Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Anticipating GOP attacks, Franken’s ads make the pitch that he’s just like us

By Eric Black | Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2008 Campaign ads for the U.S. Senate race in Minnesota have already starting airing on television.

Good morning Fellow Seekers,

Campaign ads in Minnesota in January? Unheard of, until the Mike Ciresi and Al Franken for Senate ads hit the air over the past two weeks. I take it as one more sign that with such unprecedented amounts of money coursing through our politics, campaigns must come up with new ways to spend it.

But I do find one of the Franken ads a very interesting bid to inoculate him against the main lines of attack that he knows will be incoming from Norm Coleman and his Republican allies. There’s a link to the ad below in case you haven’t seen it.

Most DFLers I know think Franken is close to sewing up the DFL endorsement. Although what happens at the Feb. 5 caucuses will be a big factor, last week’s Education Minnesota endorsement was the latest of several big Franken “gets” that Ciresi has been unable to match (although Ciresi has some good ones).

Article continues after advertisement

Ciresi’s early advertising comes across as an effort to change the momentum, Franken’s as an effort to ensure that didn’t happen.

The Ciresi ads themselves are unremarkable in tone, content and visuals. They have the look and feel of classic “who I am”

and “why I’m running”

introductory ads. The main point of both is that Ciresi’s work in big class action lawsuits shows he has taken on the tobacco, pharmaceutical and chemical industries and won. Ciresi has been trying for months to argue that these cases are more relevant to a Senate candidacy than anything Franken has done as an entertainer. The Ciresi ads don’t mention Franken, although the slogan that appears on-screen at the end of both ads — “Serious about change” — is an obvious effort to play the “my opponent is a comedian” card.

One of the ads does mention Norm Coleman, as in “George Bush and Norm Coleman have let the special interests run things in Washington long enough,” which is obviously part of an ongoing effort by DFLers to make Bush into Coleman’s middle name.

Franken’s ads
Franken’s ads mention neither Bush, Coleman nor Ciresi. But Coleman, his allies, and the attacks that Franken knows are coming seem to be at the heart of the ads, especially the more interesting 60-second spot starring Franken’s fourth-grade teacher, Val Molin.

The less-interesting 30-second “why I’m running” spot features Franken walking down a snowy block lined with modest homes owned by “families like the ones I grew up with here in St. Louis Park.” There’s no humor in this ad, and it ends with “I’m serious about fighting for you.”

Both ads emphasize Franken’s childhood in St. Louis Park, and both include the phrase “I’m serious,” which I suspect will be recurring themes, because Franken, who has made his living in comedy, based in New York, is anxious to nail down his Minnesota bona fides, and that he’s serious enough for the U.S. Senate.

Those, of course, are two points on which Coleman and the Repubs would like you to feel otherwise. But the funny-or-serious question doesn’t really capture the line of attack. The GOP wants you to think of Franken not as funny, but as an angry, cynical, disrespectful, hyper-partisan, drug-snorting, potty-mouthed, left wing celebrity who lacks the temperament to represent Minnesota niceness in the Senate.

Article continues after advertisement

I’m not just speculating on this line of attack. Coleman and the MNGOP have been issuing press-releases about it for months and more recently have begun posting web videos that feature Franken cursing. The Repubs have plenty of material from Franken’s books, radio shows, TV appearances and stand-up routines to help them make the case.

But most Minnesotans don’t see GOP press releases and don’t watch political web videos. A lot more of us see TV ads. I don’t doubt Team Coleman will find a way to present their preferred image of Franken in that medium later this year.

So, for me, almost every word and image in the “Mrs. Molin” ad is an effort to present Franken as pretty much the opposite of that image, perhaps in hopes that when the attack ads start flying later this year, you will find them unbelievable.

