This may be the only memoir by a sitting U.S. senator in which the author warns a colleague standing in front of him at a presidential inauguration that he might “very well vomit the moment [the new president says] ‘So help me God.’” It may also be the funniest memoir by a sitting — standing, recumbent, squatting — U.S. senator.
“Al Franken: Giant of the Senate” is an only-in-America story of how a grandson of Belarussian immigrants grew up in the Midwest, went to Harvard and on to a brilliant career in comedy, and then ran for the Senate and won.
Whatever you make of his politics, Franken tells a great story. He can make the nitty-gritty of politics and legislating good reading. His partisanship is fierce and occasionally strident, but he doesn’t indulge in the smugness and condescension that are often characteristic of the progressive liberal. Republicans ought to read this book, if only on the principle of Know Thy Enemy. And make no mistake, Republicans: Franken is your enemy.
His political hero was the late senator Paul Wellstone, a Minnesota Democrat who died in a plane crash in 2002. Franken’s road-to-Damascus moment came in 2003 while reading a profile of Republican Sen. Norm Coleman in Roll Call. Coleman, who had been elected to the seat held by Wellstone, was quoted as saying, “To be very blunt, and God watch over Paul’s soul, I am a 99 percent improvement over Paul Wellstone.”
“I’m sorry,” Franken writes, “but you don’t say that about anyone who died within the last six months. And, my God, you don’t say it about a guy who everyone agreed was a compassionate, tireless champion of the little guy, a loving husband and father, and a colleague whom every senator recognized for his passion and decency.”
Coleman later tried to tone down his remark, saying he meant that he was an improvement as far as the George W. Bush White House was concerned. But Franken wasn’t buying it, and five years later, he served Coleman a cold plate of revenge by claiming his seat after a six-month recount, winning by 313 votes out of 2.9 million cast. Six years later, after taking the approach of a “workhorse, not a showhorse,” no recount was necessary. He killed.
Now to the funny part; or rather, the unfunny part: He tells us in the foreword that his book is “the story of how, after spending a lifetime learning how to be funny, I learned how not to be funny.”
Fortunately for the reader, he fails at being not-funny. This is a genuinely funny book, though I’m suspicious when he tells us that he and Sen. Mitch McConnell, with whom he got off to a rocky start, are now “the best of friends.” Sometimes they go out to dinner, Franken writes, “and Mitch will laugh so hard that milk shoots out his nose.”
But this is also a serious book, by a serious (self-described) policy wonk. That makes for occasional slow-going, but Franken has a built-in zzzz-detector. The moment the reader’s head nods, he injects the nitrous, often in the form of a footnote: “Sorry for making you dart your eyes to the bottom of the page.” There are even meta-footnotes: “This is the kind of footnote you’re just not going to get in Condoleezza Rice’s memoir.”
He got a seat on the choice Senate Judiciary Committee, but not on merit, he tells us: Then-Majority Leader Harry Reid had an empty seat that needed filling quickly. He also sits on the Indian Affairs Committee: “In the Senate, anyone who wants to be on Indian Affairs gets on Indian Affairs.”
Franken has made a number of Republican friends in the Senate, but he pretty much loathes all things Republican. He works his tail off for wounded vets, disadvantaged kids and Indians, and argues well on behalf of his causes, such as single-payer health care. He’s an American original.
Franken managed not to barf all over his Republican colleague on Inauguration Day, saving some upchuck for the book’s concluding pages:
“When Trump demanded an investigation into those three to five million fraudulent votes [allegedly cast for Hillary Clinton by illegal immigrants], it reminded me of O.J. Simpson, who, after being acquitted of murdering his ex-wife and Ron Goldman, vowed to spend the rest of his life ‘finding the killer or killers.’”
I wouldn’t be surprised if the sequel to this memoir turns out to be: “President Franken: It Could Happen Here, You Know. Really.”
“Al Franken: Giant of the Senate” by Al Franken, Twelve, 404 pages, $28.