Washington Sketch: The Al Franken Show Comes to the Senate

Political commentary from two of the biggest maws in Washington.
By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Sen.-elect Al Franken is good enough, he's smart enough, and, doggone it, people like him.

Particularly Chuck Schumer. Sen. Schumer (D-TV) was so excited about his new colleague from Minnesota's arrival in Washington that he issued a news release:

"WASHINGTON, DC -- TODAY, July 6, 2009, at 10:30 am, maintenance workers deployed by the Architect of the Capitol will install the official nameplate outside the new office of U.S. Senator-elect Al Franken (D-MN)."

Evidently the official nameplate wasn't back from the engravers, because when the maintenance worker arrived at the appointed time yesterday on his red motorized wheelchair, he had only a plastic self-adhesive version, which he stuck to the wall before departing without a word, leaving the photographers and reporters feeling silly as they watched the wheelchair's receding taillights.

And doggone it if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid doesn't like Franken, too. "I'm very happy to welcome to our Capitol Senator-elect Al Franken," Reid told the cameras, allowing a smile to escape, as if the phrase "Senator-elect Al Franken" contained some humor -- which, actually, it does.

Perhaps Reid was thinking of Franken playing Stuart Smalley, the sexually ambiguous self-help guru of "Saturday Night Live" and his own spinoff movie. Or perhaps the majority leader was picturing the newest member of his caucus in a red bikini, competing in an SNL beauty-pageant skit as Mr. Arkansas? Or maybe wearing a tank top and tights and writhing about the stage impersonating Mick Jagger on "Solid Gold"?

The majority leader must have had some such image in his mind, because he felt the need to reassure the nation: "When people find out he's a smart guy who's serious about issues and a hard worker, they'll be pleasantly surprised."

The author of "Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot" did his best to deliver this pleasant surprise. He wore a serious navy pinstriped suit and a serious navy striped tie. He unfolded a wrinkled piece of loose-leaf paper and placed it on the lectern. His brief speech was so boring it was laughable.

"Minnesotans want a rational health-care system," Franken announced. "Minnesotans want an economy that works for working families. . . . And Minnesotans want their kids to have an education that prepares them for a 21st-century economy." Then he folded up his speech and retreated to the majority leader's private office without taking questions.

"Hilarious," judged Mark Leibovich of the New York Times, one of 150 reporters, photographers and camera-crew personnel on hand for the show.

Of course, Congress is full of jokers. But perhaps not since Will Rogers walked these halls has Congress had a professional comedian of Franken's renown. If yesterday is any indication, Franken will try to make the transition to statesman by laboring to be dull and decorous -- and that, in itself, could be quite funny.

Next week, the Senate Judiciary Committee will host the Al Franken Show, as the junior senator from Minnesota sits on the panel that must confirm Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. Also booking the Al Franken Show will be the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which is giving the freshman lawmaker a prominent role in drafting the overhaul of the nation's health-care system.

Don't think Franken is up to the task? As Stuart Smalley would say, that's just stinkin' thinkin'.

Franken and his wife arrived in Washington on Sunday and stayed overnight at the home of his friend Norm Ornstein, the political scientist. When Franken arrived at the Capitol yesterday, Senate officials took the comic into the empty Senate chamber for a dress rehearsal of Tuesday's swearing-in ceremony, then sent him off to his office, the very suite formerly occupied by Norm Coleman, the incumbent whom Franken defeated after an eight-month post-election legal battle.

Franken may be the Senate's newest member, but he's no stranger to the news media, having played a one-man mobile uplink unit for SNL's "Weekend Update" during the Persian Gulf War, when he pretended to be lost in the desert drinking his own urine. So yesterday, he flashed a crooked smile but kept calm as he emerged from Reid's office to see the enormous crowd waiting at the microphones.

"Much has been made of the expectations of Al Franken joining the Senate," Reid declared. The short and sturdy senator-elect nodded his agreement. He nodded some more as Reid pronounced, somewhat illogically, that "these challenges we face are not Democratic challenges or Republican challenges or nonpartisan challenges." And he raised no objection to Reid's assurance that Franken's election, giving the Democrats a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority, won't be used "as an opportunity to ram legislation through this body."

"Thank you, Mr. Leader," the comedian said, putting a beefy hand on Reid's back. Franken then offered a brief compendium of campaign cliches: "health care for all Americans . . . wean us from our dependence on foreign oil . . . a decent day's wage for an honest day's work . . . America's best days lay ahead."

Surely Franken can do better than that. But again, recall Stuart Smalley's 12-step advice: "Progress, not perfection."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company