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.
“I felt like the luckiest kid in the world—and that’s because I was,” he told me. “Then I met Franni, and she didn’t grow up that way. She grew up poor, because her dad died when she was 18 months old. Her mom was 29 years old with five kids and a high-school education. They were hungry; they had the heat turned off and the phone turned off. But they made it. And they made it because of Social Security survivors’ benefits. They made it because of Pell Grants and scholarships. They made it because of the GI Bill. My mother-in-law took out a GI Bill loan [as the widow of a veteran] and went to college and had all of her loans forgiven because she taught Title I kids. That’s the story: Every one of her kids made it into the middle class. They tell you to pull yourself up by the bootstraps? But first you have to have the boots. And the government gave them the boots.”
The book is not all tributes to the hard-working middle class or detailed economic prescriptions, though there’s some of that. Franken also tells his own personal story with candor. He puts all his drug use on the record, for example, going beyond the Barack Obama political-memoir standard (weed and cocaine) to LSD. There’s a chapter titled: “Saturday Night Live (The Drug Part),” which is funny and bawdy and ultimately heartbreaking, as you watch the cast lose not just John Belushi but Chris Farley to addiction.
Franken also talks about the late Tom Davis, his beloved comic partner from high school into the 1990s, who struggled with addiction to alcohol and drugs. Franni, the soul of the book, also developed a reliance on alcohol as she raised their two kids. Franni got sober, and her husband went to Al Anon, where he learned he could be sort of a judgmental jerk. His Stuart Smalley SNL character—“You’re good enough, you’re smart enough and doggone it, people like you!”—was a comic tribute to the simple wisdom of the recovery movement on what it takes to face down life’s hard knocks without relying on alcohol or on being an asshole.
I came of age with early SNL, so all of this was like candy to me. The chapters on Franken’s post-SNL career, and the way he transitioned first to truth-telling, best-selling author, then Air America host and finally Senate candidate, were just as absorbing for someone who survived the Bush presidency. His recounting of those years really does help remind us that we can organize our way through dark times. For Franken, maybe the darkest day was when Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash right before his election, with his wife, daughter, three staffers, and two pilots. The lying liars on the right depicted the public Wellstone tribute as a crude, menacing partisan rage-fest, infuriating Franken.
But it’s when Wellstone’s successor, Republican Norm Coleman, boasted that he’s “a 99 percent improvement” over Wellstone that Franken started to feel the stirrings of political ambition.
From that point on, the book is a hilarious guide to what happens when a comedian runs for Congress. Franken can change his shtick, tell fewer jokes, show a serious side, give 45-minute orations on the skyrocketing costs of college or health care. The one thing he can’t do is erase the jokes that are already out there. Some GOP hit pieces took his gags out of context; those didn’t land a blow.
But Franken suffered over three: first, an apparent Holocaust joke about the worst gift to give Anne Frank (the answer: drums). It turns out that Franken didn’t even write or tell that joke, but he was in close proximity, and it made some Minnesota establishment politicians a little anxious. (It made Harry Reid, however, cry with laughter, when Franken called to tell him about the controversy over the phone.)
He gets in more trouble with a spoof he wrote for Playboy headlined “Porn-O-Rama,” about visiting a virtual-sex institute. But the worst was a joke attributed to Franken from a 1994 2 am SNL writers’ room rewrite session, working on a sketch in which cornball 60 Minutes staple Andy Rooney goes from banal to berserk. Franken suggested that Rooney find an empty bottle of sedatives and give the pills to show correspondent Lesley Stahl, and then he’d “take her to the closet and rape her.” In the book, Franken has the space to give the context for the joke: that he knows it’s terrible, that it was never meant to be aired, that it was the kind of free-associative crazy idea intended to jolt everyone’s psyches and inspire better (and less offensive) jokes. His SNL pal Conan O’Brian commiserates, telling Franken: “If I was on the stand at a trial, and the prosecutor asked me, ‘Mr. O’Brien, have you ever joked at a rewrite table about defiling Lincoln’s body immediately after he was shot? I’d have to throw myself on the mercy of the court.”
