Al Franken… Gets Serious

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Moment readers might remember a cover story in our December 2005 issue on Al Franken. Considering how his intense and close Senate race (the most recent count has him losing by all of 204 votes) is all over the news, we decided to post it here for further enjoyment.

So, enjoy!

By David Paul Kuhn

Al Franken leans over the scattered papers atop his desk. He puffs out his pasty cheeks. His round brown glasses seem slightly too small for his face. His brown eyebrows arch up and he grins like Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Batman. “I gotta tell you,” Franken says to me in his midtown Manhattan office, “I’ve been to Israel, and I didn’t enjoy it.” He chuckles. He knows he’s telling this to a Jewish magazine. “I hate to say that,” he continues. “I support Israel. But when I was there, in 1984, it was very high-pressured. It felt very”—he pauses to find the right word—“tense.”

Al Franken is a caricature of himself, which allows him to talk about serious issues without ever appearing to take himself too seriously. He can shuttle from the solemn to the sardonic as the straight man, often in droll monotone. You may dislike him or think of him as an ideologue—the mirror image of his adversaries, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly. The title of a recent book by conservative Bernard Goldberg calls him out: 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America (And Al Franken is #37).

Or you may think he’s a hero. With his 1996 book, Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations, the Saturday Night Live alumnus found a new calling: doing unto conservatives as they have done unto others. Until Franken’s foray into Beltway bombast, ideologically driven bestsellers and radio punditry had seemed to be the exclusive domain of the Right. And liberals love him for it. Sure, they like his boyish persona, his jokes and his cool wit. But it’s Franken the fighter they champion. He goads his detractors. His combativeness is why his six books have been runaway successes—two of them number-one bestsellers. It’s the reason he’s the public face and lead voice of the Air America Radio network, which broadcasts his daily Al Franken Show. And it’s the reason he’s laughing right now, illustrating why he gets under the skin of Limbaugh and—especially—O’Reilly.

When his show first went on the air in the spring of 2004, he titled it The O’Franken Factor, a play on O’Reilly’s popular show, The O’Reilly Factor. After prodding Limbaugh in his first bestseller—which sold more than a million copies and won him a Grammy for Best Comedy Album for his deadpan audio version—he penned Lies And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right in 2003, in which he ridiculed the Bush administration, Ann Coulter and O’Reilly, among others, winning another Grammy in the process.

The Franken-O’Reilly rivalry has provided plenty of culture war fodder. During a 2003 panel at a book convention, Franken famously provoked O’Reilly into a rage when he accused him of falsely cliaming that one of programs had won a Peabody Award. But it was the placement of a photo of O’Reilly on the cover of Franken’s Lies And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right in 2003 that brought out the bellicose in the Fox newsman. The dispute expnaded when Fox filed a lawsuit against Franken’s publisher for tradmark infringement, on the grounds that the phrase “fair and balanced” is Fox’s slogan and was thus off-limits for use in the book’s title. After a brief hearing, the suit was tossed out by the presiding judge, who called it “wholly without merit both factually and also legally.” Satire, after all, is protected as free speech.

And to Franken, that’s exactly the point. Above all, his gripe is not that many conservatives “bullshit,” though he says they do. Nor is it that they’re “profoundly disturbed,” though he insists many are. It is that they’re “hypocrites.”

“These Republicans that say they’re conservative,” he says. “They’re running up these enormous deficits that we’re all going to have to pay for.” And: “O’Reilly does this stuff all the time about ‘secular leftist values’ versus his ‘traditional values.’ Well, I didn’t know that having phone sex with an employee when you’re married was a ‘traditional value,’” Franken says, referring to allegations of sexual harassment a female producer made against O’Reilly in October 2004.

“What irritates me,” Franken adds, “is the incredible hypocrisy of the religious Right. I’m Jewish. I don’t know the New Testament. But I know that Jesus taught a lot about the poor, and the least among us, and your obligations—so much so that if you cut out every passage where he talked about that, you’d have a perfect box for smuggling Rush Limbaugh’s drugs.” I remind him that he told me that joke regarding Limbaugh’s addiction to painkillers months ago. “Okay, I’ve said that before,” Franken humbly replies, chuckling to himself.

