Franken’s Senate debut: Appropriate levity or class clown?

Sen. Al Franken
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Al Franken on his comments to Sonia Sotomayor: “I thought it was more of a human moment than a humorous moment.”

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The moment came roughly eight hours into the third day of Sonia Sotomayor’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing. With the air conditioner broken, and the audience lulled into a glassy-eyed stupor by rehashed questions and repeat responses, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee finally turned to the last senator on his left.

“And, [last in] this round of questioning will be Senator Franken, the newest member of the committee,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

It would be an overstatement to say that it was the moment everyone had been waiting for, but those in attendance did seem to perk up at the mention of the familiar name.

It was Al Franken’s debut performance since being sworn-in to office last week after a protracted Senate race against incumbent Norm Coleman. And it just happened to be a Supreme Court confirmation hearing, which is essentially like asking a rookie to pitch the World Series on his first day in the majors.

But, like the Democrats who had come before him, Democrat Franken eagerly took to the mound and began throwing out the best softballs he had.

“I watched ‘Perry Mason’ every week with my dad and my mom and my brother,” Franken began, referring to the TV show that Sotomayor had mentioned earlier in the hearing under questioning from Minnesota’s senior Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat.

“And it amazes me that you wanted to become a prosecutor based on that show,” Franken continued. “Because, in ‘Perry Mason,’ the prosecutor, Burger, lost every week…”

At this bit of whimsy, Sotomayor smiled, the audience chuckled, and Franken attempted to reconnect his observation to the matter at hand.

“But, I think that says something about your determination to defy the odds,” he said.

The media, however, thought it said more about Franken, who is a former comedian and liberal radio talk show host known for his satire and biting wit.

‘Real Franken’
Before Franken had concluded his round of questions, which mostly focused on the very unfunny issues of net neutrality, judicial activism and the right to privacy, the tweets were already out about him cracking wise.

Like proud parents whose child had just passed an impressive milestone, POLITICO declared it “Sen. Franken’s first joke.”

Washington reporters — force-fed a peas-and-carrots narrative over the last week of Franken the Taciturn and Franken the Solemn — exhaled a collective sigh of relief.

“Finally, we get to see the real Franken,” one reporter said after Franken ended his comments to more laughter over the fictional defense attorney Perry Mason.

That none of it was really even that funny seemed to matter little. It had been roughly seven hours since Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Sotomayor had entertained two bizarre hypothetical cases: one featuring Coburn as 38 weeks pregnant and the other starring a gun-toting Sotomayor returning to the committee room and shooting him. And it had been at least 24 hours since Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, had referred to his “ability to turn people on.”

So, those still in the room were looking for a little levity. And, it would seem, that Franken delivered. Or at least, the audience took what it could get.

But the reaction from outside the hearing was a bit more mixed.

Some in Minnesota — familiar with the image of an attention-seeking liberal firebrand that Franken has struggled to change since running for office — bristled at portions of his performance.

“I don’t think that any damage was done,” said Larry Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota. “But I do think it was a moment to pause and say, ‘Does he really understand the challenges he faces?’

“He has given us a lot of rhetoric about not being a show horse,” Jacobs continued. “So, why did he throw in the Perry Mason thing? Why did he not just go into his very reasonable questions about judicial activism? Instead there seems to be a very driven need for cleverness.”

Alarm bells
Jacobs said that it was this inclination that might prove problematic to Franken reinventing himself as a conciliatory and pragmatic senator who shows deference to the more-senior lawmakers.

“That is what set alarm bells off for me,” Jacobs said. “You think this is clever, but this is not what you need to be in the news for now.”

On that point, David Schultz, a professor in the Hamline University School of Business in St. Paul, agreed.

“The danger is that the main story becomes about his discussion with [Sotomayor] on Perry Mason,” said Schultz.

And, indeed, the Perry Mason segment reverberated through headlines, stories and TV clips throughout the evening and into the next day.

“If you watched the hearing, the Perry Mason discussion was just sort of a sidebar,” Schultz said. “But what struck me is that the established media seemed to be keying in more on that than anything else.”

In a hearing where funnier and stranger things were said, and truly offensive comments were also made, Schultz said that Franken was “facing a double standard.”

“He has to work harder than other senators to prove” himself, said Schultz.

But does this mean he should amputate his wit in the process?

Guy-Uriel Charles, a professor of law at Duke University who used to work at the University of Minnesota, argued that the Perry Mason bit was “a positive thing.”

