Minnesota Democrat Al Franken is in his second term as a U.S. senator after a comedy career that carried him from “Saturday Night Live” to Air America radio, with stops in Hollywood and on book best-seller lists along the way.
With memoir “Al Franken, Giant of the Senate,” he’s the closing-night speaker of the Book Festival of the Marcus Jewish Community Center on Nov. 20. He spoke to the AJT on Monday, Oct. 16.
AJT: Looking back, is being a senator what you expected it to be, and did you think you would get here, given everything stacked against you?
Franken: In the book I write about how I didn’t understand the “De-humorizer.” I thought the campaign would be about issues and my opponent’s record or lack of it, George W. Bush, and the Iraq war. Since he didn’t have anything really to point to in terms of achievements, it became a very negative campaign. A lot of it was taking the comedy that had been my career and putting certain jokes through the De-humorizer, which was a $15 machine they bought using Israeli technology. It was a pretty ugly campaign, and it was touch and go. It was the closest Senate campaign in history. I hadn’t really expected that.
AJT: What have you enjoyed the most about being a senator?
Franken: The part I enjoy the most is when I get something done that helps people. Paul Wellstone, who held my seat and is a hero of mine, said that politics is about improving people’s lives. And that’s what I enjoy — when I get things done and people are better off for it.
AJT: Do you think people were afraid you wouldn’t take the job seriously, given your background in comedy?
Franken: That was the message that my opponent tried to send to the voters. I spent the first term completely just being a workhorse and not a show horse. I continue to be a workhorse, but now I’m a workhorse with a sense of humor.
AJT: You have a quote in your book from Paul Wellstone that says that politics is about the improvement of people’s lives. I think many, myself included, don’t feel like their legislators care about that or what their constituents want and are instead just looking out for their own best interests. What would you say to that?
Franken: That’s certainly not true in my case. I don’t think that’s true in many senators’ cases. If I do a meeting on the farm bill that I’m writing, I’m trying to help farmers in Minnesota make their operations more efficient. Police officers don’t know how to question someone who’s been raped. There are forensic nurses who do know how to do it. I am introducing a bill to train first responders to talk to a victim. Those are the kinds of things I do. They’re very specific things that I think are going to make things better.
AJT: What were you thinking when Donald Trump was elected?
Franken: It was a whole bunch of things. One, that it was going to be a lot harder to get the right kinds of things done over the next four years. I had only been here in the Senate with a Democratic president, and I knew the Cabinet secretaries very well. I knew, to get things done, it was helpful to be able to call them. I was looking at someone I didn’t think had the qualities you want as a president. I was concerned for the country. Nothing has changed in that regard. It’s only gotten worse as I can see it. He certainly isn’t someone who seemed interested in public policy, was a serious person, someone who was dignified and someone who was intelligent. I was concerned on a whole bunch of levels. Nothing he’s done yet has (changed that).
AJT: What are your concerns about the current climate with North Korea?
Franken: The president’s language concerns me. Forgetting the nuclear weapons, you have North Korea’s artillery pointed across the DMZ at Seoul. Any kind of war here is going to mean probably lives of millions of people. It’s very frightening. His language has only escalated the tensions and the possibility of some kind of war, which would be a disaster.
AJT: What qualities does the next Democratic nominee need to have to lead the party?
Franken: We want someone who is going to be a strong, articulate candidate who can communicate to the American people that we all do better when we all do better, that the economy grows through the middle out.
AJT: There’s nothing anyone can do to change your mind about running for president?
Franken: I’ll run for re-election.
AJT: How hard is it to keep your humor in check when your staff tells you to do so?
Franken: When you’ve done comedy for 40 years, you think a different way. All my colleagues in comedy — it’s a different way of thinking. The example I use is, as a senator, you write notes to people. My first note was to (a woman) who was turning 110. I was to write a congratulatory note to her. I wrote, “Dear Ruth, you have a bright future.” My chief of staff came into my office and said, “What is this?” I said, “It’s a joke. I thought she would enjoy it.” My natural tendencies are to write something that I think someone will enjoy, but I had never been a politician before. I had been a comedian.
AJT: And a fun question — given the title of your book, how tall are you?