trump’s secretary of agriculture, Sonny Perdue, whom Franken, in a rare kind word for the president, considers an excellent choice. When it’s time for questions, a younger farmer stands. He’s wearing a green hoodie plastered with the words i hate being sexy but i’m a farmer so i can’t help it. Franken remains inscrutable. As the man relays a lengthy, detailed anecdote illustrating the problems of agricultural overproduction, Franken listens intently, nodding. Finally, he says, “I get that about supply management.” Beat. “By the way, your sweatshirt really undercuts everything you’re saying. I can’t take you seriously.”

The crowd howls. Franken beams. He takes more questions, defending Obamacare, mocking the House Republicans’ replacement bill. When it’s time to wrap up, the host tells the crowd to pass along any other questions and Franken or his staff will get back to them. Franken leans toward the microphone and says, “It’ll be my staff.”

He spends the rest of the day meeting constituents who might be adversely affected by proposed Trump budget cuts. To a 100-year-old Meals on Wheels recipient, he says, “On behalf of the mediocre generation, I’d like to thank the greatest generation for saving the world,” and is delighted when, with perfect timing, she gives him a look and replies, “You’re welcome.” Then she asks if he’s planning to run for president. He says no, but that he may need her to knock on doors for his 2020 Senate re-election campaign.

Back in the SUV, Franken says, “This kind of thing reminds you of why you’re fucking doing this, you know? People are great, and these programs make sense. And this should not be a partisan thing.”

Franken doesn’t soft-pedal how dire, in his view, the situation in Washington has become, but he’s been encouraged by the grassroots resistance. The GOP health-care bill might have squeaked through the House, Franken points out, but “by the end of the day, everyone in health care was against it. And only 17 percent of the American public overall is for it – which, by the way, is the exact same percentage of people who say they’ve personally seen a ghost.”

Later, he allows that an upside of Trump’s election is the way it has united progressives. “I think it’s bringing us together,” Franken says, adding that “a colleague of mine, a Republican, was asked at an event, ‘Are Democrats angry?’ This was not long after the inauguration. And he said, ‘Democrats are angry. Republicans are angry and scared.’ ” Franken believes Republicans in Congress “are afraid of what Trump is doing and who Trump is and the way all of this is getting out of control, but also afraid of their base, which seems to be sticking with him. They don’t want to be primaried, so they have a very odd row to hoe.” As for Democrats, he says, “You can’t whine about something that’s over, and this is what we’ve got right now. It would have been much better to win, to have been able to confirm Merrick Garland or somebody else – it would be a different world. But it is what it is. And I’m glad I’m here. I feel like it makes my being here that much more essential.”

En route to lunch, a Grateful Dead song comes on the radio. “Want to turn that up a little?” Franken calls up to the front seat. Actually, let me amend that: Grateful Dead songs have never stopped playing in the SUV during our drives around Minnesota, because, per Franken mandate, and to the endless consternation of his staff, the satellite radio in his official vehicles is always tuned to SiriusXM’s 24/7 Dead channel. Franken, in a shameless Boomer Dad move, air-conducts to a symphonic, jammy section in the middle of a live version of “Terrapin Station,” at one point closing his eyes and pumping a fist. I mention that I’ve heard good things about a new Amazon documentary about the band. “I think I might be in it!” Franken says. “They interviewed me for it.”

Ed Shelleby, Franken’s communications director, perks up. “They interviewed you for what now?”

“A Grateful Dead documentary,” Franken says, warming to the opportunity to torture his staffer. “You must’ve approved that, Ed.” Then he pretends to recite from his interview, shifting into a stoned-guy voice: “ ’Yeah, I used to take a lot of acid and go to the Dead. Once I went in a Portosan and Lesh’s bass was unbelievable, so I listened to the whole concert in the Portosan. And people were knocking on it, but I wouldn’t let them in because the sound.’ ” Pause. “ ’I think it might’ve been ’cause I was tripping. But I’m not sure.’ That’ll be in the doc. Don’t worry, Ed.”

“What a fun time for everybody,” Shelleby mutters over his boss’s laughter.

“They told me afterward, ‘This is great,’ ” Franken says. “ ’We got a senator saying this stuff!’ ”

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (L) and Minnesota Sen. Al Franken confer during a break in the hearing for Georgia Rep. Tom Price, nominated to be the next secretary for Health and Human Services, during Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee confirmation hearings, on Capitol Hill, January 18, 2017, in Washington, DC.