“Obviously, the risk is that he won’t be taken seriously, that he will be viewed as a clown,” Charles said. “But, oddly enough, it seems that if he played it as a straight man, without any humor, he would have been taken less seriously.”

Kathryn Pearson, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, reduced this reasoning to the authenticity factor.

“Franken being funny and serious at the same time is Franken’s own brand of authenticity and voters want authenticity,” Pearson said. “If Franken never cracked a joke, I think people would wonder where the real Franken was.”

Franken, however, said he didn’t even see it as much of a joke.

“I thought it was more of a human moment than a humorous moment,” Franken said after the hearing. “It was about getting to know her as a human being.”

Franken pointed to the portion of his questioning when he noted that both of them — Sotomayor in the Bronx and Franken in suburban Minneapolis — had grown up watching the same show.

“And here we are today,” Franken said during the hearing. “I am asking you questions because you have been nominated to be a justice of the United States Supreme Court. I think that’s pretty cool.”

Range of legal topics
In addition to not finding his Perry Mason comments very funny, Franken added that he also thought his “line of questioning was quite serious.”

On that note, the political analysts that MinnPost talked to seemed to agree.

Franken’s arc of questions started by focusing on net neutrality and the First Amendment, touched on judicial activism and the Supreme Court’s recent cases on the Voting Rights Act and age discrimination, and ended on abortion and the right to privacy.

The media also picked up on some of these topics, just not to the extent of the Perry Mason banter.

“I think it went very well,” said Charles, who is a constitutional law expert. “At the end of the day, I thought he was quite impressive.”

Said Jacobs: “I thought that his questions were very much within the ballpark of legitimate questions.”

Concluded Schultz: “He didn’t embarrass himself. And, I think he did as good as anyone could have done with only about five days on the job.”

Throughout the hearing, and in the weeks preceding the hearing, one of the main Republican talking points against Sotomayor has been about judicial activism. Franken sought to upend the Republican argument by redefining the term and pointing to several instances where he felt that conservative members of the Supreme Court had engaged in acts of judicial activism.

“He attempted to provide a counterweight, from an intellectual perspective, to the questions conservatives had been asking [on judicial activism],” said Charles. “It was not something you would have expected from the newest, and most junior, member of the committee… [And] I thought for a person who is not a lawyer and who was only just sworn-in as a senator, he seemed extremely well prepared and quite sound.”

Although Schultz noted that Franken’s “pit bull” approach seemed somewhat reminiscent of his Air America days, Jacobs argued that the point he was making was not “highly partisan.”

But Pearson cautioned that it was still far too early to tell what kind of a senator Franken would become.

“At the end of the day, this is only the beginning,” Pearson said. “Where the lasting opinions of both Minnesotans and the press will be formed is in the legislation he offers, the speeches he gives on big issues like health care and how he responds to the needs of the state.”

Thus, time will tell whether Franken will successfully shed his former persona and escape the pre-written Jesse Ventura-narrative that lies in wait for him.

Unlikelier events have certainly occurred. Even Hamilton Burger won at least once.

Cynthia Dizikes covers Minnesota’s congressional delegation and reports on issues and developments in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at cdizikes[at]minnpost[dot]com.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 07/17/2009 - 11:24 am.

    As someone who is deeply involved in politics I can tell you it is dry. It is boring. It is complicated. And it is boring. It’s as boring as a college economics class. A little levity breaks things up. Franken will take his job seriously, but you can’t expect a guy who made his living writing comedy – and getting Emmy Awards for it – to all of a sudden have the dull, dry demeanor of a long-elected U.S. senator. Give him time to become as boring as they are.

  2. Submitted by dan buechler on 07/17/2009 - 11:43 am.

    Interesting comment,I sorta feel the same way.

  3. Submitted by Eric Schubert on 07/17/2009 - 11:44 am.

    Americans are wired to laugh. We need humor. It’s healthy. So many of these policymakers take themselves way too seriously and become androids.

  4. Submitted by John Reinan on 07/17/2009 - 11:51 am.

    Fer crissake, politics could use more real people who act in real ways. Eveyone is cut from the same cloth and never says anything real. As Eric said, they’ve become a bunch of androids, afraid to act like flesh and blood humans.

    When they do, people write 2,000-word articles parsing their words and dissecting their actions.

    Minnesota elected a smart, funny guy to the Senate. He shouldn’t have to check his personality at the door.

