Senator Smiley: Al Franken pulls no punches, but adds a few punch lines

FUNNY BUSINESS: Sens. John Cornyn, Lindsey Graham and Al Franken during the Sonia Sotomayor confirmation hearings last year.
FUNNY BUSINESS: Sens. John Cornyn, Lindsey Graham and Al Franken during the Sonia Sotomayor confirmation hearings last year. (Bill O'leary/the Washington Post)
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By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 18, 2010

Al Franken is working on some new material.

After arriving in the Senate in July after a bitterly contested recount, the former "Saturday Night Live" satirist immediately set out to prove that he was no court jester. He pursued Hillary Clinton's expectations-defying model of bipartisan workhorse and convincingly assumed the role of diligent policy wonk.

But by so effectively suppressing the punch lines, Franken exposed an irascible, sometimes nasty side of his personality. In a chamber where goodwill helps a freshman rack up legislative achievements, that can be just as damaging.

Without humor to soften his acute observations, Franken's naked sarcasm, short fuse and sense of showmanship ran amok, leading to public blowups with Republicans, private grievances among Democrats and attacks on senior Obama administration officials. Several sources at a private meeting last month said they heard Franken tell White House senior adviser David Axelrod that the president should apologize for his stupid campaign promise to televise health-care discussions.

Now some colleagues and Senate analysts are noticing flashes of the old Franken humor -- tempered to suit a stodgier audience -- as the Democratic junior senator from Minnesota seeks to find the appropriate balance between humorist and humorless scold.

"Right at the beginning, he was trying not to," Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said of Franken's effort not to be funny. "But you can't help who you actually are."

"It serves him well if it's used well -- if it's used to make him a more genial colleague," Jennifer Duffy, a Senate analyst at the Cook Political Report, said of Franken's resurgent jocularity. She added that the suppression of Franken's lighter side to highlight his policy chops may have backfired. "Keeping that huge part of his personality bottled up for so long may have caused some of these eruptions, because he had no outlet."

Breaking out the funny as political rehab? Franken's aides call the notion risible. Any reappearance of the lawmaker's comedic stylings -- audibly yukking it up in Senate elevators, citing Mad magazine's "Spy vs. Spy" in Judiciary Committee hearings, reprising his comedic role as a the "Duluth Answer Man" to win super-speed Web service from Google -- is, they say, a result of his having grown comfortable in the Senate and having successfully built relationships with his colleagues. He's been using humor to make friends all along, they say. And several allies in the Senate say they haven't observed a change in Franken.

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He has taken Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) to breakfast, and he has wept at a blues song Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) wrote for Ted Kennedy. He plays squash with Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Arlen Specter (D-Pa.). He and his wife of 34 years are preparing invites for senatorial barbecues at their converted carriage house on Capitol Hill. He refuses to grant interviews to the national press, preferring to appear on local Minnesota news loading sandbags in a Vikings sweatshirt to help prepare for flooding along the Red River.

And legislatively, Franken, the author of "Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot," made a point to propose remarkably mild fare.

In July, his Service Dogs for Veterans Act passed with bipartisan support. He has co-sponsored proposed legislation with Hatch to recruit better principals for troubled schools; with Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) to end the rape-kit backlog; and with Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) to push a diabetes prevention act. His committee leaders think the world of his preparation and dedication. "He's always been there when I need him," said Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "To keep a quorum when things go on forever."

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