It all began with that chuckle. “A few years ago I realized I probably became a comedian because I enjoyed watching comedians with my dad so much,” Franken says, leaning back, placing his signature white sneakers atop his desk. Franken often speaks of his father, who died in 1993. His countenance becomes softer, his voice even slower, his tone more reflective. If most of us are products of our youth, Franken is especially so. His father, a high-school dropout, worked a variety of jobs until becoming a printing salesman. His mother sold real estate part-time. “I don’t think we ever had a year where my parents made more than $15,000, but I never felt that I wanted for anything,” Franken recalls of his childhood in St. Louis Park, the largely Jewish suburb of Minneapolis also known as St. Jewish Park. “I got three squares, could watch as much TV as I wanted, and could go outside and play.”

His was not a particularly religious family: When he was a child they went to synagogue on the High Holidays and his father, for periods of his life, attended Friday night services. “But I think I’m culturally very Jewish,” Franken says. “First of all, I’m a comedian. Now, there are some brilliant gentile comedians, but there’s also a tradition in the Jewish culture of loving comedians. I grew up watching TV with my dad, and my dad loved Buddy Hackett, Georgie Jessell and Jackie Vernon. Just this slew of Jewish comedians.”

Politics was also a recurring theme in the Franken household. Franken’s father was a Republican who had voted for Herbert Hoover and Al Landon, but in 1964, appalled by Barry Goldwater’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act, he switched to the Democratic Party.

Al Franken was just a kid, but his father’s interest in politics made a lasting impression. Five years later, after graduating from the Blake School, a prestigious private school that originally admitted only Protestant boys (“They started admitting Jews in the 1950s to keep the scores up,” he quips), Franken went off to Harvard, graduating in 1973.

After college Franken joined a Minneapolis improvisational troupe, then he and pal Tom Davis formed the comedy duo “Franken & Davis.” The two headed for Los Angeles where they languished in what Franken calls “a life of near-total failure on the fringes of show business.” But unbeknownst to Franken, his agent sent his material to Lorne Michaels, who was creating a new show: Saturday Night Live. Franken had no idea that he was even under consideration until he was offered a job on a Friday and told to report for work in New York City on Monday.

Saturday Night Live became a landmark show. In its early years, it was the counter-culture on network television, live and gritty comedy that flaunted the young comedy troupe’s indifference to convention. It was irreverent while deeply relevant, replete with political satire. By the second season, advertising dollars were pouring in, attracted by the youthful audience and buying the comedians a degree of carte blanche unseen in television’s pre-cable days. Grand pronouncements about the show being “the voice of a new generation” aside, Saturday Night Live was funny—and risky.

Franken was there from the beginning. One of the original writers, he won four Emmys for his writing and a fifth for producing during his 15 years with the show, five between 1975 and 1980, then 10 between 1985 and 1995. At first he was behind the scenes, but later he joined the cast, entertaining audiences with his impressions of public figures such as Pat Robertson, Lyndon LaRouche, Paul Tsongas, Senator Paul Simon, Roone Arledge and Henry Kissinger. Franken’s best known character, analyst Stuart Smalley, deftly satirized the self-help culture of the 1990s with his trademark line: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”

The show’s success paved the way for even more barbed political satire, which Franken committed in 1992 as the “chief political correspondent” of Comedy Central’s Indecision ’92, searching for humor in the Democratic and Republican national conventions. Then came Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot, in which Franken picked his first major fight with the political Right.

In a bout of puckishness, The New York Times Book Review asked former United Nations ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick—well known for her conservative politics and her humorlessness—to review Franken’s diatribe against Limbaugh and the political Right. Kirkpatrick was
incredulous. Whereas negative Times book reviews are usually packaged with tactful language, the professional diplomat was wholly undiplomatic.

“It remains a mystery to me why The New York Times would ask me to review
this dreadfully foul little book,” she wrote straight away, adding that the title was “a craven device to attract readers,” and that if “this is the kind of mindless tripe that passes for political satire these days, I fear for this nation.”

Franken fought back as only a comedian would. In a letter to the Review, he wrote that it was “with great horror” that he noticed the newspaper assigned a “former lover” to review his book. “As anyone who was familiar with the Manhattan ’80s club scene knows,” he wrote, “Ms. Kirkpatrick and I endured a somewhat stormy and all too public affair during her tenure as our country’s U.N. Ambassador…. In fact, a primary cause of our breakup was her almost obdurate unwillingness
to understand irony.”

