The Minnesota senator and comedian Al Franken stops in at a sold-out Town Hall June 16 to talk about his book, “Al Franken: Giant of the Senate,” which is being lauded as required reading.
On the morning I was to speak to Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota, I did a quick scan of the most-read stories on The New York Times’ website.
There was one about Jared Kushner’s connection to the Russians. A column about President Donald Trump titled “The Gateway Degenerate.” A story about the Trump coat of arms. Oh, and Tiger Woods’ DUI arrest.
And there, at the center of the page under the “Books” section was an illustration of Franken, his face turned to the story list, seeming to smile at the absurdity of it all.
Al Franken: Giant of the Senate
“The state of things is very alarming to so many Americans, for so many people because I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like this guy,” Franken said of Trump. “There is a lot of anxiety about his temperament.
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“You try to empty your head of it for a little while, at least for your sanity.”
Franken is doing his part with a June 16 appearance at Seattle’s Town Hall in support of his new book, “Al Franken: Giant of the Senate.”
Franken’s appearance sold out in a matter of minutes (there will be a standby line at the door and the event will be livestreamed) and the book is being lauded as required reading — and a respite from everything else coming out of Washington, D.C.
“A lot of this stuff has been germinating for a while,” Franken said, adding that he started writing his book during a five-day vacation at his cabin in northern Minnesota just before the November election. It’s based on notes he kept and stories he told his friends about the way things work in D.C.
“I was trying to show people how it works,” he said, “and the unique challenges I had as a former comedian.”
The book includes a few quick chapters on Franken’s previous life as a writer and actor on “Saturday Night Live”; as the host of his own nationally syndicated political-talk show on the short-lived Air America Radio and as the author of six books — including the 2003 political satire “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.”
“It’s almost adorable that I’ve made a living writing about right-wingers lying,” Franken said, “because it comes every day, whether it’s fake news or that Hillary (Clinton) won the popular vote because she had millions of illegal votes or that Muslims in New Jersey were cheering the twin towers coming down. None of it with any evidence.”
Franken was a frequent speaker for progressive candidates during the 2006 election, and was often asked if he would consider running for the U.S. Senate seat once held by Paul Wellstone of Minnesota. (Franken was raised there from the age of 4).
The following year, Franken announced his candidacy, taking on incumbent Norm Coleman. After a recount and a court challenge, Franken was declared the winner.
Just five days after arriving in Washington in 2009, Franken made his mark at the confirmation hearings for now-U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. At one point she told the panel that she was inspired to become a lawyer after watching TV attorney “Perry Mason,” who only lost one case.
Which one? Franken asked her.
When Sotomayor said she didn’t know, he quipped: “Didn’t the White House prepare you?”
“Big laugh,” he wrote.
Franken also wrote of his struggle to learn political protocol.
He rolled his eyes during a speech by Mitch McConnell, who chided, “This isn’t ‘Saturday Night Live,’ Al.” Franken later sent a handwritten apology.
His staff has repeatedly tamped down his attempts at comedy.
Early on, Franken wrote a birthday card to constituent Ruth Marshall, who was turning 110, saying “You have a bright future.” They nixed it.
And when he browbeat a witness during a hearing, a staffer passed him a note telling him, “You’re being an (expletive).” He later called a staff meeting, urging everyone to do the same, if he ever deserved it.
“I don’t do this perfectly by any means,” Franken said.
Ah, but he tries. And he has become incredibly frustrated.
Earlier this year, Franken participated in the confirmation hearings for Secretary of Education nominee Betsy DeVos. His questioning made it clear she didn’t know the difference between proficiency and growth.
DeVos was confirmed anyway.
“It was very disappointing,” Franken said, “because we had two Republicans — Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine — sitting on the committee saying ‘We can’t vote for her,’ but we couldn’t get another Republican.” (Vice President Mike Pence broke the 50-50 split, voting for DeVos.)
“She was so unknowledgeable about education,” Franken said, “but her family had given $200 million to Republicans … I don’t know how anyone could have better demonstrated how woefully lacking in knowledge they were about the way kids are taught.”
He was also disappointed in Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, with whom he had become friends despite their political differences. In fact, Sessions’ wife knitted a baby blanket for one of Franken’s grandchildren.
But when Sessions was confirmed as Attorney General, that changed: “I did feel that what he submitted to the committee in the questionnaire was dishonest,” Franken said.
Some of Franken’s most scathing — and hilarious — passages are reserved for Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
In a chapter titled “Sophistry,” he described Cruz as “an absolutely toxic co-worker,” “singularly dishonest” and “a sociopath.”
But that’s not all: “He’s the guy in your office who snitches to corporate about your March Madness pool and microwaves fish in the office kitchen,” Franken writes. “He is the Dwight Schrute of the Senate.”
And here is how he described Cruz’s argument over a bill to ban assault weapons: “Ted’s condescension hung in the air like the stench from a cat box in an apartment with 40 cats belonging to an elderly women who had just been found dead. It was bad, is what I’m saying.”
Franken has had his accomplishments while in office. During his first term (he was re-elected in 2014), he sponsored a bill that put more funding into after-school programs and school counselors, and more money for mental-health in schools.
And he saw through an amendment that allows foster kids to choose to stay in their school when they were moved to another home.
“For foster kids, school is often the one constant in their lives,” Franken wrote.
Away from the Senate, Franken is all about his family. He and his wife, Franni (they have been married since 1975) have a son, a daughter and three grandchildren.
He was happy to hear that he had sold out Town Hall.
“I love Seattle,” Franken said. “I insisted on going to Seattle. It’s a great book city, and it’s going to be pisser.”