Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Senator Franken – Part III

The New York Times picks up on the buzz of Al Franken’s possible run for the Senate to replace Norm Coleman.

The swells who showed up before Al Franken’s speech at a Democratic fund-raiser to down finger food and punch were thrilled to see him, all the more so because he continues to make threatening noises about running for the Senate here in 2008.

A former writer and performer for “Saturday Night Live” and more recently a radio host on Air America, Mr. Franken has used his outsider status to hurl humor-based invective and indignation at the powers that be, but he is considering becoming part of what he so frequently assails.

On Saturday evening he worked the crowd as if being accosted by strangers in a sweltering tent redolent of meatballs was his idea of a good time.

It can get mighty personal mighty fast for a native son whom everyone seems to know.

“I jumped ya twice in Thief River Falls,” said a middle-age woman in greeting at the pre-speech party in a tent next to the Ted Mann Concert Hall at the University of Minnesota here. The seeming inference of long-ago sexual congress would cause deep blushing elsewhere, but it actually meant that Faith Rud and Mr. Franken had bonded in a far more profoundly Minnesotan way: she had used jumper cables to revive his Volkswagen bus on a cold night long ago after a college gig.


There would not seem to be much of a fit between Mr. Franken and his re-adopted home state. Minnesota Nice, as it is called, means that when the woman serving coffee at Caribou, the local doppelgänger of Starbucks, asks how you are doing, she really wants to know. Although Mr. Franken is affable and sports a backpack jammed with wonky articles and books, he is not exactly Minnesota Nice. His last book was titled “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them,” and he spends enormous amounts of time on his three-hour radio show truth-squading and savaging various people on the right.

Then again, Minnesota is a place of enormous, and not easily explained, contradictions. A place where lions of the Democratic party – Hubert H. Humphrey and Eugene J. McCarthy – once strode the earth, it takes voting very seriously, with a 79 percent turnout in the 2004 general election. Yet in 1998 it elected a professional wrestler to run the state. Minnesotans, who show up in droves at the state fair to marvel at seed art and butter sculptures but also show up en masse at the legitimate theater, are their own darn thing. So frequently cast as droll practitioners of the art of common sense, they have displayed some fairly atavistic tendencies, electing Mr. Ventura out of nowhere as both a slap and a jolt to the system. In their own quiet way, they remain mad as hell and are not going to take it anymore.

On Saturday the crowd of about 500 Minnesotans was hungry for Grade A red meat with a side of invective, and Mr. Franken did not disappoint. He pointed out that he had been married for 30 years and said, “If I get in a debate with Norm Coleman, I plan on asking him, ‘Don’t you want two people to have what you and your wife have?’ ” He paused as the roar grew in acknowledgement of the fact that Senator Coleman and his wife, Laurie, spend significant amounts of time apart because of her acting career.

The laughter filled Mr. Franken with glee, but in the next moment, he choked up while talking about touring with the U.S.O. He is surprisingly raw, breaking down when he mentions his father and, minutes later, screaming with indignation when he talks about money that has gone missing that was intended for redevelopment in Iraq. In that sense he is not remarkably different from Senator Wellstone, known to rattle a lectern with his sheer volume.


Minnesotans, as Garrison Keillor has pointed out, are plenty smart in general, just not too fond of showing it off. They are more than willing to invite a prodigal back to the potluck supper that is life here, and to lampoon their own cartoonish dimensions at the same time. At the end of Mr. Franken’s speech, he received a thunderous ovation – and a special gift from Margaret Anderson Kelliher, a Democratic state representative from Minneapolis.

She presented him with a Crock-Pot, along with some advice: “Nothing says ‘I care’ quite like wild-rice hot dish for the neighbors.”

Having spent several years in Minneapolis and having one-half of my gene pool from there — you betcha — I think Al Franken would be a pretty good choice to run for the Senate. Minnesotan have made some interesting choices in the past: this is the state that sent Jesse Ventura to the governorship and Paul Wellstone to the Senate, all indicating that they maintain that stubborn independent streak. They’ve had their quirks, too — Wellstone defeated a plaid-shirt-wearing plywood magnate named Rudy Boschwitz who redefined the word “dull.” The only reason Boschwitz had a shot at the Senate was because when Walter Mondale was elected vice president in 1976, the governor at the time, Wendell Anderson, resigned so that he could have his successor appoint him to fill Mondale’s seat. This bit of seat-shuffling went over like a lead lutefisk, and the voters retaliated by electing Boschwitz in 1978. Norm Coleman, who rose to political prominence as the Democratic mayor of St. Paul (and served as Bill Clinton’s state chairman in 1996) only to switch parties when he saw the opportunity, is rapidly proving to the voters that he is not much more than a toady for the Bush administration. That’s not what Minnesotans expect from their representatives, and I predict that if Franken runs, he’ll win. Air America’s loss would be America’s gain.