As a shattered Democratic Party searches for new leadership, Senator Al Franken has written exactly the kind of thoughtful, bracing book that makes people say: “Al Franken is running for president in 2020.” He insists that he’s not in our interview below, but Al Franken: Giant of the Senate (OK, he’s still funny) is enough to make you wish he’d change his mind. Calling various progressive politicians “the Anti-Trump” is becoming a cliché, but there’s no one who matches the description better than Franken: television star vs. television star, renowned comedian vs. renowned clown. His new book tracks the way he has worked to suppress his comic side and earn stature and respect as a US senator, and it highlights the way that Trump has resolutely and dangerously refused to do the same. Also, the book is hilarious. I talked to Franken on a torrentially rainy day in Washington, DC, in late May. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. —Joan Walsh
JW: I partly think you wrote this book so you could share all the jokes your staff wouldn’t let you tell…
AF: Well, there were a few of them. That Scalia’s dissent [on marriage equality] was “very gay”—I really fought for that one! I’d already been re-elected. I will argue my case, but if my people say, “Absolutely not,” I pay attention almost all the time.
JW: Sometimes the book reads like a self-help primer for those of us who were crushed by Trump’s victory. And we needed it. But, of course, you had to have written most of the book before he won—which nobody expected. How much did you have to change?
AF: I was essentially finished with the book—so then I had to figure out what to do with Trump. I decided I’d tie it in to what’s already there. So my pep talk to the “troops” is actually about what happened between the 2004 presidential loss and 2008—talking about Air America, fighting [President George W.] Bush on Social Security and winning. And that all leading to [the Democrats taking back the House in] 2006, and then 2008 and then boom—there’s the reversal. I mean, [Bush strategist Karl] Rove had been talking about a permanent GOP majority. So I said, “I think I know how to do this. I think I know how to make this work.”
JW: Trump feels like the culmination of everything you wrote about in Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them—even though you didn’t actually write that book about him…
AF: No, he wasn’t on my radar—that was [Sean] Hannity, [Ann] Coulter, [Bill] O’Reilly…
JW: But he is a lying liar who just keeps getting away with it. Don’t you find it incredibly depressing?
AF: (Sighs) You can’t allow yourself that.
JW: You predict in the book there could be a backlash to all the lying—a “neo-sticklerism” movement.
AF: That’s a joke.