Sen. Al Franken Embraces 'The Funny' Again In New Book

May 30, 2017
Originally published on May 30, 2017 8:21 pm

Senate confirmation hearings aren't known for their viral moments.

But Sen. Al Franken seems to have a knack for creating them.

At hearing after hearing this year, some of the most newsy and memorable quotes came when the Minnesota Democrat was asking questions.

He stumped Education Secretary Betsy DeVos by asking about "the debate between proficiency and growth" in education standards — a debate DeVos didn't seem to be aware of during her confirmation hearing.

He lectured Neil Gorsuch during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing on an opinion about the right of a company to fire a trucker for abandoning his rig in order to avoid hypothermia.

"That's absurd," Franken said. "Now, I had a career in identifying absurdity, and I know it when I see it."

In addition to the headlines the exchange generated, it was notable for another reason. Franken was embracing what he refers to as "The Funny."

For the bulk of his first six-year term in the Senate, Franken did everything he could to keep his long tenure at Saturday Night Live at arm's length. "It was very important to me to prove to the people of Minnesota that I was going to be a workhorse and not a show horse," Franken tells NPR.

Franken was especially sensitive about coming across as serious, since he was elected to the Senate by the thinnest of thin margins: about 300 votes.

But as he gets deeper into his second term, Franken is much more comfortable owning his long comedy career and showcasing the humor that made it possible.

He's comfortable enough to acknowledge a connection between those memorable hearing performances and his time at SNL. "Comedians kind of get to the point in an effective way," he says. "That's what comedy does."

Franken is also comfortable enough to have written a new memoir, modestly titled, Al Franken: Giant of the Senate.

"Just pivot"

It's one of the more blunt accounts published of just how strange running for office can be. Franken writes about having "to learn a set of weird and occasionally sociopathic Politician Skills."

Like:

  • Raising money ("It's not uncommon to have three straight hours of call time scheduled as part of your day. ... It's brutal.")

  • Campaigning ("Imagine the training montage from a Rocky movie ... but instead of jumping rope, I'm eating hot dish at an assisted living facility. ... [I]nstead of guzzling a dozen raw eggs, I'm being driven five hours to speak for five minutes at the Otter Tail County convention.")

  • Remembering voters' names ("Here's a tip: if you want to get an officeholder to dislike you, go up to him or her and say, 'I bet you don't remember my name.' ")

Franken says the strangest skill to learn was the art of the "pivot" — essentially, ignoring reporters' questions. "If someone said, 'Why are you 20 points behind?' I explained, 'Well, you know, we have a long time to go.' "

His campaign staff quickly shut that down. "They'd say, 'No, no, no — just pivot! Just say, "Minnesotans don't care about the polls. What they care about is their kids' education and whether they're going to go bankrupt if they get sick.' "

"It took me forever to learn how to do that," Franken says.

Longing for "neo-sticklerism"

As an entertainer who ran for federal office as a political rookie, Franken was in a position to be uniquely puzzled by President Trump's march to the White House.

"I figured it was especially incumbent on me, an entertainer, to prove that I knew stuff. You know, as a sign of respect to the voters," Franken writes. "So you can imagine my frustration when Trump, an entertainer (sort of), quickly showed not only that he had no knowledge about the details of public policy, but that he had no interest in learning the details of public policy."

Add to that the fact that Franken once wrote a book about conservatives, called Lies And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them.

"This campaign it felt like you were in the post-truth era," Franken says. "I hope that this is cyclical, and we'll be in an era of neo-sticklerism very soon."

Franken was finishing up the book at a point when Democrats were especially nervous and uncertain about how the Trump Era would play out. "Lately things have been trending crapshow," he writes. "And while we don't yet know exactly how bad things are going to get under President Trump, I think we should probably be prepared for the worst."

In an interview, he compared how things have actually played out with how he expected them to. "Oh, I think they're slightly worse," he says. "I didn't expect to like this, but I can't believe how fast this Russia investigation is going. I also am appalled by this budget. I'm appalled by the health care bill that the House passed."

Franken actually played a role in changing the course of that Russia investigation.

It came when he was questioning Jeff Sessions during his attorney general confirmation hearing. "I had been called a [Trump] surrogate at a time or two in that campaign, and I did not have communications with the Russians," Sessions said in response to a Franken question.

That wasn't the case, and because of that, Sessions ended up recusing himself from the Russia investigation.

Franken admits this is not a case where all those years of performing came in handy.

"He answered a question I didn't ask, so I can't really take credit for it," he says.

Sessions is one of many Republicans Franken says he's become friendly with during his time in the Senate.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is decidedly not in that group.

Franken writes at length about learning and appreciating the rules and norms of the Senate, which basically boil down to lawmakers treating each other with respect.

Despite that, Franken devotes an entire chapter to insulting Cruz.

Among the key quotes: "The problem with Ted — and the reason so many senators have a problem with Ted — is simply that he is an absolutely toxic coworker. He's the guy in your office who snitches to corporate about your March Madness poll and microwaves fish in the office kitchen. He is the Dwight Schrute of the Senate."

