Who, or what, has snatched Al Franken’s fevered brain and replaced it with the tidy mind of an earnest public servant? It was the brain of a comic provocateur with a showbizzy, possibly childish, need for attention, a weakness for tasteless jokes, and a risky penchant for confrontation.
Yet six months into his surprising career as the junior senator from Minnesota and an active participant in fashioning the health-care bill that will likely pass the Senate at 7 a.m. on Christmas Eve, the 58-year-old Franken continues to defy the expectations of nearly everyone who knew him in his previous life.
“I couldn’t believe it was the same Al Franken,” Medved says. “What I saw this summer stunned me.
“I would have expected that if Al was going to end up in a job where he wore a suit every day, it would more likely be the programming vice president of Bravo,” says a long-ago colleague from Saturday Night Live, where Franken was a writer and performer on and off from the mid-1970s until the mid-1990s. In front of the camera, he was a limit-testing clown and a talented mimic (check out his spot-on sendup of Mick Jagger), and he was best known for inhabiting the endearingly pathetic persona of lisping self-help guru Stuart Smalley. “When I knew Al at the show,” the former colleague recalls, “there was always an immense cloud of pungent smoke coming from his office.”
Yet Senator Franken has been, by most accounts, a productive and serious legislator during his brief tenure in the so-called greatest deliberative body in the world. He has steeped himself in committee work, reached across party lines to co-sponsor and pass bills, and mostly avoided the limelight that would ordinarily be his due in the celebrity-awed nation’s capital, where the late Rep. Sonny Bono and even former Rep. Fred Grandy, aka Gopher from Love Boat, received star treatment.
Much to the frustration of Capitol Hill beat reporters, the formerly media-friendly Franken routinely turns down interview requests from non-Minnesota journalists (including this one, despite a 20-year relationship), shuns cable-television appearances, refuses Washington Sunday show bookings, and otherwise makes like Greta Garbo—a feat of unnatural, and probably painful, restraint. At Wednesday afternoon’s self-congratulatory news conference of the entire Democratic caucus, he looked the dutiful back-bencher, his famous face obscured by taller colleagues standing in front.
“Franken has proved himself to be a workhorse, not a showhorse,” says a Democratic Senate aide. Since Franken was sworn in July 7 by Vice President Biden, after eight months of recounts and litigation with defeated Republican incumbent Norm Coleman, he has introduced 11 bills, five with Republican co-sponsors, and seen two to final passage. One was a pilot program providing service dogs to veterans, and the other prohibits the Pentagon from hiring contractors that force employees to binding arbitration and forbid lawsuits, even for, in one notorious case in Iraq, sexual assault and false imprisonment in the workplace. Last week, Franken joined Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia in inserting a provision in the health-care bill requiring insurance companies to spend at least 85 percent of costs on direct medical care.
But Franken’s biggest national news splash so far was unplanned and personality-driven. Last Thursday, he was taking his turn in the presiding officer’s chair when he denied an extra minute of floor-speech time to Senator Joe Lieberman, the independent from Connecticut. Franken’s unusual move, played and replayed on cable television, was widely interpreted as a dig at the obstructionist former Democrat—especially by erstwhile Republican presidential nominee John McCain, who leapt to his close friend’s defense and labeled Franken’s act an attack on senatorial comity. Never mind the official explanation that Franken was just following Majority Leader Harry Reid’s orders to keep the debate moving. “There are much more important matters than this to focus on,” said a Lieberman aide, while a McCain spokesperson sniffed: “Franken really isn’t on the top of McCain’s priority list."
That incident, and reports of a few private flashes of temper, suggest that the old Al Franken is alive and well behind closed doors. Still, the transition from political satirist to politician has seemed so seamless that one can be forgiven for wondering, half in jest, if he was brainwashed and deployed by a secret conspiracy of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, a la The Manchurian Candidate. After all, Franken played a television commentator in the 2004 remake of the John Frankenheimer classic.
Jump cut to this summer’s Minnesota State Fair in St. Paul, where conservative author and radio talk jock Michael Medved—who as a film critic gave Franken’s 1995 flop, Stuart Saves His Family, one of its few favorable reviews—was broadcasting his nationally syndicated show and ran into the freshly minted senator schmoozing with fellow Minnesotans.
The two are longtime frenemies who have debated frequently over the years, especially when Franken was touting his bestselling anti-right-wing polemics Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Lies, and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, and hosting his own daily show on the politically liberal radio network Air America.
“I appear to have sort of a Kryptonite effect on Al Franken—not that he’s Superman,” Medved says. “Going back a number of years, in virtually every interaction we’ve ever had, Al ends up blowing up at me.” One such meltdown occurred at the 2004 Republican Convention in Madison Square Garden, when Franken was a guest on Medved’s show and started shouting and slamming his hand on the table when the two disagreed over a convention speech attacking Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry. “Al has always struck me as an angry guy,” Medved says.
Yet at the fair this summer, the senator seemed oddly content when he encountered Medved. “I couldn’t believe it was the same Al Franken,” Medved says. “What I saw this summer stunned me. He was meeting with all these ordinary folks and he really seemed to like people, just like most successful politicians do. And this was more than somebody who was just trolling for votes. It was apparent to me that he had real affection for his constituents and he was enjoying himself.”
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.