He’s Not Joking

Al Franken’s political future—and maybe Democratic dominance of the Senate—depends on his ability to keep a (mostly) straight face between now and November.

The next morning, I returned to the townhouse to meet Franken for a day on the campaign trail. Out front waiting for me was his campaign manager, Andy Barr, a 24-year-old who began researching and writing for him as a Harvard undergraduate, and his driver, Brian Heenan, a student volunteer Franken has nicknamed “Gums” for reasons no one can quite remember. Barr went upstairs to rouse the candidate, leaving Gums and me to browse the pictures of Franken’s two grown kids, Joe and Thomasin, and the hundreds of political and history titles crammed onto bookshelves and stacked in piles throughout the unprepossessing house. Franken is thought of almost exclusively as a comedian and satirist, but he is a ferocious policy wonk as well. (He is good friends with Norm Ornstein, a professionally certified wonk at the American Enterprise Institute.) The O’Franken Factor, the Air America show he left to run for the Senate, was known for its high-spirited skewering of Republicans. But amid the Bush-bashing and O’Reilly-baiting, it often featured serious authors and experts on everything from Iraq to Social Security to Medicare.

“Gums!” Franken exclaimed when he bounded down the stairs a little while later. “You’re wearing a tie. You’re the best-dressed campaign worker I’ve ever seen.” Gums accepted the ribbing with the pleased, awkward smile I came to recognize as part of a running dialogue between the two.

After a rundown of the day’s schedule and a short game of find-Al’s-missing-cell-phone, Team Franken piled into the campaign’s hybrid SUV and left me to retrieve my rental car. To project a more senatorial air, Franken is trying hard to watch what he says, and his staff has placed him in a kind of protective custody: journalists are not allowed to ride along, as is standard campaign practice, lest they overhear and report an undignified remark. So I spent most of my day chasing Gums across Minnesota.

Our first stop was the St. Paul headquarters of Acorn, an advocacy group for low- and moderate-income families, where a handful of volunteers, reporters, and the three Democratic Senate hopefuls were squeezed into the tiny walk-up offices for what was billed as a press conference. Franken’s rivals were Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, a tall, retiring professor from nearby University of St. Thomas, and Mike Ciresi, a small, dapper, and very rich partner in a large Minneapolis law firm (who dropped out of the race several weeks later). The candidates were invited to deliver short speeches. Franken got right to the point about what he wants to do in Washington: help bring about universal health care, climate-change legislation, “energy independence,” and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Though his rivals delivered similar party-line remarks, it didn’t take long to see why he tends to outshine them. A practiced improviser, Franken spotted an official from the Children’s Defense Fund. “I notice you’re not using your old slogan, ‘Leave No Child Behind,’” he said, drawing chuckles. “Maybe that’s been besmirched in some way?” Before long, the center of gravity in the room had shifted palpably toward Franken.

Much of the energy behind Franken’s campaign comes from his broad and enthusiastic support among young voters. We arrived next at the Minnesota Young DFL convention, an annual gathering of the state’s young Democrats (the state party is known as the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party) being held in a giant union hall on the outskirts of St. Paul, which was to culminate in a straw poll. (Franken won easily.) If Franken was not exactly mobbed by well-wishers when he walked in the door, that was because so many of the state’s young Democrats had already met him, and many were volunteering for the campaign. Instead he was greeted by a steady stream of college students, in pairs or small groups, many of whom he knew by name. When his turn came to address the audience, Franken jogged to the front of the room, took the microphone, and began by quoting Wellstone: “The future belongs to those who are passionate and work hard.”

Franken’s speeches typically combine three elements: knocking Bush and Coleman, reciting the standard Democratic litany, and attempting to inspire a movement. “Many of you were 11 years old when George Bush was elected,” he told the crowd. “You don’t remember having a president who was articulate or that the federal government can actually work with. You don’t remember when America was respected in the world.” This drew laughter and cheering, though Franken did not look like he was joking. He spoke about his wife of 32 years, Franni, and how after her father died, when she was an infant, her mother worked and also relied on Social Security and Pell grants to raise and educate five children. “Conservatives always talk about pulling yourself up by the bootstraps,” he said. “Well, first you need the boots. I think the government’s job is to give people the boots.” He segued into the need for universal health care, energy independence, and withdrawal from Iraq, and then pivoted, importuning the crowd to rise up and join him, using language drawn from other recent insurgents including Barack Obama and Howard Dean: “This is an amazing time, this is our time, and we can do it. We’re a people-powered machine. This is gonna be a fun race. We’re going to take Norm Coleman down. I will beat him … We are building a movement, and we’re going to change America.”

Though his talk of change and building a movement echoes Obama’s, Franken’s appeal is altogether different. He doesn’t seek to unite Republicans and Democrats, as Obama does, but rather to draw sharp contrasts, as Dean did, in a style of chesty confrontation. I watched the speech with a young Navy officer and Iraq veteran named Tim Wellman Jr., who was wearing the military equivalent of a letterman’s jacket, embroidered with his dates of service and where he’d deployed, with a couple of Franken stickers slapped on. Though it doesn’t get nearly the attention his political activism does, Franken was participating in USO tours long before it was fashionable among Democrats, and has kept it up with trips to Iraq and Afghanistan, despite his opposition to the war (though he did not initially oppose it). I asked Wellman what drew him to Franken. “He brings a clear vision of right and wrong,” he said. “He’s been very strong about confronting Republicans on their own issues, like strength and war.” Other Democrats in the audience said much the same thing.

Among other things, the 2008 election will test Franken’s political worldview—and that view, if it proves to be correct, could sweep him and many other Democrats into office. Toward the back of the room, looking slightly older than the rest of the crowd, Brian Melendez, the state Democratic chairman, was abuzz about the Minnesota presidential caucuses that had taken place a week earlier. He outlined their importance to the fall election. “The largest turnout we’ve ever had in a Democratic caucus,” he told me, “was about 75,000 or 80,000 people in 1968, when two home-state favorites, Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy, were on the ballot. Last week, we had 213,000 people turn out, and the Republicans had about 70,000.” A similar turnout in November would certainly bode well for Franken.

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Joshua Green is an Atlantic senior editor.

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