Franken’s family is a liberal’s Norman Rockwell painting: He and his wife Franni have been married 30 years, with a son at Princeton University and a Harvard educated daughter who teaches public school in the Bronx. (Franken says he rarely goes to synagogue except for bar mitzvahs but both children identify as Jewish although Franni is not.) And, he figured, everyone would know it was a joke. He was, after all, fighting a bad review of irony with more irony.

But Ambassador Kirkpatrick was not amused. In her retort, she wrote, “I don’t know what this horrible, horrible man is talking about…. During the time I served as ambassador to the United Nations, I was far too busy defending the people of America, including (unfortunately) Mr. Franken, against the dark forces of Soviet Communism to cheat on my husband.”

Franken sees dark forces, too, but he finds them closer to home in a right-wing White House and Congress. In his most recent book, The Truth (with jokes), which hit bookstores in October, he explains how President Bush won reelection in 2004 because of “fear, smears, and queers.”

The Truth, like all of Franken’s books, has its share of one-liners and sarcastic asides—and, like all polemics left or right, its share of ideologically slanted half-truths. But it also has a serious side, like Franken, who was a fellow with Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government at the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy in 2003.

It’s on the radio show that the comedian and the Harvard-educated man come together in three hours of talking, laughing, mocking and interviewing, some of it informed by Franken’s distinct Jewishness. “We did the ‘Oy Oy Oy Show’ [where Franken adopts the inflection of an old Yiddish man who says “oy” at the mention of a “catastrophic” event] like every day for the first year,” he says.

It was this combination of serious and funny that convinced the backers of Air America that they couldn’t pull off a liberal radio network without him. Franken, for his part, was intrigued by the opportunity to drive a liberal wedge into the conservative airwaves. “I’m in this because 21 percent of Americans, according to a Gallup poll, get most of their news from talk radio,” Franken says. “And Rush and those people, they lie about the Democratic Party. They lie about liberals; they paint a fantasy picture of liberal elitists who hate America. They lie all the time.”

Signing on to Air America was a risk for Franken. Even with more than a fifth of the country getting some of its news from talk radio, it wasn’t at all clear that there was a need for liberal talk—or that
Air America could provide it. Stations were slow to sign up. The lineup was juggled and refigured, and hosts often went without pay.

A year and a half later, with many of its birth pains behind it, Franken’s program airs on 71 stations and pulls in about 1.2 million weekly listeners. That’s enormous growth, but Franken remains in the minor leagues: Limbaugh has 15 to 20 million weekly listeners, and is heard on nearly 600 stations. Each day, twice as many people listen to Limbaugh as read USA Today and The Wall Street Journal, the country’s largest circulation newspapers, combined. Limbaugh’s fellow conservative, Sean Hannity, boasts second place, reaching some 12 million weekly listeners and airing on more than 300 stations.

Franken and Limbaugh go head-tohead for three hours a day in many markets, and Franken has more listeners in the coveted 25 to 54 age group in only three cities—Madison, Wisconsin; Portland, Oregon; and San Francisco, California. To Franken, this is a start. He may be far behind, but he views the race as far from finished.

Al Franken is now considering another kind of race, one with potentially far higher stakes: crossing the great divide between satire and politics. At 54, the man before me, wearing a tie and jacket from the waist up and jeans from the waist down, may run for the Senate to represent his home state of Minnesota. It’s the seat that Norman Coleman won after Senator Paul Wellstone was killed in a plane crash near the end of his 2002 reelection campaign.

Franken calls Wellstone, whom he counted as a friend, a “hero.” He’s less charitable towards Coleman, dismissing him as a “phony” and “suit.” But the potential run for the Senate is no joke. For decades, Franken has visited the state regularly to spend time with his parents, but over the past year he’s been showing up more often, raising money for local Democrats and speaking to political players statewide. In late February, he spoke at the State Capitol before the Minnesota House Democratic-Farmer-Labor Caucus, not the kind of thing a comedian does for kicks. In mid-October, he headlined a fundraiser for the Democratic candidate vying to unseat the Republican mayor of St. Paul, who was backed by Norm Coleman. Franken has purchased a townhouse in Minneapolis and plans to move his radio show to the Twin Cities in 2006.

If he does run, he will have to give up the radio show because the law mandates each candidate gets equal time on the airwaves. “That’s part of the calculus,” Franken says. If he feels the radio show has the potential for far greater success, and could eventually have an influence that dwarfs that even of a U.S. senator, he may stick with it. And above all, as he’ll readily admit, Franken will only run if he thinks he can win.

