The Franken Factor

Washington Matters

The Franken Factor

Assuming Republican Norm Coleman's legal challenges fail and Democrat Al Franken is seated as Minnesota's senator, can the onetime comedian, political satirist and radio talk show host make the jump to being a serious policy maker and debater? It'd be nice to think that watching Franken adjust from bawdy late night comedy and sophomoric pot shots to early morning debate on reauthorizing the Commodity Futures Trading Commission will  provide some comedy relief to the anticipated whirlwind of legislation this year. But odds are, he'll be pretty boring.

After all, Franken is the apparent winner in a virtual dead heat in a state that President-elect Obama won by more than 10 points. That's a bright, flashing danger signal that Minnesotans are plenty skeptical about whether Franken can come close to measuring up to the legislative giants they have consistently sent to Washington, legends like Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale and Paul Wellstone. (For those keeping score, that's three senators, two vice presidents [Humphrey and Mondale], two presidential nominees [ditto] and two men regarded as the "conscience of the Senate" in their time [Humphrey and Wellstone.]) Franken's fully aware of that legacy and is unlikely to do anything foolish to taint it. Besides, Franken demonstrated a sober side on the campaign trail and kept his only occasional attempts at humor light and family friendly.

But it is worth noting the sharp contrast between that Franken and the one I knew a little about 10 years when I helped him organize three events at the National Press Club. Perhaps the funniest was him appearing with now retired Sen. Alan Simpson, R-WY, one of the last genuinely witty and funny members of a chamber where speakers' laugh lines are usually scripted for them. Franken's book at the time was the in-your-face Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot - And Other Observations, which is loaded with crude commentary on right wing Republicans but also some interesting research and fact-checking on common GOP claims. Simpson's book was Right in the Old Gazoo - A Lifetime of Scrapping with the Press, which uses some crude anatomical, even scatological humor to bolster his allegations of media bias but also includes some sharp insights into journalistic shortcomings and the relationship between journalists and official Washington.

The two sparred and trashed each other and their respective targets with sharp-edged humor that kept the audience in stitches and neither man took the jabs personally. In fact, the two were actually very friendly before that event and remain so today. (You can sample their style and hear their thoughts on political humor during a 2002 panel discussion at WGBH's Web site.) I would imagine Franken will walk the quieter and gentler path he chose during the campaign as he learns the ropes of the Senate -- where decorum is prized and accomplishments often hinge on personal relationships. Gone will be the rough language entirely and personal attacks. (Imagine how Sen. Robert Byrd, the stern and aged rules maven, Senate historian and all around hall monitor, would react to a poop joke.)


There's more to Franken than his signature humor, though. I also could tell 10 years ago that he kept up on congressional issues that other political comedians couldn't have cared less about because they couldn't be used for material, including knowing the names of rank-and-file vulnerable House Republicans, knowing the final vote result on NAFTA from a few years earlier and knowing the precise size of the defense budget and the active duty military. He's shown in the campaign he is a quick study on multiple issues, including the particulars of U.S. policy in Iraq, trade adjustment programs and low-income energy assistance. He'll need to keep that up in the Senate, and I don't see why he would not.

Franken may not be alone in learning how a celebrity turns into a legislator. There's a good chance that Caroline  Kennedy, daughter of JFK and niece of RFK and Sen. Ted Kennedy, will be appointed to finish the term of New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. If anything, Kennedy, who bears a legendary name but not a lick of experience as an elected official, would be watched with even greater scrutiny and subject to higher expectations. Franken has the advantage of having been been tested by a tough campaign and election.

In fact, if they actually do clear their hurdles to the Senate, Franken and Kennedy could do far worse than follow the lead of Clinton. She was better known exponentially and far more controversial than either of them when she joined the Senate in 2001 and she was followed by considerable suspicion that she would try to use that star power to muscle her way into both power and the limelight. Instead, she kept a very low profile while she learned the ins and outs of legislating.

She was a workhorse who toiled away on committee work and parochial state and regional issues and quietly built alliances within her party and across the aisle. While Clinton had her eyes on a much bigger prize the entire time, she nonetheless grew successful and respected enough in the Senate to put together a serious resume and formidable political machine that she nearly become the first woman president. Franken and Kennedy would be just fine if they keep their sights much lower, say figuring out where the rest rooms are and how to duck reporters lurking in the Capitol hallways until they have formulated a coherent position on a bill or controversy.