The New York Times Magazine has an excellent article by Russell Shorto on the debut this week of liberal talk radio and its poster boy: “Al Franken, seriously.” Shorto was with Franken at the Dean rally in Manchester, New Hampshire when Franken reprised one of his high school wrestling moves to immobilize a Dean heckler; Shorto’s account of the event sets the record straight. The article also covers the business plan behind the liberal talk radio venture and is well worth your consideration on that score alone.
I wish I could cull some material from the article in order to mock Franken, but I can’t. He comes across as living out a nerd’s fantasy of stardom, wealth and political influence in the service of causes he believes in — as the miner who wanted to be a judge says in “Beyond the Fringe,” what we ourselves would be doing if we had had the Latin.
The article comes adorned with some quasi-humorous photographs, photographs consistent with Franken’s own brand of quasi-humor. The article only glancingly discusses the evolution of Franken’s own political commitments, but he appears to have been politically active for quite some time.
I have a soft spot in my heart for Franken’s Stuart Smalley character; the article briefly delves into the development of the character in a way that shows Franken in an extremely flattering light. Is there any space left for humor in Franken’s consuming political commitments of the hour? The article gives us a glimpse of Franken as a satirist with some bite through a quote from Dana Carvey:
“Al had great political instincts. He wrote the first Ross Perot thing by himself, which was really clever and really funny. Too bad I didn’t have the impression down yet. But it was something really dry about how much money he had, like, ‘See, even if I gave away a hundred million dollars I’d still have one point eight billion, unnerstand?”’
On the other hand, there’s not much fresh evidence of Franken’s ability to generate a laugh. If he is not quite a genuine eccentric, he does appear at least to be genuine. Perhaps Franken’s “Nixon Bathroom” best locates him in the land between satire, self-satisfaction, and politics that is his current residence. Shorto reports :
Al Franken and I are standing wedged into the half-bathroom in his apartment, staring at the walls. The family calls this the Nixon Bathroom; it’s covered with memorabilia associated with the 37th president. In one long frame is a copy of the five-page handwritten letter Elvis Presley sent to Nixon in 1970 asking to be made a ”federal agent at large.” Above it are three photographs of Nixon as he’s about to board the presidential helicopter after his resignation, which were taken by Franken’s brother, Owen, a veteran photojournalist. Next to the toilet is a framed copy of Nixon’s letter of resignation, with the tiny blue letters of Henry Kissinger’s initials in the corner. Beside the sink is a copy of President Carter’s commutation of the Watergate sentence of G. Gordon Liddy. (”That was a present from G. — I get to call him G. because we’re friends.”) And there is a letter from Nixon’s personal secretary — written to Franken in 1992 after Franken invited the former president to be a guest on an S.N.L. political special — saying she’s sorry Nixon can’t appear on ”your special show.” Franken said the phrase aloud, savoring its weirdness. This is the bathroom decor of a political junkie and a serious clown.