In theory, Americans love an anti-politician—an outsider who tells the voters what he actually thinks rather than suffocating his personality beneath layers of polspeak. Think of Warren Beatty in Bulworth, Michael Douglas in The American President. In reality, voters tend to ruthlessly punish any spark of genuine personality. And the worst personality trait you can have, politically speaking, is humor—not the corny, banquet-speaker humor of Ronald Reagan but humor as a cutting tool of social analysis.
Consider the case of Al Franken. The Saturday Night Live writer turned Minnesota Senate candidate spent most of the last year trailing badly as pundits clucked their tongues at his “potty mouth.” Lately, he has pulled even with his opponent, Norm Coleman, but he’s done so only by riding an overwhelming anti-Republican wave and running a relentlessly dull, cookie-cutter campaign. Even so, his shameful comic past has marked him indelibly. Former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson warned that Franken’s election would “push our culture toward vulgarity and viciousness.” Even some Democrats apparently regard him as a bad joke. Not long ago, NBC political director Chuck Todd waxed incredulous at the prospect of Franken winning. “I have had multiple very high-level Democrats on the Hill sit there with their fingers crossed,” reported Todd. “They are scared of Franken winning. More importantly, they fear that if Franken wins, then every liberal Hollywood type is going to say, ‘Hey, I can run for office, too.’ ” Coleman recently released a campaign flier calling Franken “completely unfit for public office” because of his comedy career.
It’s understandable that people might, at first blush, think of Franken as the equivalent of Sen. Carrot Top—or the next Jesse Ventura, a fellow Minnesotan to whom Franken is incessantly compared. It doesn’t help that Franken is best known for playing the goofy character Stuart Smalley on Saturday Night Live. And so Franken’s comedic career has been transformed in the public mind into the job-training equivalent of dressing up in tights and smashing a fake chair over somebody’s head.
Actually, while Franken has done lots of straight comedy, he began his career as a political satirist—a very different thing. Satire is a form of political commentary. It can be mindless, but so can an op-ed on fiscal policy in the Wall Street Journal. At its best, satire clarifies a truth that the subject would like to muddy.
Franken’s critics are aware of his political satire, but that, too, has become another count in the indictment—Al Franken, trash talker. “He lampooned Rush Limbaugh as a ‘big fat idiot,’ and he dismissed Ann Coulter as a ‘nutcase,’ ” clucked U.S. News earlier this year. Critics who take note of Franken’s political books treat them as the left’s answer to Coulter or Bill O’Reilly. But this misses the satirical point. To get the joke of Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot, you need only to look at the cover, which features Franken posing in a tweed jacket in front of a wall of musty bound volumes, clutching a pipe, looking comically pompous. Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right has the joke in the title itself. Coulter writes books with titles like Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right, whose charge is meant to be taken at face value. Franken’s title mocks the accusation itself with over-the-top redundancy and subverts its own claim to truth by appropriating the corrupted slogan “Fair and Balanced.”
Franken does resort to invective on occasion, but this hardly defines his satirical style. (You could just as easily cherry-pick Jon Stewart’s most obscene sentences—he recently said “Fuck you” to Sarah Palin—to paint him as a foul-mouthed ranter.) His books are laced with wonky disquisitions on economic policy that are themselves laced with jokes. He evinces vastly more knowledge about domestic policy than most members of Congress or national political reporters I’ve met.
To be sure, Franken skewers his targets, a habit which has contributed to his reputation as a raging left-winger. The Wall Street Journal has reported that Franken’s politics “neatly mirror” those of the “liberal base.” There’s a misperception at work here that conflates blunt opposition to the Republican right with left-wing beliefs. As a confessed Bush hater who’s not enamored with the left, I’m a fellow victim of this confusion. Franken is actually a moderate who initially favored the Iraq war and has praised the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.
Indeed, what Franken reveals of himself in Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot confounds a lot of blue-state-elitist stereotypes. Franken recounts having said a prayer for George H.W. Bush upon his election, defending Bob Dole’s honor to a European journalist, and making multiple overseas trips to entertain American troops. The Franken persona is best summed up by the instance when, upon hearing National Review Editor Rich Lowry claim that liberals had sissified politics, Franken challenged Lowry to a fistfight. When Lowry refused, they met for an amiable lunch. If, say, Jim Webb did this sort of thing, it would be seen as rough-hewn, populist authenticity.
Normally, a politician’s self-depiction should be considered self-serving fluff unless proven otherwise. But the book predates any hints of his interest in elective office. What’s more, it’s so stuffed with impolitic statements that it’s unimaginable that Franken could have contemplated ever running for office when he wrote it. He pokes fun at Christianity (“[W]ill someone explain to me how Jesus can be both the son of God and also God?”), calls Ted Kennedy “bloated,” and casually admits that “I’d make a terrible politician.”
The most surprising thing about Franken’s oeuvre is that, as good a satirist as he is, he’s clearly smarter than he is funny. Dave Barry once famously defined a sense of humor as a “measurement of the extent to which we realize that we are trapped in a world almost totally devoid of reason.” Franken has an infinite faith in the power of reason. Time and again, he tries to present his adversaries with detailed rebuttals and gets nowhere. One book has a small moment of triumph, in which he badgers House budget committee Chairman John Kasich into admitting that Republicans were employing a misleading measure of their plans to cut Medicare. “I took a few victory laps around the table,” he writes. Franken doesn’t write, however, that Kasich and his fellow Republicans continued to brandish the misleading statistic anyway.
I would guess that Franken is running for the Senate because he thinks he will have moments like these, when the superior force of his reason will carry the day. I have never seen or heard of a successful politician who thinks like this. I can’t imagine he’ll find politics anything but a crushing disappointment. But I’m eager to see him try.