Minnesota Democratic insiders think Franken has as good a chance as any. “He can get to be a frontrunner by the time [the campaign] gets going,” says Minnesota Democratic strategist Wy Spano, who is also the director of the Center for Advocacy and Political Leadership at the University of Minnesota at Duluth. “By responding to these kinds of requests to do fundraisers—a lot of people are ready to trade on his celebrity—he has some due bills to cash in. He’s doing what he needs to do, and he’s doing it soon enough and in what seems to be the right way.” Spano adds, “Minnesota Democrats have become accustomed to the thought that he’s going to run. He’s certainly making a lot of life changes that are difficult to do without some sort of plan in mind.”

Franken himself says he hasn’t decided whether or not to run. “Minnesotans take their politics seriously,” he often says, and this could work against a comedian. And Republicans will certainly try to make a joke of his candidacy. But, says Wy Spano, “The reality is that Franken is taken seriously because lately he’s talked a lot about serious stuff. He’s talked about being liberal, about disagreeing with the administration. It’s not all joke lines, which people who haven’t listened might seem to think. Those who have listened to him are coming away pretty impressed.”

Though Minnesota is not as liberal as it was when Franken was growing up—it now has exactly as many Republicans as Democrats—it remains a state where character “gut checks,” as political wonks call them, are especially critical. Franken’s forthright manner and his willingness to offend can be advantages in the state where Paul Wellstone was admired as much for being a straight shooter as for representing—in the phrase Wellstone made famous before it was recycled by Howard Dean—“the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”

Franken has another potential disadvantage, which Republicans have already announced their intention to exploit. “Norm Coleman has lived in Minnesota for the last 20 years,” Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Ron Eibensteiner emphasizes. “For the last 20 years Al Franken has lived in New York. He’s a New Yorker; he’s not a Minnesotan.” Eibensteiner says Republicans will portray Franken as a cultural elitist with no appeal to voters on farms where the corn is taller than basketball centers, and where snowmobiling and ice-fishing are near-religious pastimes.

Norm Ornstein, a native Minnesotan and political analyst for the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, says “a carpetbagger charge is not going to work,” and adds that Franken “is not a cultural elitist.” The carpetbagger charge “is harder to make stick than a Hillary Clinton or a Bobby Kennedy moving to New York, when they haven’t lived there before.” Both of those candidates, of course, were elected. And, Ornstein is quick to emphasize, Franken does have a rebuttal. “Norm
Coleman grew up in New York and actually has a New York accent,” the analyst continues. “I said [to Franken] that your slogan ought to be, ‘The only New York Jew who grew up in Minnesota.’”

As for whether an entertainer can be elected, Franken need look no further than actors Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, singer Sonny Bono and, of course, Jesse Ventura—the former professional wrestler, Navy Seal and small town mayor who was Minnesota’s governor from 1998 to 2002.

“One of the differences with Al is that unlike many [entertainers who have run], he is a general policy wonk. He really knows the policy side of things. He’s not a dilettante,” says Ornstein, a regular guest on Franken’s show. “He could take on virtually any policy issue and be able to talk about it in a way that would probably be an equal of most members of Congress.”

That doesn’t mean Franken will win.

Franken’s frankness is his greatest weakness as well as his greatest strength. It’s hard to imagine Senator Coleman, who declined to comment for this story, telling a Jewish magazine that he “didn’t enjoy Israel.” But then, it’s hard to imagine New York’s Charles Schumer, Connecticut’s Joseph Lieberman, California’s Dianne Feinstein or Barbara Boxer, or Wisconsin’s Russ Feingold doing it either. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee would probably be up in arms. It’s not so farfetched to imagine a press release from the Israeli foreign ministry, or certainly a backchannel phone call.

But then that’s Franken’s nature. In 1999, Franken was invited to a dinner honoring then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. It was one of the largest banquets of the Clinton presidency, and Franken found himself seated at a table with an Israeli general. “So I asked him, ‘Do Israelis think American Jews are chickens?’ And he said to me, ‘If we did, I wouldn’t tell you.’”

Franken is cracking up. The comedian finds himself funny. But lately, Franken seems to be qualifying his jokes. That’s the stuff of politics. After earlier telling me that he didn’t enjoy visiting Israel, he adds, “I admire people for living in that situation. I’ve met a lot of Israelis I like immensely. It’s beautiful and unbelievable, and I get starry eyed about the Israel [I learned about in] my youth. I want to support Israel, and I do. I do fund raisers for medical centers there, and other things like that. But I didn’t have fun when I was there. I don’t know. It’s a hard place.”

