From 30 Rock to Capitol Hill: On “Al Franken, Giant of the Senate”

By Darryl HolterSeptember 15, 2017

From 30 Rock to Capitol Hill: On “Al Franken, Giant of the Senate”

Al Franken, Giant of the Senate by Al Franken

I NEVER READ BOOKS written by politicians. No, let me take that back. I read Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy in junior high. And in 1987 I met with Illinois Senator Paul Simon, an early candidate for the 1988 presidential race, and he gave me a very readable yet wonky little book called Let’s Put America Back to Work, chock-full of good ideas that, like Simon’s campaign, never saw the light of day. I don’t remember how many Republicans vied for the 2016 nomination (16?), but I’m sure each one of them wrote, or hired someone to write, a book about themselves, with predictable narratives. They all overcame early obstacles and family tragedies that would have stymied others and had somehow climbed to the verge of the presidency. I read none of them but, to be fair, I also neglected to read books by the Clintons. But I decided to read Al Franken’s new book, not because he is arguably the funniest senator around, or because his book remains on The New York Times best seller list, or because we grew up in the same neighborhood on the southwest edge of Minneapolis, Minnesota. No, I read it in search of an answer to a question that had eluded me for nearly a decade.

The narrative is simple enough: Franken’s happy childhood in a barely middle-class Jewish family; his switch from public school to a private day school for wealthy families; his early love of comedy, which blossomed in high school in tandem with that of a fellow student, Tom Davis (who would later join him on the writing staff of Saturday Night Live); his going off to Harvard and meeting his wife Franni at a freshman mixer; his being recruited by Lorne Michaels to join the initial SNL team; his writing six books; and, finally, his running an uphill campaign against an incumbent Republican senator and winning, after a lengthy recount and a ruling by the Minnesota Supreme Court, by a mere 312 votes in 2008. On the face of it, this is a typical “onward and upward” story, but Franken delivers it with his irrepressible, self-deprecating Minnesota brand of ironic humor, spicing it up by skewering people like Ted Cruz and Rush Limbaugh with their own statements, laying out the absurdity of much of today’s conservative agenda, and projecting a common-sense, progressive approach to politics and policy.

As someone who has seen most if not all SNL shows, in real time or in reruns, I enjoyed the inside information about the “Not Ready for Prime Time Players” — Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase, Garrett Morris, Dan Aykroyd, Jane Curtin, John Belushi, and all the others. Franken tells how it all worked, and presumably works to this day. During the week the writers pushed their ideas to the group. The actors pushed back with their own ideas and their own self-created characters, setting up a competitive, chaotic environment of clashing egos, often enhanced by prohibited substances. “During SNL’s life span,” writes Franken,

the show has been at its best when there’s been an equilibrium between the writing staff and the cast. When the cast dominates, we see popular recurring characters beaten into the ground. When the writers dominate, there’s a lot of interesting stuff that the audience doesn’t find all that interesting or all that funny.

Only a fraction of the material made it to the end of the week, and even less survived the final cut, which, amazingly, was made by Michaels only an hour or so before the curtain opened at 30 Rock. I guess I was surprised that SNL was as “live” as it was. “Putting on a live ninety-minute comedy show week after week can be thrilling, and it can be painfully stressful,” writes Franken. “And of course, we were all of a very tender age. People had sex and fell in love. But mostly had sex. I personally had 227 sexual encounters during my fifteen years at SNL. All of them with Franni.”

In 1992, Franken anchored a series of TV specials on Comedy Central covering the Democratic and Republican conventions. Unlike the broadcast network coverage, which devoted only two hours a night, Indecision ’92 offered four hours of coverage and featured a wide variety of guests, including Christopher Hitchens, Molly Ivins, Norm Ornstein, Calvin Trillin, and Roger Ailes (“Yes, Roger Ailes, who actually was very funny and who, as far as I know, did not sexually molest anyone during the two hours he was with us”). Indecision ’92 called the election for Bill Clinton several hours before the networks did.

While Franken’s political commentary offered a potentially new direction for his comedic talents, and he was chosen to headline the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner in 1994, his politics (“my bleeding liberal heart on my sleeve”) prevented him from getting the SNL job he most wanted: anchoring the “Weekend Update” segment. After 15 years as a writer and creator of characters like Stuart Smalley, Franken left the show and wrote his second book, Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot: and Other Observations, which quickly advanced to number one on The New York Times list. Franken picked up his books and his jokes and joined the lecture circuit. This benefited him financially, but he had been bitten by the political bug and began endorsing candidates and getting more involved in electoral contests. The tragic death of his friend, Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone, who perished along with this wife and daughter in a plane crash a few weeks before his reelection in 2002, led Franken to consider running as a candidate himself. With his wife Franni and his two children, Franken moved back to Minnesota and set up a political action committee to help other Democrats in the off-year elections of 2006. After a year or more of asking donors for money, eating rubbery chicken, attending bean feeds, and learning about turkeys and farming and Native American pow-wows, Franken was ready to take on Norm Coleman, the Republican who had captured the Senate seat after Wellstone’s death.