Franken grew up middle class in St. Louis Park, the Jewish suburb of Minneapolis immortalized by the Coen brothers, his rough contemporaries, in A Serious Man. Franken and his older brother, Owen, were nudged by their parents toward practical pursuits. “You boys are going to study math and science so we can beat the Soviets!” their father, Joe, who was a son of German Jewish immigrants and went to work at 16, told them. Owen studied physics at MIT, but upon graduating became a photojournalist. By the time Franken left Harvard in 1973, he and Davis, a buddy from high school, had already been writing comedy sketches for years. They loved Carson, Pryor, George Carlin, Woody Allen, the Smothers Brothers and, most of all, the dry comic duo Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding. They also loved acid and the Grateful Dead, and their own act would essentially build on the scaffolding of classic Bob and Ray routines – deadpan, leisurely paced character work, in which either member of the team might play the straight man or the clown – with a shaggier dope-smoker’s sensibility more reflective of their own generation. After college, the pair ended up in Los Angeles – along with Franken’s college sweetheart and future wife, Franni – where they did sets at the Comedy Store and landed an agent, but otherwise, per Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad’s Saturday Night: A Backstage History of “Saturday Night Live,” were “so broke that during the holidays they played Santa Claus and Winnie-the-Pooh at the local Sears.”

Then a packet of their writing landed on the desk of a 30-year-old television producer named Lorne Michaels, who was staffing a new late-night comedy show in New York. Franken and Davis, still in their early twenties, were hired as apprentice SNL writers for a joint salary of $350 a week. One of their first appearances came during Episode Five, right after Abba performed “S.O.S.” In the sketch, they played college students engaged in a mundane, presumably stoned conversation about a botched history midterm. What made the exchange funny – especially if you were also stoned – was that you never saw Franken or Davis: The entire screen was filled with the parallel mundanity of the excruciatingly slow game of Pong they were playing. (In case you ever wonder if the legendary amount of drugs consumed at SNL during those first seasons might be retrospectively overstated: “Pong” became a recurring sketch.)

Franken and Davis sketches also had a tendency to get messy. One of their most famous, in which Dan Aykroyd plays an accident-prone Julia Child, ends with the chef bleeding to death in her gore-spattered TV kitchen. In another routine, the pair get into a lovers’ quarrel after Davis outs their relationship in front of Franken’s wife and son – this is more amusing than it sounds, in part because they’re both wearing nothing but sumo-wrestler thongs – after which, Franken screams, “I’m gonna make you feel sorry you did this,” and shoots himself in the head.

In real life, Franken’s humor could slip from edgy into borderline sadistic. When Gilda Radner threw a baby shower to celebrate the birth of Al and Franni’s daughter, Franken showed up holding a swaddled doll and performed a wild pratfall, landing, full-force, on what everyone but Franni (in on the joke) thought was his newborn baby. “The scream that came out of these women,” Davis told the authors of Live From New York. “To this day, I’ve never heard a more terrifying sound than all those women witnessing this baby being killed by its father. I’m telling you, Al did shit like that. I love him for it.”

Franken had been politically engaged since high school, when he joined his older brother on the road with Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign. He could also be “honest to a fault,” as his friend Conan O’Brien says – speaking truth to power no matter how quixotic or self-defeating. When Franken got word Spiro Agnew had come to 30 Rock to do Tom Snyder’s late-night show, he marched downstairs with a tape recorder, like a journalist conducting an interview, and berated Nixon’s former vice president in his makeup chair (Michaels was not amused). In 1980, as Michaels contemplated leaving SNL, Franken – known at NBC as Michaels’ preferred successor – savaged then-network president Fred Silverman on “Weekend Update.” In the bit, Franken questioned why Silverman, a “total, unequivocal failure,” had access to a company limousine while Franken did not, and called on viewers to write Silverman – “he’s timid, indecisive and easily pressured!” – and demand the situation be rectified. Franken left the show at the end of the season.

When Michaels returned to SNL in 1985, he brought along Franken and Davis, who had spent the intervening years attempting, largely unsuccessfully, to follow their SNL peers into Hollywood careers. Three years later, O’Brien was hired as a writer. “If you’d said to me back then, ‘Someone on this writing staff is going to be a respected senator,’ I don’t think I’d have guessed Al,” O’Brien acknowledges. “He’s incredibly smart, but he’s not a natural politician; he’s not a smooth talker, he isn’t out to charm people.” Franken stuck around SNL until 1995, when the anchor slot at “Weekend Update,” a job he’d long coveted, was given to Norm Macdonald. “I think there was a feeling,” Michaels offered in Live From New York, “that Al was too associated with the show – the ‘old’ show.”