Indeed, Israel is a hard place. We’re talking after the last settler has left the Strip, after the homes have been bulldozed along with the settlers’ dream of a Greater Israel. “I’m not a big Sharon fan, but I think he showed a lot of courage” in leaving Gaza, Franken says. “He did the right thing.”

On the bookshelf over Franken’s broad shoulders (he was a wrestler in high school) is The World is Flat by Tom Friedman, the influential New York Times columnist who was also raised in St. Louis Park. Friedman often points to the higher birth rate among Palestinians, among other issues, as undercutting the moral ground of the Israeli settlements. I ask Franken if his concern is like Friedman’s, that the settlements mean Israel will have to decide whether it is a democracy or a Jewish state—and that if the settlements are not given up, Israel risks becoming akin to apartheid South Africa, a minority in charge of a majority.

“Yeah, I think I agree,” he says, leaning back, considering the idea. “If you say that Israel is a Jewish state—which is one of the few exceptions to my usual objection to the idea of a theocracy—it’s got to be a Jewish state. So if Jews cease to be a majority of the people in Israel, I don’t know how you keep it a Jewish state. I think accommodation has to be made to have a Palestinian state and an Israeli state, not unlike what Barak and Clinton offered Arafat, with a little more access to water.”

Franken is neither a hawk nor a dove. “I’m somewhere in the middle,” he tells me. “As a Jew, I’m reflexively pro-Israel. But I do feel that Israel has caused a number of its own problems by the way in which it has treated Palestinians. I understand the argument that Israelis had to crack down on terrorism and that Arafat didn’t do what he was supposed to do. I understand all those arguments. By the way, I think Arafat dying was, like, a great, great thing,” Franken says, giving thumbs up, chuckling. “I think it has moved things forward in a way. I remember that little period after the Iraq election, when the Lebanese were kicking the Syrians out. There was some bogus election in Saudi Arabia, and Egypt announced something. And then when they [neoconservatives] point to Israel and Palestine, I was like, ‘Arafat died!’ It’s like if Castro dies, and then we open trade to Cuba and Cuba gets democratized, and you’re the president and you say, ‘You see, I did that.’ No, Castro died, you idiot!”

Arafat’s passing, along with the Gaza pullout, has made Franken tepidly optimistic. “I think [peace] is possible. I really do.” But he quickly adds, “I think it’s easy to underestimate the fanaticism of people on both sides, particularly like [those in] Hamas, who I don’t understand.”

Of American Jews who vote solely for the candidate they see as more pro-Israel, he says, “Anybody has a right to vote on one issue. There are people who vote on abortion. I don’t know how many there are who vote on Israel alone. I suspect it’s not really that many. But I think it is an important issue to a lot of American Jews, as it is to me. I just may have different views than those who vote mainly about Israel.”

That’s Franken the politician. So I persist. He replies, “I’ll run into these Jews.” Franken begins laughing. “My reaction is, ‘Oy,’” he says, inflecting a Yiddish accent. And that’s the political comedian at his best: funny, honest and controversial.

Franken doesn’t think anti-Semitism is the issue for Jews running for office that it once was. “It depends on where. If you’re talking about America, I don’t think so,” he says. In Minnesota, it certainly is not. Not only was Wellstone Jewish, as is Coleman, but in the neighboring state of Wisconsin, both senators are Jewish. And these are not the most Jewish of American states. “If you look hard enough for anti-Semitism, you’ll create it,” he adds. “I just don’t think it’s a handicap in the way people used to think it was a handicap. Maybe I’m naïve, but I just don’t think it hurts. We obviously, in the Senate, are tremendously over-represented,” he chuckles. “Thank God.” This is why Franken also doesn’t “see a problem” anymore with electing a Jewish president. He mentions Russ Feingold as a viable candidate. “But it’s not going to happen with Joe [Lieberman], that’s for sure,” Franken adds.

Was Lieberman too Jewish? Did he speak too often of God in 2000?

“I know a lot of people said, ‘Enough already,’” Franken replies. “But I thought it was fine. That was him. The values that he is talking about regarding his religion were ones I totally agreed with. They were things like God made this earth.” In any case, he says, “I believe Lieberman was elected vice-president, and that had things been different, our troops would be coming home from Darfur now.”

