Al Franken in context

It was close, but the people of Minnesota in their infinite wisdom elected Al Franken United States Senator in 2008. The people threw Norm Coleman out and now, to paraphrase Ed Koch, the people must be punished.
Press reports occasionally refer to Franken as a former comedian, though he stopped being funny well before he gave up the trade. He really hasn’t been funny since the expiration of the Al Franken Decade in 1990.
Yesterday brought us another example of the expiration of Franken’s sense of humor. He issued a mealy-mouthed statement regarding his latest jackassery while presiding over the Senate during Senator McConnell’s speech prior to the confirmation vote on Elena Kagan. Kevin Diaz’s jocular Star Tribune story gives the incident about as little play as possible. I’d like to put the incident in context, as is all the rage these days.
I covered Franken’s appearance as the featured speaker at a June 2005 Minneapolis Democratic fundraising event and anticipated his Senate candidacy in “Saturday Night Live with Al Franken.” Our New Haven correspondent covered Franken giving the nearly identical speech as the September 2005 Dean’s Lecture at Yale Law School in “Friday Night Live with Al Franken.” I compiled most of our previous posts on Franken in “A former fan’s notes.”
Can Franken’s long career in show business be reconciled with a career in politics? In the oral history of Saturday Night Live assembled by James Miller and Tom Shales, Franken talks (pages 119-120) about using cocaine while pulling all nighters writing for the show: “I only did cocaine to stay awake to make sure nobody else did too much cocaine. That was the only reason I ever did it. Heh heh.”
Franken was discussing his cocaine use during his first stint writing for the show from 1976-1980, a relatively long time ago. The jocular attitude he expressed toward his drug use would have occurred in his comments for the book (published in 2002), considerably more recently. One wonders if he’s just high on life now.
Franken put himself on display prior to his Senate candidacy in the documentary “Al Franken: God Spoke,” directed by Nick Doob and Chris Hegedus, who also made the far superior “War Room.” The film will come in handy for anyone trying to get a fix on Franken as an occupant of high office.
To a great extent, the film felt like a 90-minute vanity production cum campaign video, geared to promote Franken’s prospective candidacy for the Senate seat then held by Norm Coleman. In that respect, however, the film closed on an extremely sour note. Franken is at the wheel of his car driving from the airport in Minneapolis and musing on some advice given to him by Minneapolis attorney Tom Borman.
In an early scene in the film, Franken is seen telling his favorite joke (from Buddy Hackett) before a Minneapolis audience. The final scene shows Franken reflecting on Borman’s statement that Borman’s parents (wisely) thought Franken should stop telling that joke at political appearances. Franken is incredulous and unhappy about the advice.
Whereas “The War Room” portrayed the inside of a successful presidential campaign, “God Spoke” was a study in failure, though no one seemed to know it. The film opens with Franken promoting Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them before an appreciative audience, but thereafter it’s mostly downhill with Air America.
“God Spoke” portrayed Franken’s involvement with the debut of the liberal radio network, Franken’s coverage of the 2004 Democratic and Republican conventions in 2004, Franken’s campaigning for John Kerry, Franken’s disappointment on election day, Franken’s announcement that he’s thinking about running against Norm Coleman and Franken’s related move from New York back to Minneapolis.
Doob and Hegedus worked hard to portray Franken in a flattering light, but ninety minutes with Franken proved to be about eighty-nine minutes too many. Franken does not wear well; he comes across as a boor and a profoundly ugly man. Doob and Hegedus blundered into the truth, though I couldn”t for the life of me imagine why they thought an audience would want to pay to see it. Indeed, the film was an incredible bomb.
Since his election to the Senate, Franken has tried to give the appearance that he has cleaned up his act. Nevertheless, Franken’s antics yesterday involved a revealing return to form.

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