Franken had also garnered a prickly reputation. A 1995 New York article describes a blowup on cast member Janeane Garofalo, who made the rookie mistake of attempting to memorize her part and ended up flubbing a line in rehearsal. According to a witness, “Al went shithouse. ‘Read the fucking cue cards!’ ” His breakout character during those years, the blow-dried, cardigan-clad self-help guru Stuart Smalley, refracted real-life pain: Franken’s wife had gone to rehab for alcoholism – she’d been secretly drinking after a postpartum depression following the birth of their second child – and Franken based Smalley, in part, on certain 12-step types he’d encountered at Al-Anon meetings (where, he says, he began learning to control his own temper).

Davis also struggled with drug and alcohol abuse, and hated the Smalley character. Franken organized an intervention in the early Nineties. Davis refused treatment, and the pair underwent an acrimonious split. They eventually reconciled, and after Davis died of cancer in 2012, Franken delivered a moving, tearful eulogy to his best friend on the Senate floor, ending with passages from one of Davis’ final written works, an essay titled “The Dark Side of Death.” (“I want to remind you that dead people are people, too. . . . We are all going to try it sometime. Fortunately for me, I’ve always enjoyed mystery and solitude.”)

Before he happened upon a profile of Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman in 2003, Franken had never thought of running for political office. Stuart Saves His Family, an ill-conceived Smalley movie, bombed spectacularly in 1995, but Franken managed a nifty career reinvention a year later with Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot, a liberal salvo that mocked the hypocrisies (and physical appearance) of right-wingers like Limbaugh. The idea for the book came in 1994, after Franken hosted the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. (“You were great,” Steve Martin told him afterward. “That’s what you should do!”)

Coleman, a Republican, had won his seat after the incumbent progressive Democrat, Paul Wellstone, died in a plane crash with his wife and daughter less than two weeks before the election in November 2002. Wellstone and Franken were friends, having met in 1990 when Franken’s 82-year-old father volunteered for Wellstone’s campaign. Franken himself had hosted a campaign event for the senator only six weeks before his death, and was understandably incensed by a Coleman quote in the profile: “To be very blunt, and God watch over Paul’s soul, I am a 99 percent improvement over Paul Wellstone.”

Franken writes that the “germ of the idea to run” came right there, but quickly passed. He had a Harvard fellowship and a book deadline (for Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, a Fox News broadside that became a bestseller after the network unsuccessfully sued him for trademark infringement and which also led to a hilarious BookExpo panel where Franken baited Bill O’Reilly into screaming, “Shut up! You had your 35 minutes! Shut up!“). Then Franken joined Air America, a progressive talk radio station launched during the Iraq War, as one of its marquee hosts. He called his show The O’Franken Factor.

The show’s “explicit goal” was to prevent the re-election of George W. Bush, “a guy whom we already were pretty sure was one of the worst presidents in history,” Franken writes in Giant of the Senate. “And we failed.” Air America filed for bankruptcy two years later. At that point, Franken began reconsidering a Senate run. “I think I could accomplish a lot,” he told a friend in late 2005. “What do I really have to risk?”

The friend, looking skeptical, replied, “Public opprobrium?”

Nearly a third of the book is devoted to Franken’s first race, and it’s a surprising page-turner. Sens. Chuck Schumer and Harry Reid both responded coolly to Franken’s decision to enter the primary, and then-candidate Obama refused to campaign for Franken or even to allow him to stand onstage at an Obama rally. Schumer, whom Franken had known since their student days at Harvard, told him, “We should have a 60 percent chance of winning this seat. You have about a 40 percent chance.”

The state’s Republicans attempted to paint Franken “as a short-tempered carpetbagger.” When his career as a comedy writer came up, Franken trained himself to patiently reassure dubious Minnesotans he wouldn’t prove a national embarrassment, but his every instinct made him want to explain why those old jokes were funny. Schumer tried to pressure him to apologize for a satirical article he wrote for Playboy called “Porn-O-Rama,” which the GOP called “demeaning and degrading” to women. Franken balked, insisting that to apologize “felt like a betrayal of myself.” (Franken even considered releasing his campaign’s “self-oppo” report, i.e., all of the potentially offensive past jokes his staff had gathered to prepare for the Coleman onslaught, as a book.) “Imagine Louis C.K. having to apologize for his stuff,” Franken tells me. “You don’t apologize. It went against the core of my ethic as a comedian.” Still, he allows, “There’s no percentage in litigating humor. Humor uses irony, it uses hyperbole. Ambiguity is actually a tool. And none of those things look good in cold black-and-white. So I had to deal with it. It’s like that old LBJ story, where he wanted to accuse his opponent of having sex with a donkey. His staff says, ‘What?’ And he says, ‘Well, I just want to hear him deny it!’ ” (Franken eventually expressed “regret that people have been legitimately offended by some of the things I’ve written.”)