When Franken speaks of domestic policy, the politician becomes increasingly imaginable. “There are some systemic things we need to address,” he tells me. “Income lost because of globalization. We have to do more of what Clinton was doing, in the way of the earned income tax credit, and raise the minimum wage and make sure that people are earning a living wage. And make sure that everyone has health care. Pay teachers double to teach in at-risk neighborhoods, so that teachers are competing to teach in those school districts that have the greatest needs.” He speaks in much the same way as on his radio show: His tone is slow and tempered, and there are pauses. He doesn’t speak with the energy of a Rush Limbaugh. But he also doesn’t sound angry, although at times his timbre betrays his frustration. He’ll sigh, but he rarely rants.

“Obviously we should be for an Apollo-like program for renewable energy,” Franken adds. He repeats this agenda often, and it can sound awfully like a platform. “It’s crazy that after 9/11 we didn’t immediately shift our national energy approach away from dependence on fossil fuels and oil,” Franken continues, his speech gaining pace. “[We should] act as if Kyoto had been passed and ratified. Or, get back into Kyoto because it’s happening now. [Hurricane Katrina’s destruction in] New Orleans wasn’t caused by global warming. It was exacerbated by the loss of the wetlands there and other things. But in 30 or 40 years there are going to be a lot of cities that are at sea level.” Franken’s point is that if global warming is allowed to persist, the sea level will rise and more cities will be increasingly vulnerable to hurricanes.

He says he “hopes” the horrific 2005 hurricane season galvanizes Americans to pay more attention to the underclass, describing himself as an “economic and social populist.” Unlike many on the American Left, he does not think the United States should rush to withdraw troops from Iraq. In his opinion, the United States may have picked the wrong fight but it now must finish it for the sake of stability. Franken does harbor a special disdain for the neoconservatives whom he blames for misleading the nation into Iraq, a war he believes they misrepresented and mismanaged.

“[Neoconservatives] have an incredible arrogance, and hubris, and an unbelievable ability to believe their own hype.” Of the Jewish neoconservatives—such as Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, Irving Kristol and his son William Kristol, he says: “I’m not sure they are particularly devout Jews. They come from this Leo Strauss school”—Strauss was a German-Jewish refugee from World War II and a political philosopher at the University of Chicago who influenced many of the pioneers of modern neoconservative thought—“and Strauss said religion was good for the masses but you didn’t have to use it. So it’s a good thing to keep the masses in check, but we superior Straussians don’t have to practice this ourselves.” He goes on. “I saw this great British documentary called The Power of Nightmares. And the whole point of it is to draw parallels between the Straussians and Al Qaeda. They sort of have a lot of things in common. The rest of the world doesn’t believe what they believe is inherently corrupt and wrong and evil. They see the world very black and white. And corrupt in a cultural way,” Franken continues. “It’s sorta like it’s okay to kill these other people who don’t think your way because your philosophy is the right philosophy.”

Franken may just be insatiable. Once he succeeds in one occupation, he quickly exposes himself to failure in another. It may be Franken’s most intrinsically American attribute. He makes it as a comedy writer on Saturday Night Live, so he tries his hand at the unforgiving world of live TV. He makes it as political satirist, writes six books and decides to jump headfirst into the equally unforgiving world of live political radio. He manages to pull it off, then considers a campaign for the U.S. Senate.

Sitting across from him, I can’t tell if he will really run. We have spoken several times in the past months, and my sense is that he is wavering. “Sometimes I like politics for all the wrong reasons, which is the game,” he admits, leaning back in his chair, his thick fingers interlocked behind his head. “That’s not the reason to be in politics. It’s a good reason to comment on it.”

But Franken also knows politics has a way of making one too political. Though it is nearly impossible to imagine Franken as a stiff, he realizes if he loses his candor, his quips, he’ll lose the Senate race. “I have a feeling that people do respond to authenticity,” he says. “I think if I start becoming too political, it’ll sap me of the one thing I’ve got.”

So the question remains unanswered. “It feels like I would really have to make a decision by the beginning of 2007,” Franken tells me. I look back at him, and he knows I question whether he has
already made the decision. After all, politicians often decide to run far before they’re willing to commit publicly. He’s aware that I want more of an answer but he stays silent. I ask, “Are you simply saying that?”

“No,” he quickly replies. “If a decision had been made I probably would have said something similar. But this is easy to say, because I don’t know [whether to run].” And it hits him. He sounds like a politician. Franken again tilts his head back and chuckles.

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