The transition from comedian-lecturer to politician was not without its problems. First, candidate Franken had to learn to “pivot,” which means “not answer questions.” When a reporter asks, “You trail Norm Coleman by twenty points. How can you get DFLers to support you for the endorsement if you’re so far behind?” Franken’s natural instinct would be to try to answer the question. Wrong! The correct answer is: “When I go around our state, Minnesotans don’t talk about polls. They talk about their kids’ education, and how they’re worried that they’ll go bankrupt if someone in their family gets sick.” Perhaps the biggest and earliest challenge for Franken was to find a way to curtail his comedic skills, so that Minnesota’s generally straight-laced voters could begin to take him seriously. His campaign manager told him to stop telling jokes, but he had a hard time following that advice. Then the well-funded Coleman team set up a $15-million opposition research project to comb through all of Franken’s books, speeches, and SNL skits to find jokes, satiric statements, and other things that could be used against the comedian-turned-politician. In his book about Rush Limbaugh, Franken had satirized the Republicans’ desire to balance the budget on the backs of the elderly and their complaint that NASA was underfunded by suggesting that “[e]very Sunday [they should] put an elderly (or terminally-ill person) in a rocket, fire it over the Snake River, and put it on pay-per-view. The revenues go straight into reducing the debt.” Coleman’s campaign took this little joke and turned it into a widely run television ad: “Franken Plan to Reduce Debt: Blast the Elderly in Rockets over Snake River and Put it On Pay-for-View.” Similar ads drawn from Franken’s skits and taken completely out of context — on subjects like rape, pornography, bestiality, and other controversial topics — successfully raised red flags for Minnesota voters, and Franken’s virtual tie with Coleman quickly evaporated.

With Franken in free fall, his wife Franni came to the rescue. She prepared a simple but emotionally powerful ad that was so successful that Chuck Schumer said it made him cry and told Franken it would win the election for him. The ad was pure Minnesota. Franni sat on her couch in the living room for an interview in which she told a story that hadn’t been shared with anyone publicly — how she, with Franken’s support, had overcome a serious problem with alcoholism. Franni looked straight into the eyes of Minnesota voters:

How could a mother of two fabulous, healthy children be an alcoholic? When I was struggling with my recovery, Al stood right by my side and he stood up for me. After what we went through, Al wrote two beautiful movies, and he wrote them because he wanted to help people. And they’re used in rehabs all over the country. The Al Franken I know stood by me through thick and thin — so I know he’ll always come through for Minnesota.

The ad became the topic of political conversation in Minnesota and pushed Franken back into striking distance. Then came election night. Franken seemed to be leading by a few hundred votes when Coleman went on television to proclaim himself the winner and suggested that Franken concede. But Minnesota law calls for an automatic recount if the election is within one-half a percent. The recount was completed in January and declared Franken the winner. Coleman went to court to try to overturn the results. Seven months after the votes were cast, the Minnesota Supreme Court turned down Coleman’s appeal and the election was over.

After the narrowest of narrow wins in 2008, Franken soared to reelection victory in 2014 while Democrats across the country were swept out of office. Franken spends a good number of pages on how he functions as a United States senator, offering inside information and providing us with useful tips. Joe Biden met with Franken in the West Wing and explained the key to his 40 years of success: “Never promise anything you can’t deliver. Never. Promise. Anything. You can’t deliver.” Franken nodded. Hillary Clinton’s advice was also useful: “Simply put: Be a workhorse, not a showhorse.” When Franken introduced an amendment to a defense bill based on the advice of his staff and saw it adopted on a 70-30 vote (over the objections of Jeff Sessions), he was asked by the press how he had got the idea: “My chief of staff, Drew Littman, came up with it,” Franken answered. Back in the office, with the door closed, Littman bellowed, “Never give the staff credit. NEVER!”

