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Franken re-emerges in speech to Jewish Family Service of St. Paul

Franken’s Sunday speech was smart, funny, autobiographical, emotional, logical, fact-filled and liberal as hell.

Former Sen. Al Franken shown in a MinnPost file photo from 2016.
MinnPost file photo by Jana Freiband

Al Franken gave a speech on Sunday in St. Paul to Jewish Family Service of St. Paul. It was smart, funny, autobiographical, emotional, logical, fact-filled, liberal as hell, and it demolished President Donald Trump, for anyone with respect for facts and logic.

A bit more on some of that below, but I don’t want to bury the lede, which was – well, go back to the preceding paragraph. Al Franken gave a speech, for roughly the first time since he resigned from the Senate 19 months ago.

I’m not going to go back over the tale that led to that event being a major deal, if you wonder whether there will be a next act for Franken. But, for all his passion, humor and interest in public life and political events, Franken has kept an incredibly low profile since his resignation in December of 2017.

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A while back he started a podcast. I listened to an episode, and it’s very smart, factual, substantive, logical, funny and aggressive – all qualities I associate with Franken from his book-writing days. Here’s the page that will give you access to the first few podcast episodes. His guest on Tuesday will be Michael Lewis, about Lewis’ latest book, “The Fifth Risk.”

But Sunday’s talk was roughly the first such sighting of Franken on a stage talking since he left the Senate and dropped out of sight. I say “roughly,” but I checked with Franken afterward and he said that yes, he guessed his Sunday morning talk was his first public speech on U.S. soil, but he plans to get back to speaking and has a couple of others scheduled. (I mention U.S. soil because Franken spoke earlier at a cybersecurity conference in Lisbon, Portugal, about Facebook.)

As for the Sunday talk itself, at the Midpointe Event Center, it was a tour de force. Smart, funny, sad (he seemed to fight back tears during some of the personal bits, like talking about the struggle of both his wife, Franni Bryson, and his old comedy partner, Tom Davis, with alcoholism), half autobiographical and half political.

Franken did not discuss (as he has not since his resignation) the facts and circumstances that led to his resignation from the Senate. He told me afterward that he has strong thoughts and feelings about those facts and circumstances and will eventually express them. But not quite yet.

He did a great takedown, both substantive and hilarious, of Trump,  as a candidate and as president, especially on Trump’s ideas to make health care better for America. Trump promised to replace the Affordable Care Act with “something terrific,” Franken said. “Something terrific; that was his plan. And it was a good plan” except for the fact there was no plan.

For example, Franken said, candidate Trump’s big idea for making better health insurance available to all was to allow insurance companies to compete across state lines. What Trump didn’t know, Franken said, was that this was already legal under the Affordable Care Act, but insurance companies didn’t compete much across state lines because they didn’t have relationships with doctors in states where they had few patients, and weren’t interested in all the cost and effort it would require to set up such networks.

This would be a problem, Franken noted sarcastically (and to laughter in the room), “because most people like to go to a doctor in their state.”

He panned the level of the issue discussion in the 2016 campaign: “The only way any issues got discussed was if Trump said something stupid. Immigration was a wall, and it was going to be paid for by Mexico. Where’d that go?”

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Why did the Republicans get clobbered in the 2018 midterms? According to Franken it’s because “he promised a lot on health care in 2016,” and all they came up with was to undermine the Affordable Care Act and push for a repeal that would cause millions of Americans to lose their insurance and the popular ACA guarantee that health plans must cover pre-existing conditions and mental health.

But the Republicans took over all branches of the federal government in 2017 and got nothing done on heatlh care, which contributed to a 2018 Democratic takeover in the U.S. House, winning most of the Senate races that were on the ballot, but not enough for control.

He also slammed Trump for being a climate-change denier, when the scientific community now considers warming temperatures to be the No. 1 threat to the future of life on earth. He said he started the podcast in hopes of drawing attention to issues like those, and hopes he can find ways to make them interesting and entertaining enough to get people to listen for an hour at a time..

The Washington Post recently did a feature on Franken, in connection with the debut of the new podcast, and tried to get him to talk about the circumstances that led to his resignation and his feelings about how that went down.

“I can’t explain it right now,” he said. “There will be a certain point I give my first interview, and when it happens, I think you’ll understand.” He likewise told me that he is working up to that.