Totally wholesome
Little ol’ white-haired Val Molin is completely believable as a former fourth-grade teacher from Lake Wobegon — make that St. Louis Park, a Minnesota locale that she is kind enough to mention in the opening seconds of the ad, helping Franken again nail down his Minnesotaness. She ‘s plenty cute, totally wholesome, inherently humorous. You can see she’s no professional actress and the ad makes no pretense that she’s providing unscripted testimony. But the ad takes care of that when Franken breaks in and says he asked her to be in a commercial.

The country-folksy guitar music in the background and the stagey classroom setting help set the wholesome, humorous tone. Not “Saturday Night Live” humorous; more “Hee-Haw.”

Molin’s lines accomplish many things, very quickly, operating at several levels, things that Team Franken wants us to think the candidate is, and even more what they want us to think he isn’t. It sure ain’t the life story of a coke-snorting foul-mouthed show-biz celebrity.

She shows us his fourth-grade picture, which works especially because he was a homely kid (in a cute way), and showing the picture makes him seem likably self-deprecating, not vain like those obnoxious Hollywooders.

She vouches for his work ethic. She gets him to Harvard, a potentially dangerous move if it strikes an elitist note, but it also makes him smart. (Who doesn’t want a smart, hard-working senator?)

She calls him a “comedian,” he interrupts to say he prefers “satirist,” which he actually does. But in this exchange, which ends with her indulgent “OK, Alan,” it again contributes to a feeling of a likable guy who understands that to ordinary folks it’s a little pretentious to insist on a high-falutin’ word for a comedian. A shot of him with the “Saturday Night Live” cast flashes by. This also might be dangerous, but, if it was left out, it would make it look like he was hiding the one thing many of us know about him.

Article continues after advertisement

She has him writing six books, which makes him smart again, an author, a man of substance (without mentioning that they have highly intellectual names like “Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot” — that will be for the Repubs to remind us).

Likewise, Molin describes his radio show as about “public policy.” It was, but that’s probably not the description of the show that leaps most readily to mind.

Then, and I think this is big, two very important things to dissociate him from the negative aspects of celebrity culture: Molin tells us that Alan has been married to the same woman for 32 years (on screen we also see that he hangs out with her in the kitchen, too — and is he pouring coffee?), and he’s a proud father. It occurred to me that at most events where I’ve heard Franken, he has referred to Frannie as “my wife of 32 years.” Translation: Celebrities with temperament issues don’t keep the same wife that long.

Then, a quick inoculation against the idea that because he’s against the war, he’s against the troops. Not hardly. Franken’s been to Iraq and Afghanistan four times to entertain the troops. When I hear Franken talk about those USO trips, he sometimes sounds annoyingly braggy and self-centered. But when Mrs. Molin says it, it doesn’t have that affect.

Having her call him “Alan,” and having him shruggingly humor her at the end by calling himself Al…..lan, is also adorable, likable, not too full of himself.

Then finally, the current signature, “I’m serious” about fighting for Minnesota families. Here’s Mrs. Molin.

Ad exudes Minnesota
Professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the Minnesota native who has become one of the nation’s top analysts of political ads, watched the ad at my request. At first, she couldn’t imagine why it was running so early in the election year. After we talked about the context of the expected GOP attack line against Franken, she said that he must be trying to nail down the idea that he is a Minnesotan, to his core, not only because he was born and raised here but because, in this ad, he exudes the qualities that we associate with Minnesotans.

But, I asked, how will people react when Coleman and his allies confront them with evidence of the other side of Franken’s sense of humor (here’s a video, titled “Things You Won’t See In An Al Franken Ad” that Coleman for Senate has put up on the web, and here’s a MNGOP press release titled “Franken’s 30-Second Spots Can’t Obscure 30-Year Record Of Extreme, Slash & Burn Attacks”)?

Jamieson said that if voters have accepted Franken’s fundamental Minnesotaness, they won’t believe the GOP attacks.

Article continues after advertisement

Franken’s “Mrs. Molin” is a very good ad. Is that good? We’ll see.