Book review: Al Franken, Giant of the Senate, by Al Franken
Al Franken would argue that, despite the title of his new book, he’s not a giant of the Senate. That label is for the likes of Ted Kennedy and Mike Mansfield. But he certainly provides a lot of evidence in the book that argues to the contrary.
In addition to being a memoir of Al’s time as a founding writer and cast member on Saturday Night Live (sketches written by him and his comedy partner Tom Davis play in Smithsonian displays), he details the beginnings of his interest his politics, mainly taking shape as a political activist and using his satirical skills to point out absurdities and factual inaccuracies in the nation’s politics.
He hosted The Al Franken Show, a political commentary talk show on Air America, which he wanted to call The O’Franken Factor to irritate the very irritating Bill O’Reilly. He fixated on lies, like how Rush Limbaugh would blatantly scream falsehoods or try to misdirect his audience’s attention from facts that didn’t support his agenda. That led to Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Liar and Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, two of his previous political humor books.
It should be clear that he’s all about the facts, and I think that’s part of what’s made him a standout Senator. He actually does his research and his homework, sits on Committees like Judiciary and Native American Affairs in order to create effective legislation and make a difference, he pays attention and he tells the truth even when it sucks. That shouldn’t be a novel concept, but here we are.
Returning to his home state of Minnesota, Franken decided to run for the junior Senator seat in 2008, and won by the closest margin of a Senate race, including a recount and plenty of uncertainty. A friend told him that if he ran for office, he’d have to be prepared for public opprobrium. After looking up “opprobrium,” he’s sure he can handle it. “I had produced SNL during the Anthony Michael Hall season. I had nothing to fear from public scorn.”
This is very much a book about how the sausage gets made in the Senate. I can’t imagine a better person to describe the inner workings with plenty of thoughtful and intelligent insight. I learned so much. Franken discusses being on the Senate floor, fighting for his issues, how those issues are brought to his attention, and the importance of relationships with staff and other Senators. All done in a light but smart, readable, and refreshingly humorous way.
The writing style clearly wasn’t only refreshing to me, but for Franken himself, and I got the impression it was cathartic too. A good deal of the book is his reckoning of how this career change affected the personality and spirit that drove him to comedy and political satire in the first place. He had to work doubly hard to prove that he’d run for the Senate because he wanted to work, not for laughs or attention or publicity or whatever other reason “entertainers” might turn to politics.
Speaking of the Orange Menace, Franken offers his opinion on that mess as well. I hope he writes a tell-all government insider sequel as this current government monstrosity lumbers along. He’s a good source for facts. And it’s fun to glimpse his dry, famously Minnesotan humor and delivery.
He frequently references his opponents’ use of what he calls “the DeHumorizer,” a device by which they strip the funny out of everything. They took an example from one of his books where he satirized “Republicans’ willingness to balance the budget on the backs of the elderly (as well as their chronic underfunding of NASA), and I jokingly suggested that we kill two birds with one stone: Just start sending the elderly into space and don’t worry about whether we actually get them back…Every Sunday, we put an elderly (or terminally ill) person in a rocket, fire it over the Snake River, and put it on pay-per-view. The revenues go straight into reducing the debt…in the Republicans’ research document, it just read: FRANKEN PLAN TO REDUCE DEBT: BLAST THE ELDERLY IN ROCKETS OVER SNAKE RIVER AND PUT IT ON PAY-PER-VIEW.”
So you see what he was up against.
He names some instances when his unconventional behavior gave him troubles, several of which involved Mitch McConnell. But his efforts speak for themselves. He learned a work ethic model from 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.”
Very interesting was his depiction of how the Senate operates differently when it’s run by a Democratic majority and when it’s under Republicans. I don’t have to offer any commentary, and neither does he, really. Actions speak louder.
But here are some words anyway: he quotes McConnell during the Republicans’ time-wasting cloture motions and filibustering, “‘The single most important thing we can achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.’ Not making sure that kids get a great education, not creating millions of good jobs, not even getting our deficit under control. No, his first priority was about Republicans winning the next presidential election.”
He sticks to his principles so despite being friendly and reaching across the aisles, he remains a fighter.
Being a senator does mean finding a way to make friends with people you’re fighting against with every fiber of your being. But it also means finding a way to fight with every fiber of your being against people you’re friends with.
Unless you’re fighting with Ted Cruz, the most villainous villain in this book. In fact, Franken is all about striving for bipartisan unity, so it’s even more affecting when he talks about how despicable Cruz is and how much he can’t stand him. He writes an incredible chapter about him that manages to be revelatory without being gossipy, but which includes the most excellent, vivid metaphor so we really understand what Cruz is like: “He’s the Dwight Schrute of the Senate.”
On the bright side, he gave me renewed love for my home state Senator, Chuck Schumer. Franken loves him too, despite Schumer’s initial reluctance to support him when he ran in 2008, afraid they’d lose the seat. “He’s one of the smartest, most strategic, most passionate Democrats in Washington, which is why he’s the leader of our caucus in the Senate – I call him the Jewish LBJ. But he’s also kind of a character. Running around with his archaic flip phone, barging into conversations, talking too loud, screwing up jokes – no matter what kind of relatives you have, Chuck will remind you of one of them.”
Wonderful stories and lessons from an unconventional but successful politician. His constituents in Minnesota are lucky to have him. We’re all lucky to have him.
Al Franken, Giant of the Senate
by Al Franken
published May 30, 2017 by Twelve Books (Hachette)