The comedian Al Franken, author of Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, recently announced that he is running for Senate from Minnesota, where he grew up. An alumnus of NBC’s Saturday Night Live, Franken made his name satirizing conservative figures like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and National Review’s Rich Lowry, whom he challenged to a fist fight in his garage.
His candidacy has been greeted with predictable enthusiasm. As Time gushed, “Enter the clown, who’s ready to play not Hamlet but Disraeli.” But is Franken really ready? Obviously, Americans have taken a political chance on ex-entertainers before, most notably with Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, but Franken’s case poses special difficulties because his work has always been so harshly political and partisan.
In the final episode of his program on Air America, the now-bankrupt liberal radio station, Franken announced his candidacy with old-fashioned American optimism. “I know I have an awful lot to learn from the people of Minnesota,” he declared. I want “to help our country become everything I hope it can be and everything I know it can be.”
But reconciling aw-shucks populist rhetoric with the well-established cynicism of Franken’s public persona won’t be easy. After all, this is a “comedian” who once ironically raised the possibility that George Bush and Dick Cheney should be executed for treason, quickly adding that “we should never ever, ever, ever execute a sitting President.” He has also made snide comments about McCain’s POW experience: “I don’t understand why all this war hero stuff. I mean, anybody can get captured. Isn’t the idea to capture the other guy? As far as I’m concerned, he sat out the war.”
There are many who find humor in Franken’s shtick, and his candidacy can’t be judged solely on the basis of his stand-up routine and the books he has written. But episodes like the one at a Dean fundraiser in 2003, when Franken went on an expletive-laced, demagogic rant about Brit Hume and Fox News, are among many troubling instances when he has seemed authentically malicious–and out of control.
At Franken’s official campaign website, you can listen to him talk about middle-class values and his hardscrabble family history; you can even hear this Harvard grad use the expression “guv’ment.” But his attempts at folksy spontaneity seem flat and scripted. After ten minutes of self-mythologizing, he finally gets to a subject he can warm to: his agenda, which sounds like leftovers from a 2003 John Kerry press release.
Franken is clearly an intelligent man. He knows that rural-style charm and meat-and-potatoes liberalism play well in Minnesota. But unless he is a preternaturally gifted politician, his humble-pie charade will not survive the extreme rhetoric and partisan titillation in which he has always trafficked. In the run-up to the election in 2008, Minnesotans will have to be on the look-out for the real Al Franken.