Buzzed Books #54 by John King

Al Franken, Giant of the Senate

Al Franken has given me great solace over the years. I still buy and drink Ovaltine because the company sponsored his radio show from 2003-2007.

For creative people, one intriguing lesson to be drawn from Al Franken’s career is that he was a successful entertainer and writer working for SNL for fifteen years, but didn’t find his deeper calling until the mid-1990s, when he creatively changed his focus to politics. Basic professional success is not necessarily about doing one’s greatest work.

In 1996, he published Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations.

Rush Limbaugh

I come from an academic world whose chief article of faith is in the power of critical thinking, and Al Franken delivered critical thinking with a powerful clarity that made the possibility of functional governance seem plausible even to my cynical eyes.

His follow up analytic work, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right (2003), was equally brilliant.

Lies and the Lying Liars

Franken chronicled our governmental shortcomings in the War in Iraq, including strategic errors, profiteering, and corruption. Franken trusts his readers to not be bored by looking at the facts and trying to make sense of the statistics, and what the experts have to say about them. Or he trusts himself to tell enough jokes to keep us entertained while delivering such political analysis.

In 2003, Al Franken started a radio show that put such funny, analytic effort to work five days a week. For those too young to remember, the administration of George W. Bush attempted to gaslight the populace by continuously suggesting that incompetence was better than competence, that cause bore no relationship to effect, and that those who disagreed were part of the inferior “reality based community.” I am not making that up. The show was originally called The O’Franken Factor (in order to troll Bill O’Reilly), but later assumed the more coherent nomenclature of The Al Franken Show. The goal of the program was to provide a progressive alternative to the hate-ins offered by conservative talk radio, and to defeat the re-election of President Bush. The Al Franken Show at least succeeded in the former.

From 2003 to 2007, Al Franken and his team preached to their liberal choir, something that liberals had avoided before then as if the choir should always be ignored, as if reaching out to liars to try to persuade them of your position was the only mission of public discourse. Al Franken didn’t just preach to the choir since he did often reach out to those who disagreed with him, but what his preaching to the choir did was to reveal how much different his choir was from conservative ones. There was an emphasis on analysis and understatement. One of his habits was to begin the show by reading a piece of hate mail calmly, interjecting with some commentary on the style of the letter, and then to not rebut the claims of the letter, but to move on to deeper discussion.

In 2007, Franken campaigned to become the junior senator from Minnesota, and (after a prolonged, contested recall) won the race. While I was glad for him, since I knew from listening to his shows and reading his books that he had a shrewd and deliberative mind and could likely serve well in Congress. On the other hand, I earnestly wondered if his influence on public policy and the larger national conversations about American governance and policy would have been more influential as a liberal pundit.

Over the last decade, I have not had much information with which to try to answer that question. With the publication of the memoir, Al Franken: Giant of the Senate, though, I now feel like I do.

Giant of the Senate

One peculiarity of Al Franken’s latest book is that it must serve paradoxical purposes:

  • Tell the optimistic redemptive narrative one expects from the genre of political memoir.
  • Avoid the cloying, glib optimism one expects from political memoir.
  • Offer comparable analytic insight to what gained him a readership with Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, and The Truth (With Jokes).
  • Be entertaining.
  • Be funny.

Giant of the Senate accomplishes all of the above. Franken had to somehow stay true to his Senatorial persona and his comic pundit persona. One of the great surprises of this memoir is how much insight Franken provides into how the Senate works (and doesn’t work). For example, in his conversational, yet precise style, he discusses the way that Republicans hamstrung the Affordable Care Act:

we’d anticipated … that the people signing up for insurance might be sicker than expected. So we built into the law several programs to mitigate the risks that insurers faced when they entered this new market, helping to make up for initial losses and keep them in the insurance market. One important program was called “risk corridors,” another example of Democratic messaging genius. But Republicans, led by the wilier-than-you-might-have-expected Marco Rubio, snuck a rider into a spending bill that killed off risk corridors, which meant insurance companies wound up only getting compensated for about 12 percent of what they were owed. Thus a bunch of insurers waltzed, premiums shot up, and Rubio and his friends rubbed their hands together while cackling gleefully.

The early chapters of Giant of the Senate cover his childhood through his SNL years and are meant to make this book align more comfortably with political memoirs—his origin story with some redemptive arc. One of the great things about this memoir, including these chapters, is how often Franken invites us to be critical of his indiscretions as a child, and manages to let enough real humanity enter these narratives before they become saccharine. Another thing that comes across is his real affinity and pride for his state of Minnesota.

Giant of the Senate hasn’t made me much more optimistic about the state of the US government, but it has given me solace, in letting me see the conscientious work of an intelligent person who is letting me see more clearly how the government is working. There is some comfort in that clarity.

Plus Al Franken is still damned funny.


1flipJohn King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.

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