"You have to understand that I probably like Ted Cruz more than most of my other colleagues like Ted Cruz," Franken says. "And I hate Ted Cruz."

Cruz says the book is "obnoxious and insulting."

For Franken, that might be the best blurb imaginable to slap on the back cover of the eventual paperback edition.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

During his first few years in the Senate, Minnesota Democrat Al Franken avoided what he called the funny. But deep into his second term, Franken has gotten comfortable letting his comedic roots show. He has a new book out about his time in the Senate, and he spoke to NPR's Scott Detrow.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: At confirmation hearing after confirmation hearing this year, some of the most newsy and viral moments came when it was Al Franken's turn to ask questions. He stumped education secretary Betsy DeVos...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BETSY DEVOS: Is...

AL FRANKEN: No, I'm talking about the debate between proficiency and growth...

DEVOS: Yes.

FRANKEN: ...What your thoughts are on them.

DEVOS: Well, I was just asking to clarify, then.

FRANKEN: Well, this is a subject that is - has been debated in the education community for years.

DETROW: ...And lectured Supreme Court Justice Neal Gorsuch.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRANKEN: That's absurd. Now, I had a career in identifying absurdity.

(LAUGHTER)

FRANKEN: And I know it when I see it.

DETROW: It would have been hard to picture Franken questioning a Supreme Court nominee when he was on "Saturday Night Live."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

FRANKEN: (As Stuart Smalley) I'm Stuart Smalley. First of all, I just want to say that yesterday's show entitled "Fear Is A Dark Room Where Negatives Get Developed" was not my best show.

(LAUGHTER)

FRANKEN: (As Stuart Smalley) And that's OK. Only the mediocre are always at their best.

DETROW: Franken says there's actually a deep connection between these two phases of his career.

FRANKEN: Comedians kind of get to the point in an effective way, and that's what comedy does.

DETROW: But Franken spent his first years in Washington doing everything he could to keep that comedy career at a distance. He wanted to prove to Minnesota voters he was serious after winning office in 2008 by the thinnest of thin margins - about 300 votes. Franken writes all about the process in a new book modestly titled "Al Franken: Giant Of The Senate."

It's one of the more blunt accounts published of just how weird running for office can be - hours of calls asking for money, thousands of miles in a car and after a career popping the balloons of blowhards, learning how to sometimes become one himself. Franken says at first he'd answer honestly when asked tough questions like, how can you win when you're trailing by 20 points?

FRANKEN: And they'd say, no, no, no, no. Pivot. Just say, Minnesotans don't care about polls. What they care about is their kids' education and whether they're going to go bankrupt if they get sick. That's a pivot, right? And it took me forever (laughter) to learn how to do that.

DETROW: Franken was in a position to be uniquely puzzled by President Trump's march to the White House. He had worked so hard to show voters he was taking governing seriously. Trump barely tried at all. Add that to the fact Franken once wrote a book about conservatives called "Lies And The Lying Liars Who Tell Them."

FRANKEN: This campaign, it just seems like we were in the post-truth era, and it doesn't matter.

DETROW: You write that you worry the liars had won. Do you think that is the case?

FRANKEN: Well, I hope that this is cyclical and we'll be in an era of neo-sticklerism very soon.

DETROW: Are things better or worse than you expected in terms of how things have played out with this president?

FRANKEN: Oh, I think they're slightly worse. I mean I didn't expect to like this (laughter). But I can't believe how fast this Russia investigation is going.

DETROW: Franken actually played a role in changing the course of that investigation. It came when he was questioning Jeff Sessions during his attorney general confirmation hearing. Sessions was a top Trump ally during the campaign.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEFF SESSIONS: I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign, and I did not have communications with the Russians.

DETROW: That wasn't the case. And because of that, Sessions ended up recusing himself from the Russia investigation.

FRANKEN: He answered a question that I didn't ask, so I can't really take credit for it. Although, you know, people think, like, well, that Franken - he's playing three-dimensional chess. He knew that if he answered this question, he'd pivot to that, and then he'd lie. And then he'd recuse himself finally after it came out that he was lying. Oh, that Franken - he's several moves ahead of everyone else - genius.

DETROW: Sessions is one of many Republicans Franken says he's become friendly with during his time in the Senate. But there's one he'll probably never be friends with. With the release of this book, most of the headlines have focused on the entire chapter where Franken trashes Texas Senator Ted Cruz.

FRANKEN: I say you have to understand that I probably like Ted Cruz more than most of my other colleagues like Ted Cruz. And I hate Ted Cruz.

DETROW: Cruz says the book is obnoxious and insulting. Later I ask Franken if there's anything else he'd like to add. He uses the opportunity to demonstrate just how much of a politician he's become.

FRANKEN: See; I learned something during the campaign.

DETROW: Pivot.

FRANKEN: Pivot to no.

DETROW: (Laughter).

FRANKEN: No, I don't have anything more to say. I think this has been a very well-done interview. Congratulations, and I'd like to end it here right now.

DETROW: Thanks, Senator.

FRANKEN: It's over, done.

DETROW: Scott Detrow, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.