But rewrite-room excuses didn’t fly in the 24/7 reality of the campaign, and the “joke” almost killed Franken’s campaign. It landed on the eve of the Minnesota convention where he hoped to be chosen as the Democratic nominee to face Coleman. He made the dangerous move of addressing the controversy in a raw convention speech. “It kills me that things I said and wrote sent a message to some of my friends in this room and people in this state that they can’t count on me to be a champion for women, a champion for all Minnesotans, in this campaign and in the Senate,” he told the crowd. I’m sorry for that.” He went on to acknowledge he’d written and told some “offensive” jokes over the years, that he’d made some folks “uncomfortable,” and ended: “But I’m in this race because there are some people in Washington who could afford to feel a little less comfortable.” And he promised the first person he’d make uncomfortable was Norm Coleman.
He won the nomination, but the GOP continued to depict him as a “rape-joking pornographer,” though he had the strong support of women’s groups and his campaign was run by Stephanie Schriock, who now run’s Emily’s List. Candidate Obama refused to campaign with him when he came to Minnesota for his own race, though Hillary Clinton did, twice. Even after his formal state nomination, the head then of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, Senator Chuck Schumer, tried to shop around for a new candidate. Franken had to promise that if he couldn’t cut his deficit with Coleman to 5 percent by Labor Day, he’d drop out and let a Schumer-picked Minnesota Democrat take his place.
Franken did what he had to do, but trailed Coleman in tracking polls into October. “That’s when Franni saved the campaign,” he writes. His wife, who’d been private about her struggles with alcoholism, did an ad about it. “When I was struggling with my recovery, Al stood right by my side and he stood up for me.” The ad diluted the GOP’s toxic claims that Franken disrespected women. He won, after a recount, by 312 votes. But Coleman fought the results by every means possible, and Franken didn’t take his Senate seat until July.
The trauma of being accused of disrespecting women made it even more incredible, to Franken, that Trump could be elected. “My experience in ’08 was really having to agonize about this stuff,” he recalls, “stuff that was only a joke.” “And then Trump got elected in ’16, with all this awful stuff about him that was real!”
Arriving late to the Senate, Franken won a seat on the Judiciary Committee, where he’s made news with his dogged questioning of Supreme Court nominees and now Trump cabinet appointees. He had one of his finest moments dragging Justice Neil Gorsuch over his ruling against a trucker who abandoned his nonfunctioning vehicle in subzero weather, basically to save his life. “What would you have done?” Franken asked fiercely, and Gorsuch bleated, shamelessly: “Oh, Senator, I don’t know what I would’ve done—I wasn’t in his shoes.”
Franken’s tough questioning also led, ultimately, to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s having to recuse himself from the investigation into the Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia, after he essentially perjured himself by telling Franken he’d never had contact with Russian officials, though he’d met with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the campaign.
Some progressives, I note, worry that the Russia investigation is distracting Democrats from other pressing issues. Some see it as a way for Clinton supporters to cover over the troubles in her campaign that led her to lose to a misogynist joke like Trump. Franken disagrees. “The Russia investigation is incredibly important—it’s about a foreign power interfering with the very basis of our democracy. So we shouldn’t lose sight of that. But we have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time—health care being a prime example.”
There’s only one topic on which Franken is tight-lipped: the Democratic Party divisions that linger since the bruising 2016 primary battle between Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders. Franken endorsed Clinton early, and I asked if he regretted that, given what came later (the Minnesota Democratic caucus went for Sanders). I got a quick and resounding “No.”
We talked about single-payer health insurance–there’s a bill in California to establish a statewide single payer system, and some on the left want to make supporting it a litmus test for California Democrats. Is he worried about that?