The final tally wound up so close – with Franken winning by a mere 312 votes – that the recount dragged on for months. He took the oath of office on July 7th, 2009. With senators from both parties skeptical of his presence – Republicans because he’d been such a flamboyant partisan critic, Democrats because he might use his celebrity to showboat or hog the cameras – Franken’s advisers counseled him to adopt the strategy of another high-profile senator, Hillary Clinton: “Be a workhorse, not a showhorse. Go to all your hearings. Come early, stay late. Do your homework. Don’t do national press. Be accessible to your state media and to your constituents.”

Like most comedians, it pains Franken to let a funny moment pass unjoked upon. “I could see him, almost through sheer force of will, sublimating his sense of humor,” says O’Brien, who watched, impressed, the behavior of his friend once in office. Since Franken’s re-election in 2014, O’Brien notes, “I wouldn’t say he’s letting his freak flag fly, but he is allowing his sense of humor to show a bit more.” O’Brien chuckles, recalling an example: “At one hearing, he gaveled in the proceedings, and as he slams down the gavel, he does a comic take about being rattled by the sound. Nyaaa! And someone on his staff immediately texted, ‘What are you doing?!’ And he said, ‘I’m doing Curly from the Three Stooges.’ ”

Discussing Trump’s election in the book, Franken, groping for reasons to hope, points back to the 2004 re-election of George W. Bush as another “dark time for progressives,” in which “a Republican had won a presidential election despite things that to many of us seemed obviously disqualifying (in Bush’s case it was Iraq and not his entire life story and personality)” – and yet, only two years later, Democrats swept the midterm elections, and two years after that came Obama (and Franken). “I still remember vividly how distraught I was after Bush got re-elected in 2004,” Franken writes. “I also remember what came next.”

Minnesota Senator Al Franken greets spectators and participants at a Pride Parade in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The day Trump fires James Comey, the Anti-Defamation League holds its National Leadership Summit in Washington, and that morning, Franken turns up to address the group. Sen. John McCain is wrapping up his own speech when he spots Franken in his peripheral vision. “Here comes one of the worst comedians I’ve ever seen,” McCain observes dryly, adding, over laughter from the crowd, “Since he’s here, I have a 45-minute statement concerning North Korea.” Then, turning serious, he says, “I’m sure you saw his statement yesterday.” McCain is referring to Franken’s strong words during a Senate Judiciary hearing the previous afternoon, when former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates testified on how she’d warned the Trump administration about the possible Russian compromise of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. “I’m very happy,” McCain continues, “to be serving beside him on this issue.”

When Franken steps to the podium, he calls McCain “one of the best gentile senators,” and from that point has the crowd in his hand. He tears into the Trump campaign for trafficking in anti-Semitic imagery – “Protocols of the Elders of Zion stuff” – and chokes up as he recounts a rural Minnesota high school graduation he attended in which the class speaker was of Somali descent and wearing a hijab. He also pushes back against a questioner who attacks the Obama administration’s Iran deal and, noting that the new ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, once called him a clown, points out, “There are people who revere clowns!”

After the speech, Franken returns to his office for a prep session on the confirmation hearing of Makan Delrahim, a former lobbyist (and Trump lawyer) who has been nominated to head the antitrust division of the Department of Justice. Franken reads possible questions drawn up by his staff aloud, editing on the fly: “ ’Mr. Delrahim, without commenting on the pending transaction specifically, do you subscribe to the view that vertical mergers aren’t cause for concern by antitrust regulators. . . . ?’ He’ll say no, right? So if he says no, then I’ll bring up this letter from AT&T [about a desired merger]. He’ll say he can’t comment, but that letter is bullshit, right?”

“We can add a line on that,” Leslie Hylton, a staff member, says.

“Don’t use bullshit,” Franken says.

And then Franken joins fellow Sens. Bernie Sanders and Tammy Baldwin to announce a jointly sponsored bill that would protect pensions. Sanders, more of a celebrity than Franken at this point, is signing autographs for excited members of the machinists union. “Hey, Al, how are ya?” Sanders says. When it’s Franken’s turn to speak, he reminds the crowd that he’s been a Writers Guild member since 1975, and even gets the senator from Vermont, glowering seriously behind him, to redden and crack a slight smile when he says, “This is about the middle class. I know the president will be for this, because he talked about workers, so this will be right down his alley.”