Franken’s account is peppered with many funny stories and commentaries about the politicians we read about in the papers. We learn interesting things about Chuck Schumer, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, but also Jeff Sessions, Ted Cruz, and Lindsey Graham. Franken would study Republican position papers and ask his staff to fact-check them; if factual errors emerged, he would bring them to light in the course of committee hearings. Sessions and Cruz in particular were skewered by this approach. Franken writes that his parents taught him that honesty is the best policy, and while politicians often dissemble or dodge and shift the conversation to what they want to talk about, this fact-checking is pretty much standard procedure. But in later chapters of the book, written toward the end of the 2016 campaign, Franken frets about more serious lapses in truthfulness, or even blatant disregard for evident truths. Nine months into the Trump administration we understand only too clearly what Franken was concerned about when he quickly completed his book a few weeks after Trump’s electoral victory. “Alternative facts” have now given way to obvious and deliberate falsehoods. No one in the administration, and few leading Republicans, take issue with the president’s lies. The lies are so numerous and frequent that no one seems to pay any attention. Democrats complain, but that isn’t really news anymore. Worse, we, the public and the media, are becoming used to it. Telling falsehoods to the public is the new normal. This new reality makes Franken’s interesting stories of how he forced his Republican colleagues to confront the truth and pass an amendment or change a vote all the more important. This already seems like a narrative from a time that has passed. We should pay more attention to Franken, and to Tim Snyder, whose best-selling manifesto On Tyranny urges, “Believe in truth. To abandon facts is to abandon freedom.”

I decided to review Franken’s book because I hoped it could answer a question that had bothered me since the summer of 2008. And I did receive an answer. While Franken was conducting his frantic and up-and-down race for the Senate in 2008, another senator was waging a very sophisticated and well-organized campaign to become president. What was the relation between Franken’s campaign and Obama’s campaign? In the late summer of 2008, I received a call from one of my political friends: “Darryl, we are putting together a fundraiser for Al Franken in LA and we wondered if you could help. We know you are from Minnesota.” It seemed like a good idea and so I agreed. Next question: “Well, do you think you could host it at your home?” I asked how many were expected to attend. “Not many will come. Probably 10 or 15 at the most.” I agreed, and “an intimate evening with Al Franken” was set for a Saturday a week away. A few days later, I learned that the first debate between Obama and John McCain was scheduled for the same Saturday evening. I thought this might mean rescheduling the Franken event. But then I received an email blast from the Obama campaign inviting me (and hundreds of others) to “Watch the Obama-McCain Debate with Al Franken” — guess where? My home!

About 200 Obama supporters converged to watch the debate with Al Franken. We rented a big-screen TV and put it in the backyard as the crowd filled the first floor of the house, the backyard, and the driveway. Franken was congenial and fun to talk to, but I was too busy hosting an army of thirsty Democrats who really like to drink beer and wine when they watch political debates. Prior to the debate, Franken spoke briefly about his campaign without mentioning anything about Obama or what we were about to see. After the debate was over, Franken spoke again, but briefly, emphasizing the need to raise money for his uphill campaign, again without mentioning the presidential race. Then he was gone. We raised something like $5,000, not counting the rented TV and the empty liquor cabinet. I wondered why Franken, instead of grabbing onto Obama’s political coattails, seemed rather cool toward our presidential candidate. It wasn’t really an important matter, but it had puzzled me ever since. The answer came in Franken’s book. But you will have to read it yourself to learn the answer.


Darryl Holter is a historian, entrepreneur, musician, and owner of an independent bookstore. He has taught history at the University of Wisconsin and UCLA and is an adjunct professor at USC.

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Darryl Holter is a historian, entrepreneur, musician, and owner of an independent bookstore. He has taught history at the University of Wisconsin and UCLA and is an adjunct professor at USC. His book Woody Guthrie in LA, 1937-1941 (Angel City Press, 2016) was co-edited with William Deverell. He is the author of The Battle for Coal: Mineworkers and the Politics of Nationalization in France, 1940-1950 (Northern Illinois University Press, 1992), Workers and Unions in Wisconsin: A Labor History (Wisconsin Historical Society, 1999), and three dozen scholarly articles and reviews on labor history, economic policies, and urban revitalization. Holter is the CEO of the Shammas Group, a family-owned group of automobile dealerships and commercial property located in Downtown Los Angeles with a thousand employees. He is the founding chairman of the Figueroa Corridor Business Improvement District, begun in 1998, which led the revitalization of Figueroa Street from the Staples Center to USC and Expo Park. He is a singer-songwriter and has produced four critically acclaimed albums since 2008, most recently Radio Songs: Woody Guthrie in LA (213 Music, 2015). He is a member of Professional Musicians Local 47. In 2014, Holter, along with Bert Deixler, purchased Chevalier’s Books, the oldest independent book store in Los Angeles, in order to save it from closing. They have revitalized the store and view it as an important link in the city’s intellectual infrastructure.


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