“Vermont tried it and they couldn’t quite get to it,” he observed. Franken writes positively about single payer in his book, noting that it would have been a “much simpler” solution than the ACA. “But I also wrote that we needed 60 votes to pass something, and single payer was about 50 votes short. There are many ways to get to universal health care coverage; the problem is we don’t have a health care system, we have systems.”
Franken is as pro-choice as senators come, so I ask him about the tensions over the place in the party of so-called pro-life Democrats, which flared in the unsuccessful Omaha mayoral campaign of Heath Mello. Does he worry the party is in danger of putting the pursuit of white working-class guys over the women and people of color that make up its base?
“We do have to pay attention to them, clearly—but not at the exclusion of anybody else.” He repeats himself. “Not at the exclusion of anybody else. We have to talk about economic issues. It’s clear from the budget that Trump was talking out of one side of his mouth and he doesn’t care about those people, because if he did, this wouldn’t be his budget. So we need to take that message to them.”
But Clinton talked about economic issues, I remind him. Still, she fell short—in places like Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin; even his own state of Minnesota was a tighter contest than many expected.
“I think part of it was the Bernie problem,” he replied. “These people are angry. And they’re angry because they feel the system is rigged—and it is rigged, but not in the way they think.
“And we have the problem of people segmenting themselves in terms of where they get their news, and they just don’t wanna hear the other side of it. But you have to go there. I represent rural Minnesota, and I go there all the time. I co-chair the rural health caucus. I toured around there after the first [version of AHCA], and people up there hated it. The rural hospitals? They know how bad this bill was. But you gotta go everywhere, and reach them with the same message. Wellstone had the message: We all do better when we all do better.”
Franken is fairly optimistic the Senate can beat back the so-called American Health Care Act. “Even Mitch McConnell says he doesn’t know if he can get 50 votes.” I ask if he saw the news that House Freedom Caucus chair Mark Meadows cried when talking about how the amendment his caucus sponsored might threaten people with preexisting conditions. “He cried? I gotta tell you, I’m sometimes aghast at some of my Republican colleagues who really don’t understand how this stuff works.” He shares the story of a Republican Senate colleague, who he won’t name, who didn’t understand the way the House bill hurt people with preexisting conditions until Franken explained it.
The most clueless may be Donald Trump. “The quote of the year has to be ‘nobody knew how complicated healthcare was.’ Everybody knew. That is such an enormously dumb thing to say.”
Soon a staffer warns us we’ve only got five more minutes, so I throw out a last few bonus questions: Who in the Senate could have been a Saturday Night Live cast member?
“No one,” he answers immediately. “No one. Remember, I wasn’t a cast member, I wanted to be a cast member. I was just a featured player!” (Obviously, this still rankles.)
Could any of his SNL colleagues be senators?
“Oh yeah. A lot of them. Conan [O’Brien], definitely.”
And then, while we’re talking about role switching, I ask the question he’s already answered dozens of times, while talking about the book and elsewhere: Does he ever think about running for president against Trump? “No,” he says, again decisively. Why not?
He laughs. “It’s a really, really hard job!”
So there are no circumstances?
I warn him that a lot of people may finish the book and either think he’s running—or wish he was. He shrugs.
“What I think is funny about the book—remember I started writing it in 2015, I’d basically finished it when Trump was elected—is some people are gonna read it now and go: ‘Oh, Franken really cracked the code of what kind of a memoir to write in a post-Trump world! He’s clearly playing three-dimensional chess and he’s four moves ahead of anyone else!’ And I’m like, ‘No, no, no!’”
Our time is (long past) up, but Franken waits with me for my ride to arrive. He is still talking when I turn off my tape recorder; I warn him I have to pay attention; once I hit delete instead of save because I was distracted; I confess I’m too embarrassed to say who I was interviewing.
“Nelson Mandela!” he deadpans, and we crack up.
My car arrives, he walks me to the door, and I make peace with the fact that Franken may never be president, but he’ll continue to be an excellent senator from Minnesota. We just need another dozen folks like him to begin to roll back what the GOP has wrought.