In Giant of the Senate, Franken talks about using humor to bridge the divide with Republican legislators. Sen. Lindsey Graham is the funniest Republican, at least according to his colleague best-equipped to judge. Once, after sincerely complimenting a speech by Sen. Mitch McConnell, Franken added, “Mitch, I have to say, I really like your speeches better that aren’t in the service of evil,” to which the majority leader smiled and responded, “I like the evil ones better.” (When I say that exchange humanized McConnell for me, Franken mutters, “Yes, I was afraid that would happen.”)

Senator Al Franken speaks out with Congressional Democrats in front of the U.S. Supreme Court against President Donald Trumps Executive Order banning citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from traveling to the United States in Washington, USA on January 30, 2017.

Franken admits he found Trump funny during the first GOP debate – particularly his comeback to Megyn Kelly’s list of deplorable comments he’d made about women (“only Rosie O’Donnell”) – and remembers Hillary Clinton and her top aide, Huma Abedin, telling him they’d stop to watch Trump early in the primary because they found him “kind of entertaining.”

It didn’t take very long before the joke curdled. And now, approaching the five-month marker of the Trump presidency, the sheer scale of the catastrophe has yet to fully come into focus, though the daily pileup of incompetence, breathtaking ignorance and possible criminal activity has been effective in one regard, as an inadvertent distraction technique, shifting our eyes away from any number of disastrous policy decisions coming out of the White House. “Obviously, you can’t overemphasize the importance of the Russia story, but in the meantime, we’ve got things like health care moving very fast,” notes Franken, who sits on the Senate’s health committee. “That’s something we should be talking about, but it’s hard to get people’s attention.”

The possible obstruction of justice, the appointment of the special counsel, every offensive thing Trump’s said, the definitional absurdity of the words “President Donald Trump” – all of this makes a man like Al Franken, who less than a decade ago might have worried that his history of drug use and off-color jokes could be disqualifying to voters, seem like a Jimmy Stewart character by comparison. His name turned up in a recent Public Policy Polling survey of potential Trump challengers in 2020, alongside only four other Democrats: Warren, Booker, Sanders and Joe Biden. (In their head-to-head, Franken and Trump tied at 43 percent, with 14 percent undecided and the pollsters noting Franken is not yet “universally well-known nationally.”)

While firmly rejecting any interest in running, Franken holds out hope for an electoral backlash against Trumpism in the midterms and beyond. “But right now,” he continues, “we’ve got too much happening at this moment to worry about ’18 or ’20.” Last week, the Congressional Budget Office scored the House Republicans’ health-care bill, estimating that 23 million Americans would lose their insurance over the next decade. Though the Senate version of the bill is currently being drafted by 13 (male) Republicans, Franken’s tentatively optimistic that a more bipartisan process might begin in the health committee, which is holding a hearing on a bill introduced by Franken that would lower prescription-drug prices. “Those are the things I can pay attention to now,” he says, “and as one of 48, I have an important role to play.”

Let’s end on another sketch. This one comes up when I ask Franken at what point he and Davis began writing about politics at SNL. It aired just over 40 years ago, in 1976, on the 19th episode of the first season: Carly Simon performed “You’re So Vain,” and then guest host Madeline Kahn, as Pat Nixon, is writing in her diary about “the stormy final days at the White House,” and we flash back to Dan Aykroyd as an inexplicably mustachioed Richard Nixon, talking to paintings of presidents past (“Well, Abe, you were lucky – they shot you”), being visited by his daughter and vacuous son-in-law (Gilda Radner and Chevy Chase), forcing John Belushi’s Kissinger to kneel and pray with him. “You’ll have to excuse me,” Belushi eventually says. “I’ve got to warn the Strategic Air Command to disobey all presidential orders.” He also tells the president to think of resignation not as a resignation but as a “humiliation with honor.”

Who knows? Maybe Franken will have the opportunity to update this sketch one day. At one point, one of his staffers calls it up on Hulu, and Franken, smiling, sits down to watch the ending.

“Abe,” Aykroyd’s Nixon asks the portrait, “why me, of all people?”

This time, Lincoln actually responds: “Because you’re such a dip.”

Franken turns to me, still smiling. “That was
supposed to be ‘putz,’ ” he says, “but the censors wouldn’t allow it.”


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