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It’s good to be the ‘Giant of the Senate’

It’s an opportune time for a wide-ranging book in which Sen. Al Franken reflects on his personal life, political life, and where American politics are right now.

Sen. Al Franken questioning Supreme Court nominee judge Neil Gorsuch in March.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

In his new book, “Al Franken: Giant of the Senate,” the title character quips that the presidency of Donald J. Trump means that things are “going to suck for a while.”

It’s true that, in a lot of ways, 2017 sucks for Democrats and those who oppose Trump. But it’s also true that there may be no better time than right now to be Al Franken.

Since Trump ascended to the presidency, Franken, already a hero to the progressive grassroots, has emerged as a marquee Democratic leader, thanks to his headline-grabbing cross-examinations of Trump’s cabinet nominees, his criticisms of Trump and other Republicans, and his work to help elect more Democrats to take them on.

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It’s earned him the admiration of many, not just the die-hard progressives who’ve followed him since his liberal talk radio days — and it’s even earned him a bit of presidential buzz. On top of that, he is two years off a convincing re-election, coming into his own as a U.S. senator after a first term largely spent with his head down.

All this, then, means it’s an opportune time for a wide-ranging book in which Franken reflects on his personal life, political life, and where American politics are right now. Like his past writing, Franken’s latest offers up red meat for his most liberal fans, and it’ll draw plenty of conservative scoffs. But he charts some new territory by reflecting fondly on his friendships with Republican colleagues, and taking shots at some fellow Democrats, including Barack Obama.

In a breezy, funny, biting, and often earnest read, Franken pulls off what many of his congressional colleagues have failed to do: write, by the standards of the genre, an interesting and honest memoir.

Senate snark

When he first started writing, Franken didn’t mean for his latest book to be some kind of timely commentary on the latest in U.S. politics.

He says he started on the book two years ago, when Trump was just a golden-escalator-descending glimmer in the nation’s eye, while holed up at the Grand View Lodge in Nisswa. 

In an interview with MinnPost, Franken says he was aiming to use the book to answer a simple question that he gets a lot: is the U.S. Senate more fun than “Saturday Night Live?”

“The answer is no,” Franken deadpanned. “Why would it be?”

But much of the book gets at Franken’s real answer: being a U.S. Senator isn’t the most fun job he’s held, but it might be the best one.

That fun job was, of course, at SNL. Franken writes candidly about his years as a writer and performer at the sketch comedy show in its 1970s and 1980s heyday, from the challenges of putting on a topical, often political, show to the greater challenge of seeing his castmates and fellow writers struggle with addiction.

He also traces his shift to politics, when he left SNL and began writing books debunking the talking points of Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly, and working for the now-defunct liberal talk network Air America.

Early and often, Franken makes the case that his past as a satirist and right-wing fact-checker has made him an effective senator and not, as his rivals have often suggested, something that disqualifies him from office.

In this year’s Cabinet confirmation hearings — in which Franken made headlines in exchanges with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos — the senator says he simply did what his career trained him to do. “I find the irony and absurdity, the inconsistency and lies in testimony,” Franken said, crediting “my training from writing the books I wrote, being a satirist and being a comedian.”

The second half of the book, which focuses on Franken’s time in the Senate and the election of Trump, is a distillation of the politics and sensibility of the Franken that has emerged since winning a second term in 2014.

When he arrived in the Senate after a bitterly fought election in 2009, Franken kept his head down, preferring a wonkish approach to policy and a focus on Minnesota issues, constituents, and press. (Though, as some anecdotes clearly show, Franken’s comic sensibility remained — he just had to try to shut it off.)

That Franken very much remains. In the book, he spends chapters patiently explaining how Obamacare got passed; he delves into the finer points of some pet topics of his, like antitrust law and telecommunications corporation mergers.

But he rewards readers for sticking through his talking points by throwing some barbs, and bombs, reminiscent of the old, “Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot” Al Franken.

“Giant” is full of acerbic shots at figures like Steve Bannon but also Franken’s own colleagues: he describes Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as a singularly cynical and conniving political operator — albeit one that Franken has some grudging respect for.

Not so much Texas Sen. Ted Cruz — “the Dwight Schrute of the Senate” — who gets a chapter all his own. The internet has already widely shared a joke in which Franken unfavorably compares the Texan to a cruise ship, but Franken spends most of the section going after some of Cruz’s soapbox moments in the Senate. (Cruz fired back last week, saying Franken’s writing on him was “obnoxious” and designed to sell more books. He wished Franken all the best.)

Refreshingly, Franken doesn’t spare fellow Democrats from criticism. Though he expresses admiration for Chuck Schumer, the new leader of the Senate Democratic conference, he details an uneasy relationship dating to when Schumer’s Democratic Senate Campaign Committee waffled on backing Franken in his 2008 Senate bid.

