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Wednesday, August 2, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The title, in case you didn’t notice, is intended to make us laugh — or more likely, to chuckle, typical of much of the faux self-deprecating show-biz humor that runs through this book — a combination of memoir, political manual and party-line position papers.

The position-paper material — global warming, for instance, and the health care arguments that have been aired to exhaustion — take up a good deal of space and are strictly for true believers, although Sen. Franken tries to keep people awake by interjecting jokes and wisecracks.


But it’s another matter with his narrative of his early years, interestingly and freshly written, featuring his hard-working middle-class family; his wife Franni, to whom he’s been married for 41 years (there’s a poignant story here about her bout with alcoholism); and the pleasure he takes in his own children and grandchildren.

He describes his work as author and radio host (albeit never as successful as his nemesis Rush Limbaugh — talk radio belongs to the right), and his experiences as an early member of the original cast of “Saturday Night Live,” a show that can claim a pivotal place in the history of American entertainment.

As a senator, he takes his work seriously, a practitioner of what he calls the “Hillary model” (yes, that Hillary, who made the mistake of leaving the Senate). “Be a workhorse, not a showhorse. Go to all your hearings. Come early, stay late. Do your homework. Don’t do national press. Be accessible to your state media and to your constituents.”

Although he’s very much an old-line Minnesota liberal, he believes in cultivating bipartisan friendships. Of his Republican friends in the Senate, ranging from Chuck Grassley to Lindsey Graham, he writes, “my favorite Republican colleagues aren’t the ones whose politics are the least objectionable, but rather the ones with the best senses of humor no matter how objectionable their policies may be.” Being a successful senator depends heavily on being a good co-worker. “If you can be a pleasure to work with, you’ll get more accomplished than if you’re a pill whom nobody can stand.”

“Which brings me to Ted Cruz,” he writes.

Sen. Cruz is the only person to whom Al Franken devotes a whole chapter. The ostensible reason is that Mr. Cruz committed “a breach of decorum” on the Senate floor involving Mitch McConnell. But beneath the defense of Sen. McConnell, the attack is obviously motivated by a deep personal animosity that in a different setting might best be settled by a trip outside.

On a lesser scale, Mr. Franken himself was once reprimanded for a breach of decorum involving Mr. McConnell. As presiding officer of the Senate when Mr. McConnell was speaking, he tells us, he got caught rolling his eyes and smirking. At the end of his remarks, Mr. McConnell walked to the podium, trailed closely by the C-SPAN camera.

“‘This isn’t 'Saturday Night Live,'Al,’ he said, loud enough for the press to hear.”

For this breach, he apologized abjectly, both in person and in writing. And in a description of what distinguishes this book, he assures us, albeit in distinctly “Saturday Night Live” fashion, that he and Mitch McConnell are now on the best of terms:

“This book will be different from other books written by U.S. Senators. I’m not going to write stuff like, ‘Mitch McConnell and I may disagree, but when we’re off the clock, we’re the best of friends — sometimes, we go to dinner and Mitch will laugh so hard that milk shoots out of his nose.’ No, I’m not going to be writing cliches like that.”

And for the most part, he doesn’t, except when the going gets sluggish.

Finally, the inevitable question: why do senators write books? By and large the answers are either to get reelected or to make it to the next level. Mr. Franken has been comfortably reelected. So what’s next?

In a very short chapter titled “No Joke,” Mr. Franken writes of the difficulty of getting the “national political press” to focus on his message. The day after he announced for the Senate, for instance, “newspapers nationwide featured some version of what our team would come to call the ‘No Joke’ headline. Stuff like: ‘No Joke: Franken Announces Senate Bid.’”

So is speculation about 2020 just a joke? Or is this book an early step toward a no-joke candidacy?

• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).

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AL FRANKEN: GIANT OF THE SENATE
By Al Franken
Twelve, $28, 406 pages


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