Franken Book Review

August 31, 2017

Al Franken: Giant of the Senate (2017). The strange story of how a comedy writer/performer became a serious politician. Apparently, he had a pile of humor saved up for this memoir. We learn something about Franken, Saturday Night Live, running for office, and what's it like to be in the Senate--even some arcane rules in Washington like how bills are actually written. The humor seems the most memorable parts of the book. For example, Franken has an entire chapter on Ted Cruz (a part of the strange stew of Texas politics). The best line: "I like Ted Cruz more than most of my other colleagues like Ted Cruz. And I hate Ted Cruz." I'm guessing he couldn't wait to unload on Cruz.

 

I usually like memoirs. it's story telling and these people have the most expertise about themselves. (How honest they are is another matter, but it's the story that counts.) This is no exception. First question: "Is being a US Senator as much fun as working on SNL?" The answer: an emphatic NO. A bit of the book is his upbringing, including the years at SNL, a fun read (but not providing useful material for Median Voter Guy). More on point is his run for senator from Minnesota as "no joke Al" against Norm Coleman (after Paul Wellstone died).  In this telling, Colman ran a sleazebag campaign--including the DeHumorizer (turning every joke attributed to Franken into a sociopathic rant). The vote was 50/50, calling for recounts and related court cases. Franken eventually won by  few hundred votes but was seated only after many months of court battles. Then Franken became a serious (read unhumorous) Senator--apparently useful to Minnesota, but boring; not a problem for median voter guy). 

 

Franken's description of what it takes to run a campaign indicates how painful it is (especially the stuff opponents can throw at you), which should discourage almost anyone from running for anything. It's not just difference of opinion on issues, it does not have to be honest, and these days outright lies are fair game. Apparently a thick skin helps, although politicians as a group seem rather thin-skinned. (As a celebrity, Franken can get his revenge on TV and in books like this one, ergo Ted Cruz.) Gems include Herman the German versus Stu the Jew. He learned to pivot--how to not answer that annoying question; strategy: is it true? necessary? strategic? 

 

The most interesting to me were his descriptions of working in the Senate, starting with dealing with various members. Take Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell: Franken: "I have to say, I really like your speeches better that aren't in the service of evil." McConnell: "I like the evil ones better." Most of his work was relatively obscure, such as items that benefited a few, such as service dogs for veterans (which he co-sponsored with a Republican). Lots of committee meeting. He was put on the Senate Judiciary Committee despite not being a lawyer. During the hearings for Sotomayor for Supreme Court he asked about Perry Mason. Al talked about several hearing where he grilled various ideologues (usually right wingers), which apparently gave him satisfaction without making much difference in actual Senate votes. It gave him to chance in one to refer to the Wall Street Journal editorial page as "absurd piddlepaddle." 

 

He got into the weeds a bit including detailing such things as the use of cloture votes for multiple purposes like delaying passage of bills. He pointed out that Republicans dealing with Obama had three choices, basically working with him because he had a mandate, working with Obama but insisting on bipartisanship meaning including Republican ideas, or refuse to respect his mandate, do everything to prevent him from being successful and blaming him for every problem including those the Republicans actually created. Unlike previous new administrations, the Republicans chose the last, doing everything to stymie Obama at every turn. This proved easy when they took control of Congress beginning in 2010. Franken also mentions the Democrats' disadvantage in messaging. He claimed it was because of their complex ideas, although idiocy may be a more compelling reason. (Republicans seem great at propaganda and indifferent to truthfulness, but Democrats often seem helpless in defending their positions.) Franken has a useful chapter on healthcare, pointing out various issues mischaracterized by Republicans, but also including the four systems of healthcare we have and how each has the equivalent in other countries (except that one or another is their basic system that covers everyone).

 

Great quote: "In order to be an effective Democratic senator your have to be able to hold two inherently contradictory ideas in your head ... One: Republicans are just awful ... Two: Republicans exist." Describing the McNamara fallacy: "What can be measured will be measured. And only things that are measured are deemed important." This was a disaster during the Vietnam War. Franken introduced the 64% Rule, the things both parties can agree on and maybe pass if the politics is right. The Republicans he likes best are the ones that are funny (even if he disagrees with them, such as Pat Roberts and Lindsey Graham). [Franken: "Lindsey, if I were voting in the Republican primaries, I'd vote for you." Graham: "That's my problem."]  And then Trump was elected. Franken was friends with Sessions but went after him in confirmation hearings for attorney general. As he put it: "there was so much to fairly demonize him for." 

 

Hard to believe, there are civility rules in the Senate. Apparently you can't tell a joke on the Senate floor because most of the time there is no one there, just the CSPAN cameras. He was astounded by the lying, such as Ted Cruz's "disregard for the truth, grandstanding, and impossible to work with ... just an obnoxious wrench in the gears of government." Franken was easily reelected in 2014, a year when many Democrats lost. He claimed: "being a good Senator is good politics."

 

Interesting chapter headings: "The Koch Brothers Hate Your Grandchildren," then "Lies and the Lying Liar Who Got Himself Elected President." As he stated: "Not only does it offend me that he's the president, it offends me that he's considered an entertainer." He noted the spokespeople: "lie to the media with 'alternative facts,' a new phrase coined by Kellyanne Conway to encourage sales of George Orwells' 1984. As he stated: "even on the good days, politics is hard." 

 

After the book came out, Franken resigned in disgrace for sexual misconduct.

 

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