Franken also expresses admiration for Barack Obama as a president, but he doesn’t mince words about the president’s calculating political strategy — which appeared to calculate Franken as a liability.

Franken, of course, had a famously close 2008 election victory, defeating former Sen. Norm Coleman by 312 votes after a recount and a lengthy court battle. He credits political allies, like Bill and Hillary Clinton, with doing all they could to help Franken move the needle in his tight race.

As for Obama, the wildly popular candidate who cruised to victory in Minnesota and nationwide: he “had no interest in providing that help,” Franken writes. According to Franken, at a rally on the Iron Range, Obama invited Hillary Clinton and former Rep. Jim Oberstar on stage, but his team barred Franken from joining them; the Obama team also omitted Franken’s name from pamphlets and literature mentioning other Democrats.

“Overall,” Franken writes, “great president.”

Minnesota details

Perhaps the most frequent Franken target, however, is his one-time opponent, Coleman. Though he qualifies early on that he doesn’t think Coleman is a bad guy, he quips on the third page of the book that Coleman, after losing in 2008, “landed on his feet” by becoming a lobbyist for Saudi Arabia.

He goes on to call him a “lickspittle” for the George W. Bush administration, criticizes him for his ties to the oil and gas industry, and talks about how deeply Coleman’s assertion he was a “99 percent improvement” over former Sen. Paul Wellstone rankled him, and sparked him to consider a run against him. (Franken writes often about Wellstone, his political hero, and the book is dedicated to Wellstone and his wife, Sheila.)

Beyond that, there are plenty of items of interest for Minnesotan readers of Franken’s book. North Star State politicos who pick it up will find him name-checking prominent politicians, DFL and Republican operatives, and journalists.

Franken also explains elements of Minnesota’s often peculiar political culture, revealing for a national audience how the party endorsement processes work, what a bean feed is, and how you get started in Minnesota politics.

Like any good politician, Franken takes opportunities to sing the praises of his home state and its people. They are “good-hearted and generous and brilliant,” he says. (Franken is up for re-election in 2020.)

Beyond that, he writes about how St. Cloud tried to come together after a 2016 stabbing attack carried out by a man of Somali descent, and he writes about a very diverse high school class in Willmar with a Latino valedictorian and a Somali homecoming queen.

Dealing with Trump

These kinds of anecdotes are explicit and implicit rebukes of Trump, the figure who looms over parts of Franken’s memoir. For most picking up his book, it’s not to read tales of DFL bean feeds, but rather Franken’s acid criticism of Trump, and his affirmation of liberal principles and policy in this new political era.

Franken delivers on the Trump stuff, devoting a chapter to the “lying liar who got elected president” and unloading on the decline of truth in politics. Franken is well-positioned to explain what has enabled Trump: as a liberal gadfly in the 1990s and 2000s, Franken saw the roots of Trump’s rise in Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution to the growth of conservative talk radio and Fox News.

Franken says he was about 80 percent finished with the book when Trump won, and claims he didn’t want his book to be a history of the Trump presidency. “I tried to talk about how this happened,” he said. “I related it back to my race in ’08, compare it, and how things have changed.”

Referring to his past books, like “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them,” Franken said it was “adorable” that people seemingly used to care when people lied. “Now we have this guy who lies constantly and it doesn’t seem to make a difference.”

Franken’s Trump criticism will surely provide his liberal fans with some needed catharsis; as is usually the case with Franken, conservatives probably won’t find much to like. But the senator maintains he hopes people get some hope out of his book, too.

“I’ve said my books are nutritional candy,” Franken says, explaining he wants readers “get stuff out of it… learn a bit how the Senate works, see how every campaign is different, get them to see why this means so much to me, and maybe to motivate them to do things themselves.”

Franken writes about being dejected when George W. Bush won a second term in 2004, but argues that critics of Trump and the GOP need to remain involved. “In ‘06, we took back the House,” Franken said. “Just four years later, we had Barack Obama as president.”

Some have speculated that, given everything that’s happened, it wouldn’t be so strange if Franken were president four years from now. Franken himself literally laughs this off, and has said he’s not planning to run for higher office.

If he were to, though, the political bio book is a prerequisite. And Franken’s book has gotten more buzz than other bold-faced Democratic names, even if the former SNL star has a leg up in star power over his more lawyerly colleagues. (“Giant of the Senate” comes out May 30.)

Franken himself thinks the 2020 speculation misses the point. “People are getting way ahead of themselves,” Franken says. “I think we should cool down and focus on what’s right in front of us.”

Franken might be more willing to let loose now than he was eight years ago. Asked if he really thinks things will suck for the next four years, Franken said “some things will.” But the rest of his answer was wonky, classic Franken-as-senator, as he explained that some good things might happen with Trump’s commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, and his support of the domestic U.S. steel industry.

“I would like to work with the administration on that,” he said. “There are other things where I think we need to, we can work together and try to do something.”