I finished several books recently that I’ll be sharing with you in the next few blogs, as potentially good beach reads. They are all fast-paced, entertaining, and easy to get through within the scope of a few sessions by the pool or in a folding chair at the edge of the surf. Depending on your speed and concentration, you could finish two or three in the course of a week’s vacation.
For political junkies and lovers of nonfiction, Al Franken’s Giant of the Senate will not disappoint. In this New York Times best-selling memoir, the former Saturday Night Live writer, comedian, and political satirist/humorist tells of his decision to leave the entertainment world and his life as author and political activist, to return to his home state of Minnesota and run for the US Senate seat formerly held by Paul Wellstone, Franken’s political mentor and role model who died tragically in a plane crash in 2002.
Franken won the general election of 2008 in a recount, by a razor thin margin of 225 votes over his opponent, Republican incumbent Norm Coleman. However, Coleman challenged the decision, which was ultimately decided by the Minnesota Supreme Court in favor of Franken, who finally took his Senate seat 246 days after the election.
The campaign was full of accusation and personal attack. Franken’s role as a comedian was used against him when the Minnesota Republican Party released a letter about a satirical article he had written for Playboy in 2002 entitled “Porn-O-Rama.” The letter called the article “degrading” and “demeaning” to women and triggered a six- point drop in the poles. Franken declares it was at that point that his wife Franni saved the day.
Franni, a recovering alcoholic, went public with her story of her battle with addiction and in a heartfelt televised interview with Mandy Grunwald, Franken’s campaign consultant, she told how her husband had “stood by her side” and how, in the middle of her struggles, he became determined to help people by writing two movies that are now used across the country in rehab centers. Franni ended the interview by saying “The Al Franken I knew stood by me through thick and thin—so I know he’ll always come through for Minnesota.” Franken is convinced that ad won him the election.
A master of the clever retort and satirical comment, Franken would continue to struggle with the issue of inserting humor into his political dialogue. His staff flatly advised against it. On the one hand, they argued that his opponents would take his satire literally and use his words against him as they did in the Playboy article previously mentioned. On the other hand, they said that his humorous remarks could be misconstrued and interpreted as an indication that he was not really serious about politics. Either way, they convinced the newly elected senator to curb his humor.
Nevertheless, Franken says it has been a constant battle to keep his comedic “devils” in check. Once in 2009, at a hearing of the Health, Labor, and Pensions Committee (HELP) on which he sits, they were discussing ENDA, the Employee Non-discrimination Act, which prohibits discrimination against LGBT people in the workplace. The room was packed with LGBT advocates there to observe the hearing, and a number of Franken’s Democratic colleagues, including Chairman Tom Harkin, were there to speak in favor of the issue. Franken recalls that none of the Republicans, not even ranking member Mike Enzi showed up, a situation Franken found unusual, in that in his four months in the Senate, he had never been to a hearing without at least one member of the minority present.
As Chairman Harkin gaveled the meeting to order, Franken thought, Wouldn’t it be funny if I was called on and said “I think it’s a shame that none of the gay members showed up today.” Franken ignored the goading of his comic devil and stuck with his prepared remarks.
On another occasion, his comic devil got the best of him and he committed a huge breech of Senate protocol, while acting as presiding senator over the debate on Elena Kagan’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Mitch McConnell was giving the final speech against Kagan, which Franken considered “patronizing sexist dreck about this extremely brilliant legal scholar that made her sound like a promising debutante.”
No one has any doubt that Ms. Kagan is bright and personable and easy to get along with. But the Supreme Court is not a social club. If getting along in polite society were reason enough to put someone on the Supreme Court, we wouldn’t need a confirmation process at all.
At this point, Franken rolled his eyes.
McConnell shot back in a voice loud enough for everybody else to hear, “This isn’t Saturday Night Live, Al!” Franken realized “I had really screwed up.”
Throughout the book Franken shares numerous anecdotes of his experiences as junior senator from Minnesota as he worked with fellow legislators, initially as a member of the majority, and later as a member of the minority party in power, in sponsoring legislation for progressive change—health care, immigration reform, and gender equity.
As a liberal Democrat, he finds that he can maintain a cordial relationship with even the most far-right of his colleagues. He is fond of Jeff Sessions, who was ranking member of the Judiciary Committee to which Franken was assigned. Sessions’ wife Mary knit the Franken’s first grandson a blanket. Even though Franken disagrees with Sessions on almost every issue and voted against him in his confirmation hearing for Attorney General, he says “It’s hard to unfairly demonize someone whose wife knit your grandson his favorite blankie.”
Franken made his peace with Mitch McConnell and admires Lindsey Graham for his humor, despite their disagreement on policy. But Ted Cruz is the one exception to Franken’s belief in collegiality.
Ted Cruz isn’t just wrong about almost everything. He’s impossible to work with. And he doesn’t care that he’s impossible to work with…Even if you like what he stands for, the most he’ll ever be able to accomplish is being an obnoxious wrench in the gears of government (like when he led the government shutdown over the Affordable Care Act). Real senatoring requires that you build productive relationships with your colleagues. And Ted just isn’t that kind of guy.
Franken concludes that his run for Senate was the best move he ever made. True, he experiences daily frustration as a member of the minority party in defending progressive legislation against the obstructionism of the Republican agenda, and he chafes under the administration of a president who continues to spread “his trademark blend of hate, fear, and ignorance.” But to Al Franken, the honor of representing the people of Minnesota makes it all worthwhile, and his goal for the future is to be as good as the people he serves.
The book is a quick and entertaining read as anyone who appreciates Franken’s brand of SNL humor will discover.