Takin' Franken Seriously

When I was at the Midwest Republican Leadership Conference in Indianapolis earlier this year, Republicans from Minnesota were divided on whether comedian and former “Saturday Night Live” star Al Franken would evolve into a serious Democratic candidate against Republican Sen. Norm Coleman.  

Some dismissed the funnyman as just that, and likened his bid for nomination against Coleman to the late comedian Pat Paulsen’s six quadrennial joke runs for President starting in 1968. The 55-year-old Franken, they note, spent most of his adult life in New York and Hollywood, and moved back to Minnesota only this year when he saw an opportunity for publicity as a Senate hopeful.

But others aren’t so dismissive.   Franken raised more than $1.3 million in 45 days as a candidate for the Democratic nomination.   He draws large crowds and wild cheers at Democratic rallies by  promising to “take out” Coleman and spelling out his down-the-line far-left agenda: for universal health care and stem-cell research, for the comprehensive immigration reform that was killed in the Senate, against privatization of Social Security and against trade agreements such as  CAFTA. As for Iraq, Candidate Franken repeats the usual liberal charges that the Bush Administration “led us into war on false pretenses,”  and says that we should be ‘re-deploying our troops out of the civil war that has engulfed Baghdad” to bases in Kuwait, Qatar, and Afghanistan, and that “we should be convening a regional conference including Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey and Egypt to come up with a long-term plan for Iraq and ensure that a regional conflict does not arise.”  

All of this is totally unpredictable.  But when one studies his rhetoric and the way he articulates his leftist views, Franken becomes less an engaging outsider and more a political boor along the lines of Geoffrey Feiger, the trial lawyer and 1998 Michigan Democratic gubernatorial nominee  known for his mean-spirited comments about anyone he disagreed with.  

“One of the [Bush] Administration’s butt boys,” is how Franken described potential Republican opponent Coleman (New Statesman, Oct. 30, 2006) before officially becoming a candidate himself.  

Recalling his 996 best-selling book Rush Limbaugh Is A Big Fat Idiot , Franken volunteered that some of the book’s rejected titles were “ . .Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Lying Hypocrite, but that was too confrontational, and then there was Newt Gingrich Is a Big Fat Jerk, and Richard Armey Is a Big Fat Dick.” (Entertainment Weekly, March 22, 1996).  

 (In 2003, he wrote in another book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, “But you know , I don’t want to get into a whole partisan politics thing here. Not in this book anyway.  We’ll leave that for my next book, I [expletive deleted] Hate Those Right-Wing Mother [expletive deleted], due out in October 2004,.  I’m hoping it will ‘fire up the troops’ for the final weeks of the campaign season.”

Quoting the elder George Bush as saying that outing a CIA agent is treason, Franken said on “ the Late Show With David Letterman” (Oct. 21, 2005) “What it looks like is going to happen is that [Lewis] Libby and Karl Rove are going to be executed. . .I don’t know how I feel about it because I’m basically against the death penalty, but they are going to be executed.”

Running in a state where elected officials of both parties have a history of appealing to the other side and abjuring partisan labels, Franken has a record of some harsh language about Republicans.  When asked why he’s a Democrat when he’s wealthy enough to be a Republican, Franken told the Milwaukee Journal (April 5, 1998): “I noticed that most Republican politicians are real jerks.”  Eight years later, the candidate-to-be went a step further in his book The Truth (With Jokes)  and wrote: Republicans are shameless [expletive deleted].  No, that’s not fair.  Republican politicians are shameless [expletive deleted].”

Like Michigan’s Feiger, who publicly mocked  Pope John Paul, II, Franken has had no problems in the past offending Roman Catholics.  According to the Irish Times (July 27, 2004), “On stage, Mrs. [Hillary] Clinton winced at some of Al Franken’s risqué humor.  Introduced as Al O’Franken, he related — to raucous laughter — how he was married for 28 years to an Irish-American Catholic whom he ‘deflowered and got to denounce the Pope.”  Earlier, a Franken-written skit for “Saturday Night Live” “depicted a series of dogs, played by cast members, confessing to a priest.  [NBC Censor Richard] Gitter says it would have offended Catholics.  Even an intercession by NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff couldn’t get it through the censor’s net.” (Washington Post, Oct. 7, 1987).

Even on the sensitive abortion issue, Franken has tried to inject his own brand of humor: In his book The Truth (With Lies), he wrote:  “Nobody likes getting an abortion.  Except, perhaps, rape victims.  It’s just that pro-choice people know that sometimes women get pregnant when they aren’t ready to have a child.”  

Franken’s campaign website offers a reasonable-sounding plank for exit from Iraq and also has a whole section about his support for veterans, pointing out that he has made seven USO tours to entertain U.S. troops in Iraq.  But on an ’03 book tour, he admitted that “soldiers won’t hear the same message he gave Sunday [for] a forthcoming U.S. tour:  ‘Your President lied to you.  You’re dying for a loser,’ he said, ‘I don’t think that’s a morale booster.’” (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Nov. 24, 2003).  

Al Franken once told an interviewer he would “run a really creative, really exciting race” and that he didn’t think “humor and seriousness are necessarily incompatible., and that he thought this is going to be a fun campaign.”  Just how much his particular brand of humor is compatible with politics and whether or not Minnesota Democrats will judge his comments as “fun” will end up determining the outcome of the ’08 Senate campaign.