No Running Jokes Here

"A satirist . . . cuts through the baloney and gets to the truth," says Franken, here wooing Madison Firebaugh and her parents, Kim Norris and John Firebaugh, in Nashwauk, Minn. (By Sherri Larose-chiglo -- St. Paul Pioneer Press)
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 17, 2007

BECKER, Minn.

Al Franken, U.S. Senate candidate, is telling a joke:

Some years ago, he tells a crowd of about 150 at a meet-the-candidates spaghetti lunch, his daughter had to write a school essay about how her parents met. So Franken told her: He spotted his future wife, Franni, across the room at a freshman mixer in college. He asked her to dance. They talked. He bought her a ginger ale. Afterward, he walked her back to her dorm, where he asked for a date. End of story.

His daughter, Franken says, wrote up the innocent tale this way: "My dad asked my mom to dance, bought her a drink and took her home."

The crowd laughs, politely.

The story isn't exactly hilarious. But as Franken's most famous "Saturday Night Live" character, self-help guru Stuart Smalley, used to say, that's . . . okay. In fact, that's the plan.

Franken doesn't want to be funny these days, not really funny. Wit has its place in politics, he says, and people always like a laugh. But funny can be a distraction from the serious stuff Franken is trying to talk about, such as veterans' health care, global warming, his opposition to the war in Iraq, etc. Besides, Franken has always had funny. What he needs, as a candidate, is gravitas.

So after a lifetime of making people laugh, Franken tries to sound deadly earnest -- even, in truth, a little ponderous at times -- as he seeks the Democratic nomination in Minnesota, his home state. Since February, when he announced his candidacy, he's been crisscrossing the state in a hybrid SUV, speaking at dozens of spaghetti dinners, picnics and meet-and-greets, all with a singular mission: To convince people that his evolution from wacky satirist to talk-radio pundit to serious statesman is real and complete.

Here in Becker, a tiny (pop. 4,048) prairie town an hour northwest of Franken's home in Minneapolis, the candidate sticks to some well-rehearsed lines as he addresses activists from Minnesota's evocatively named Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party in a barn of a restaurant called Gily's Bar and Grill. Franken tells them how he grew up as the son of a printing salesman in suburban Minneapolis, in a middle-class household -- "two bedrooms and one bath," he says. "I thought I was the luckiest kid in the world, and I was."

His tone changes, however, as he talks about his wife's childhood. Franni Franken's father died in an accident when she was 17 months old, leaving her mother, then 29, to raise five children on her own. With the help of Social Security survivor benefits, Pell college-scholarship grants and GI Bill loans, Franken says, his mother-in-law managed to keep her home and family together, and raised the children to become productive adults. "They" -- meaning conservatives -- "tell you to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and I agree with that," he tells the crowd. "But the government gave my wife's family the boots and the laces."

The crowd begins to murmur.

Franken's big windup is a riff about meeting with college students, "many of whom were too young to remember a president who was articulate." As the audience whoops, he adds, "They don't remember when America was the most respected country in the world, a country that defeated fascism and communism, rebuilt Europe after the war, sent a man to the moon, mapped the human genome, and had enough juice left over to invent the Internet and rock-and-roll."


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