A former fan’s notes

In my report on Al Franken’s appearance before the Minnesota House DFL Caucus fundraiser over the weekend, I tried faithfully to convey my impression of Franken stripped of my antipathy to his politics and evaluate him as a possible Democratic candidate for high office. I was struck by the overall power of Franken’s speech.
In his 70-minute address Saturday evening, Franken struck some discordant notes. He leveled unpleasant personal attacks on Sen. Coleman, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and Sean Hannity. (I omitted them almost entirely from my account.) I think these attacks betrayed a satirist’s nastiness without a satirist’s humor.
In substance Franken accused President Bush of shielding his “friends and cronies” from investigation for the theft of $8.8 billion in aid earmarked for Iraq reconstruction and of responsibility for the murder of American troops with the looted funds. It seems to me that Franken entered the territory of the demagogue here.
Can Franken shed the excesses to which he’s grown accustomed as a talk radio host and political activist? Can he impose on himself the self-discipline required of a candidate for high office? I think his evident intelligence would allow him to make the necessary adjustments and play to his strengths. Lorie Byrd of Polipundit and Peter Swanson of Swanblog provide additional commentary here (Lorie) and here (Peter).
We’ve undoubtedly devoted more attention to Franken over the past few years than he deserves, but it seems like an opportune moment to visit the Power Line archives on the subject of Franken. Earlier this year Franken’s producer invited John to appear on his Air America radio show. The invitation noted that John would appear in connection with an appearance on the show by Star Tribune columnist Nick Coleman, “after Mr. Coleman?s segment to talk about your blog and respond to Mr. Coleman?s points.” Franken instead ambushed John with an absurd interrogation regarding my assertion here that Franken hasn’t been funny since the Al Franken Decade (the 1980’s).
Franken tried to pick an argument with John regarding his comedic gifts despite John’s complete unfamiliarity with Franken’s show business career. Franken humorlessly demanded, “Didn’t you think Stuart Smalley was funny?” He never did get around to asking John about Coleman. John wrote about the experience in “Is this his first interview?” Shortly after John’s appearance on Franken’s show I noted that Franken’s commentary on the election was “Unfunny, and demagogic.”
Yesterday Franken was in the news because of his Friday evening appearance in New York to receive an award at the annual national talk radio convention: “Too talky Franken gets a spankin’.” See also Brian Maloney’s “Al Franken empties the room” at The Radio Equalizer. Today Les Kinsolving adds commentary for WorldNetDaily: “The Frankensteinian filibuster.” Presaging these headlines, last summer I quoted a Star Tribune account of Franken’s appearance in the Twin Cities at a Democratic Party fundraiser in “Al Franken channels Castro.” In August I noted a Roll Call account of Franken’s appearance at another political fundraiser in “Unfunny, with an excuse.”
I gave Franken some credit for his USO tours in “Al Franken plays Baghdad,” but Franken’s material made the task more difficult than it should have been. After five USO tours, he deserves more credit than I gave him previously. I admire his efforts to entertain the troops.
John documented Franken’s deployment of his diplomatic skills at the Republican Convention at the end of August in “Row on Radio Row.” And Paul commented on Franken’s unlovely polemical style in “We’ll be seeing you, Al.”
Last year in “A visit to Al Franken’s Nixon bathroom,” I gave a close reading to Russell Shorto’s excellent New York Times Magazine profile of Franken. I wrote that if Franken is not quite a genuine eccentric, he does appear at least to be genuine. At the time I thought that Franken’s “Nixon Bathroom” best located him in the land between satire, self-satisfaction, and politics that is Franken’s current residence. I gave the last word to Shorto:

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.

DEACON adds: John’s account of his appearance with Franken suggests that Franken would be very much at home in the Senate, but will find it difficult, over the course of a long campaign, to persuade voters he’s the kind of guy they should send there.


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