  5. Submitted by Lance Groth on 07/17/2009 - 12:12 pm.

    >>”If you watched the hearing, the Perry Mason discussion was just sort of a sidebar,” Schultz said. “But what struck me is that the established media seemed to be keying in more on that than anything else.”<< Maybe that says more about the media than about Franken. So much of what passes for news coverage is just fluff, and they'd much rather cover the latest out-of-the-mainstream politician from Minnesota (perhaps hoping that he slips?) than the comparatively boring content of the hearings. As they used to say about Reagan, let Franken be Franken. He takes the job seriously and he'll do fine - and yes, he'll use humor too. Humor certainly has a place in both politics and business. Whenever I have to conduct a staff meeting, I always start it off with humor. Lighten the mood a little and the serious subjects go down easier.

  6. Submitted by Terry Hayes on 07/17/2009 - 12:13 pm.

    “It was Al Franken’s debut performance since being sworn-in to office last week after a protracted Senate race against incumbent Norm Coleman. And it just happened to be a Supreme Court confirmation hearing, which is essentially like asking a rookie to pitch the World Series on his first day in the majors.”

    Cynthia, do me a favor and don’t put a hyphen in ‘sworn in,’ okay? That’s so annoying. Secondly, no, Franken asking Sotomayor some questions is not analagous to a rookie ‘pitching the World Series’. Al wasn’t running the show. He was more like a rookie sitting in the bullpen and getting called up in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and his team ahead 10-1.
    Third, does anyone really care what Larry Jacobs thinks?

  7. Submitted by Dick Novack on 07/17/2009 - 12:15 pm.

    I vote class clown. Not necessarily a bad thing – it keeps the Minnesota brand on the front pages.

    The rest of the US is used to Minnesota providing some of the most colorful, newsmaking politicians in the country – perhaps even before 10 time “presidential contender” Harold Stassen began. They absolutely love mocking Minnesota figures – with Michele grabbing the attention most recently. ‘Til now we have not provided the country with a comedian (although Rudy, Wendy and Jesse provided good laughs). Franken better pull out his best material. As a “retired” professional comic, he will be held to a higher standard than the rest of our “clowns.”

  8. Submitted by Sheila Ehrich on 07/17/2009 - 12:21 pm.

    In comedy they say that timing is everything. It was the end of the day, the air conditioning was out, so give Al credit for having good timing. As was noted in the article, “those in attendance did seem to perk up at the mention of a familiar name.” So a little levity might be expected.

    A little levity, a human connection was what people needed to get through one more questioner. Why should this “set off alarm bells”?

    What no one seems to mention in many of the articles, blogs, etc. is that Ms. Sotomayor was the first to bring up the topic of ‘Perry Mason’ when Amy was questioning her.

    And that Amy herself apparently elicited quite a bit of laughter herself when she commented that she had met Ms. Sotomayor’s mother in the restroom. She commented that her mother had a lot she would like to say. Amy had to wait for the “laughter to subside” before continuing her questioning. Are we hearing “alarm bells” ringing over that???

    Let’s let Al be Al. As several of the commenters pointed out above, do we really need a Senator who takes himself too seriously and comes across as boring?

  9. Submitted by Nate Hoffmann on 07/17/2009 - 12:41 pm.

    Must we continue to quote the all-knowing Larry Jacobs in Minnesota political pieces? He was in Politico today as well regarding a similar Franken story. As is the case whenever he appears on WCCO, he offers no more than trivial one-liners hardly the caliber of someone who claims to be an expert on all issues Minnesota politics.

    Either way, Jacobs’ analysis on Franken is simply wrong. Franken’s light hearted comments were typical of many made by other Senators on numerous occasions throughout the hearing. Franken will not legitimize himself by holding back his comedic instincts. He will legitimize himself by offering insightful and original legislation and initiatives. When (or if) we look back on this hearing months from now, his Perry Mason comments will be little more than a slightly entertaining footnote to what was an overall civil hearing.

  10. Submitted by Elizabeth Halvorson on 07/17/2009 - 02:07 pm.

    I agree with the comments above: The emphasis on Perry Mason (including this story) says more about press coverage than it does about Sen. Franken. I do expect better from MinnPost. A piece of gossip on whether or not the senator is playing class clown is nothing but a waste of space, as well as a continuation of the kind of non-journalism that has brought down the level of public policy discourse in this country.

    I don’t want–frankly–to read what someone else thought about what I watched for myself. I am capable of forming my own opinion.

    I would, however, love to read some totally non-biased policy discussions. Sen. Franken brought up important issues. Let’s have more coverage of that. And please don’t make it Republican vs. Democrat or liberal vs. conservative in any way! How about making a commitment to using non-biased, no-TV-station-ever-heard-of-them true experts in the future?

