Torrential rain came down on the late May afternoon I interviewed Senator Al Franken about his new book, Al Franken: Giant of the Senate (yes, he’s still funny). Thunder and lightning jolted our conversation, along with laughter, much of it his. (Staffers say they can always find him at events by following the laugh.) Having won reelection in 2014 and endured the nightmare of 2016, he has decided to Let Franken Be Franken Again: Hilarious. Sometimes, I told him, the book reads as though he saved up all the jokes his staff wouldn’t let him tell over the last decade. “There were a few of them,” he admits. “That [Antonin] Scalia’s dissent [on marriage equality] was ‘very gay…’ I really fought for that one! I’d already been reelected. I will argue my case, but if my people say absolutely not, I pay attention almost all the time.”
As a demoralized Democratic Party looks for new leadership, Franken has written the kind of thoughtful, bracing book that will make people say: “Al Franken is running for president in 2020.” He resolutely says he’s not—but Giant of the Senate is enough to make you wish he’d change his mind, in part because of the way Franken is an ideal foil to Donald Trump. Superficially, they both entered politics as TV stars. But, as he chronicles in Giant, Franken worked hard to become a senator who happens to be a comedian, rather than a comedian who unexpectedly became a senator, earning the respect of his colleagues in the process. Trump has resolutely and dangerously refused to do the same.
Now, with this book, Franken is both resistance leader and family counselor. Giant sometimes reads like a pep talk for Democrats devastated by Hillary Clinton’s loss and Trump’s victory. Yet it was mostly written before November 8, when Franken, like virtually everyone in public life, believed Clinton would be the next president. “I was essentially finished with the book,” he admits. “So then I had to figure out what to do with Trump. I decided I’d tie it into what was already there. My pep talk to the troops is actually about what happened between the 2004 presidential loss and 2008. I mean, [Karl] Rove was talking about a permanent GOP majority.”
But Democrats pushed back, and Franken was part of that resistance, eviscerating the right with best-sellers like Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, then hosting a popular three-hour daily Air America radio show where he deconstructed the lies in real time.
Trump seems the culmination of everything Franken wrote about in Lying Liars, I note. “Don’t you find that depressing?” I ask him.
He sighs. “You can’t allow yourself that,” he warns me. Remember, he says, that the work of the left in 2005, in organizations from the late, great Air America to the Center for American Progress, beat back a Bush plan to privatize Social Security and led “to [Democrats taking back the House in] 2006. Then 2008 and then boom, there’s the reversal.”
Boom. He makes it sound easy. He knows it’s not.
Franken’s mission for Giant is serious: to use his personal story to illuminate and entertain, and ultimately reorient the nation around progressive priorities that direct government to help families and businesses rebuild the middle class. In many ways, the book’s moral center is the story of his family and the family of his wife, Franni. He was born in the middle of the country in the middle of the 20th century in the middle of the greatest middle class ever created; Franni grew up poor.