Jeff Sessions Preferred Dragnet: Talking with Al Franken, GIANT OF THE SENATE

It’s a little nerve-racking to sit down with a giant of the Senate, but Democratic Senator Al Franken of Minnesota wears the mantle lightly. To be clear, Giant of the Senate is the tongue-in-cheek title of his new book. But while it’s seasoned with humor, there’s plenty of meat.

Franken, hardly looking old enough to have been one of the original writers (along with his partner, Tom Davis) on Saturday Night Live, still has great comedic timing. It’s on display when he speaks to a crowd of 800 at the Printers Row Lit Fest in Chicago. But when I talked with him one-on-one before his presentation, he’s thoughtful, though the wit is always there—as well as his infectious bark of a laugh.

The idea for this book, he says, had been rolling around in his head for a while. He won his first election in 2008 (after a recount and a court case) by an underwhelming 312 votes, and his first term was spent head down, learning the ropes. But he won his second term, in 2014, by a comfortable margin, and that’s when he decided to get serious about writing—if he could find the time. The opportunity presented itself when Franken found himself alone in a northern Minnesota cabin with his laptop, after his wife, Franni was unable to join him.

“I was,” he remembers, “a little afraid the experience would turn out like The Shining.” Instead, it gave Franken the opportunity to figure out what the book would be. He wanted to write about growing up during the 1950s in a small suburban house, with supportive parents and not much money, but feeling as he put it, “as if he was the luckiest kid in the world—because I was.”

Franni’s upbringing was not quite as fortunate. Her father died, leaving a young widow and five children. It was Social Security survivor benefits that helped the family make it, and stories like hers, in which government helps, are among the reasons Franken says he’s proud to be a Democrat.

The book features anecdotes about his comedic life, his books, and his radio career on Air America. He discusses the struggle his wife had with alcohol as well the effect Tom Davis’ addictions had on their relationship; both episodes cemented his interest in public health issues. Franken also writes about the late Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, who inspired him to enter politics. But all this only takes up about a fifth of the book. Franken then plunges into, first, his campaign for the Senate and then congressional life. It’s a story of legislative work that is often one step forward and two steps back, and it’s populated with an amazing cast of characters—amazing can go a lot of ways here—who happen to be his colleagues.

Franken isn’t shy when it comes to telling tales about fellow senators, like the time he won a few of the (older) Republicans over after telling them he had worked with SNL host Broderick Crawford, of Highway Patrol fame (Jeff Sessions preferred Dragnet). So how did his colleagues take appearing in the book, given that, as Franken notes throughout, comity is key to getting things done in the Senate?

“Fortunately,” he says drily, “they have a lot of work to do.” But he does praise the way his fellow senators got on board early with his sense of humor, and that makes him think “they’ll be okay with it.” He notes that he did follow protocol and gave a heads-up to everyone he mentioned—except Ted Cruz, who merits his own chapter, “Sophistry.” Franken sees Cruz as a “toxic” colleague, or as he has put it, the co-worker who will use the break room to microwave fish.

Al Franken at the Printers Row Lit Fest, via

One reason Franken thinks other senators will appreciate the book is because he gets to say what a lot of them might be thinking: the agonies of fund-raising on the downside, and, on the upside, about the importance of staff members who do much of the legwork on the wide range of issues that come across a senator’s desk. And the weight of knowing, in the end, that decisions and votes come down to you.

One of the great push-pulls of Franken’s political life has been integrating his past life in comedy into his new life as a legislator. He jokes that his staff puts his written pronouncements through a “dehumorizer” to make sure he doesn’t come off sounding like “a clown.” In the heart of this book, taking complex subjects like health care and explaining them in way average citizens can understand, Franken appears not as a jokester but as someone who understands that everything goes down more easily with humor.

Some readers have thought the senator was prescient in writing a book that was so spot-on about the rip in political discourse after Donald Trump was elected, but, in fact, the book was almost finished on November 9th. “Hillary’s loss,” he deadpans, “was not just a problem for the country; it was a big problem for the book!” Now he had to figure out a way to integrate this new reality into the narrative, and he did it by tying the election and the president to a subject he worries about, “the curdling of American politics,” where everything is segmented, and the electorate throws up its hands and says “a pox on both your houses.” He also discusses how political life has devolved. Issues “he was raked over the coals for in his first campaign, are nothing anymore.”

Franken says, on election night, he was in the first two stages of grief, denial and anger—and jokes that he remains there. But would he consider running for president himself? After all, in 1999, he wrote a satirical novel, Why Not Me? about a mythical Franken presidency. The senator shakes his head. “I think you really have to have fire in your belly to do that, to put yourself and your family through that.” And it irks him when people say, well, Trump was an entertainer, and you’re an entertainer, so you’d have an advantage. “You know,” he says, “there’s a hierarchy in show business. You can’t put me and Donald Trump in the same category of entertainer. I suppose the guy who gets shot out of a cannon thinks of himself as an entertainer, too. But really, it’s not the same thing.”

And then there’s that laugh.

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About the Author:

Ilene Cooper spends most of her day looking at, assigning, and reviewing (some) of the 7,000 children's books that are published each year in her role as contributing editor at Booklist. Follow her on Twitter at @Booklist_Ilene.

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