  11. Submitted by Alan Miller on 07/17/2009 - 02:27 pm.

    Hey, folks, if you want to talk about clowns, look at the GOP line-up. Or perhaps it’s not humorous to see a group of geriatric bigots, whose racial animus was oozing, make fools of themselves with their comments, their conduct, and their ignorance. Sotomayor, and that’s what it’s all about, ran intellectual rings around them.
    As for Al Franken, given the pressure on him and his neophyte status, he did wonderfully — and will bring a breath of freshness and courage to this staid body whose loyalty to lobbyists transcends loyalty to voters or oath. Al has intelligence, courage, and Wellstone inspiration.
    Let’s look back six months from now, not after his first week, and I predict the review will be powerful!

  12. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 07/17/2009 - 03:04 pm.

    Mr. Franken is meeting every one of my extremely low expectations.

  13. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 07/17/2009 - 03:16 pm.

    I hesitate to say Franken was the only one to bring up something since I didn’t see all of the hearings and the press mostly wants eight second sound bites. So I’ll just add the caution, as far as I know, Franken was the only one to bring up net neutrality, which is part of how the Supreme Court has strongly supported big business in almost all cases, and the threat to the Voting Rights Act, which seems much more useful than the Republicans’ umpteenth repetition of “wise Latina”. Franken gave a great defense of congressional prerogative to enforce voting rights, and the intention of some justices to throw it out for made up reasons.

    He did great.

  14. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 07/17/2009 - 07:43 pm.

    I think that many will be surprised at Franken’s knowledge of the issues and his command of the facts.

    //Al Franken, who made Sotomayor very uncomfortable as he grilled her on the Roberts Court’s tendency to overreach. In this term’s Voting Rights Act case, the court came close to striking down an act of Congress, and in an age-discrimination case, it decided an issue that was never briefed. Franken politely asked Sotomayor, “How often have you decided a case on an argument or a question that the parties have not briefed?” He wondered whether that constituted judicial activism.//

    //Good question. Why was the junior senator from Minnesota, the one sworn in only a week ago, the first one asking it?//

    I agree that a little humor goes along way and his is a rather dry style at times. Perhaps he can use it to be both self effacing and to show the absurdity of some of the goings on that take place in politics today. I would imagine it could be a rather rich subject to mine.

    Whether one agrees with Franken’s politics or not. He will have the remaining 5.5 years of his term to establish himself as a senator and to be judged as such.

    Otherwise partisan grudges and petty grievances all amount to sour grapes when it comes to Franken and the election.

  15. Submitted by Tim Nelson on 07/18/2009 - 04:30 pm.

    Congratulations to the cast on their three day run.

    Sgt. Schultz >Judge Sotomayor.
    Col. Klink>Sen. Patrick Leahy.
    Hogan>Sen. Al Franken
    Gen. Burkhalter>Sen. Jefferson Sessions.
    Ricky Ricardo?>Sen. Tom Coburn.

  16. Submitted by Wally Carr on 07/18/2009 - 06:23 pm.

    No matter what Senator Franken did, the crybababies would be slamming him. It’s like the repeated canards about Obama’s birth certificate, William Ayers, the absentee ballots in the recount, etc, etc.

    The right wing has gotten lazy and entitled. They just can’t believe that the smears and firing up the evangelicals don’t work anymore. Having lost, they are mad because they cannot examine themselves and must blame others for their failings. So look for more of the same monotonous silliness through at least 2012.

  17. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 07/19/2009 - 07:09 pm.

    Nice riff Tim….. “I know nothing”

    Although Judge Sotomayor did a nice job representing the “Post Bork” new school style of hearings that we will see from this point forward…Kabuki Theater at best. This is a simple exercise that allows the Senators some face time on television and the opportunity to play to their base.

  18. Submitted by William Pappas on 07/19/2009 - 10:36 pm.

    When people are preoccupied about Franken’s demeanor and the relationship of his Senate position to his former job on Saturday Night Live then I dismiss them as media hacks that have swallowed the entire Republican spin strategy: Never mention Franken’s name without using the words “former comedian”. This week Kevin Diaz of the Strib wrote his first article about Franken that didn’t contain references to his comedic past. However Tice managed to splat a picture of Franken as Smalley in the middle of the editorial page the same day.
    The more people like Cynthia Dizikes stay preoccupied with Franken’s wit, the more Minnesotans get cheated out of a more serious discussion of the issues. Knock it off Cynthia.

  19. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 07/20/2009 - 08:19 am.

    Meeting all expectations. Franken is an excellent representative for the Democrat party.

Leave a Reply