Christopher Buckley was a speechwriter for Vice President George H.W. Bush. His latest book is “The Relic Master,” published in paperback by Simon and Schuster.
This may be the only memoir by a sitting U.S. senator in which the author warns a colleague standing in front of him at a presidential inauguration that he might “very well vomit the moment [the new president says] ‘So help me God.’ ” It may also be the funniest memoir by a sitting — standing, recumbent, squatting — U.S. senator. Scratch that “may.” It surely is.
“Al Franken: Giant of the Senate” is an only-in-America story of how a grandson of Belarussian immigrants grew up in the Midwest, went to Harvard and then on to a brilliant career in comedy, and then decided what the heck, and ran for the Senate and won. Just typing that mini-CV made me tired.
Whatever you make of his politics, Franken tells a great story. He can (for the most part) make the nitty-gritty of politics and legislating good reading. His partisanship is fierce and occasionally strident, but he doesn’t indulge in the smugness and condescension that are often characteristic of the muscular, progressive liberal. Republicans ought to read this book, if only on the principle of Know Thy Enemy. And make no mistake, Republicans: Franken is your enemy. But a mensch.
Sen. Franken of Minnesota first came to fame in 1975 as a writer on the first season of “Saturday Night Live,” and he has been faming ever since. He has a particular genius for his book titles, among them “Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot: And Other Observations” and “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.”
In the course of promoting “Lies,” he found himself being congratulated by people for, as it were, telling it like it is. “This was new,” he writes. “I’d always thought there was nothing better than hearing people laugh. But hearing people tell me they were not only entertained, but also energized to go out and take these guys on themselves, was thrilling.”
His political hero was the late senator Paul Wellstone, a Minnesota Democrat who died in a plane crash in 2002. Franken’s road-to-Damascus moment came in 2003 while reading a profile of Republican Sen. Norm Coleman in Roll Call. Coleman, who had been elected to the seat held by Wellstone, was quoted in the piece as saying, “To be very blunt, and God watch over Paul’s soul, I am a 99 percent improvement over Paul Wellstone.”
“I’m sorry,” Franken writes, still fuming more than a decade later, “but you don’t say that about anyone who died within the last six months. And, my God, you don’t say it about a guy who everyone agreed was a compassionate, tireless champion of the little guy, a loving husband and father, and a colleague whom every senator recognized for his passion and decency.”
Coleman later tried to tone down his remark, saying he meant that he was an improvement over Wellstone as far as the George W. Bush White House was concerned. But Franken wasn’t buying it, and five years later, he served Coleman a cold plate of revenge by claiming his seat — after a six-month recount, winning by 313 votes out of 2.9 million cast. Six years later, after taking the approach of a “workhorse, not a showhorse,” no recount was necessary. He killed. (Showbiz parlance alert.)
Now to the funny part; or rather, the unfunny part:
He tells us in the foreword that his book is “the story of how, after spending a lifetime learning how to be funny, I learned how not to be funny.” It wasn’t easy, but he managed. More or less. Usually less.
Fortunately for the reader, he fails as a writer at being not-funny. Bigly. This is a genuinely funny book, often hilarious, though I’m suspicious when he tells us that he and Sen. Mitch McConnell, with whom he got off to a rocky start, are now “the best of friends.” Sometimes they go out to dinner, Franken writes, “and Mitch will laugh so hard that milk shoots out his nose.” I’m having a hard time imagining milk shooting out McConnell’s nose, but I applaud it in principle.
During his first campaign, Franken was a target-rich environment for Coleman’s oppo research squad. Imagine their delight when they came across a satirical piece he’d done for Playboy (wait for it), in which “I wrote about my visit to a citadel of higher learning, the Minnesota Institute of Titology.” He titled it “ ‘Porn-O-Rama’, proving that, as of late 1999, I hadn’t been planning a run for political office.”
He and his staff have devised something called “The DeHumorizer.” The staff deploys it when, for instance, Franken wants to write a constituent on her 110th birthday: “Dear Ruth, You have a bright future.” No, Senator. No, his aide advises. Or when he pens a birthday greeting to his friend Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, a World War II hero who lost his arm to a grenade: “Dear Danny, I hope when I’m your age, I’m just like you — healthy, with two good arms. Oh, wait!” No, Senator!
But this is (also) a serious book, by a serious (self-described) policy wonk. That makes for occasional slow-going, but as a comedy pro, Franken has a built-in zzzz-detector. The moment the reader’s head nods, he injects the nitrous, often in the form of a footnote. It was said of Edward Gibbon that he lived out his sex life in his footnotes. Franken’s are a comic crawl across the bottom of the page: “Sorry for making you dart your eyes to the bottom of the page.” There are even meta-footnotes: “This is the kind of footnote you’re just not going to get in Condoleezza Rice’s memoir.”
He gets a seat on the choice Senate Judiciary Committee, but not on merit, he tells us: Then-Majority Leader Harry Reid had an empty seat that needed filling quickly. He also sits on the Indian Affairs Committee: “In the Senate, anyone who wants to be on Indian Affairs gets on Indian Affairs.” I found myself cheering him on when he drills (sorry) into the nerve of the president of the American Dental Association, who’s come to aver that Indians already get plenty good-enough dental care. Franken leaves him moaning for 10 cc’s of lidocaine, stat.
“American Indians receive less than half per capita what we spend on health care for the average American. And that’s a disgrace, one that even the most satisfying takedown can’t eliminate. But at least that day I got my Indian name from a Minnesota Ojibwe friend of mine: Yells at Dentist.”
Franken has made a number of Republican friends in the Senate, but he pretty much loathes all things Republican. I stipulate that it can be a challenge these days, trying to locate the inner Lincoln or Reagan in today’s GOP, but is it really true that the politics of personal destruction began with Newt Gingrich? Franken could have titled his book “Republican Scumbags: And the Scummy Scumbag Lobbies Who Pay Them to Destroy America.”
But he’s a red-blooded American patriot who’s done seven USO trips in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan. He works his tail off for wounded vets, disadvantaged kids and Indians, and argues well on behalf of his causes, such as single-payer health care. Another possible title: “Al Franken Is a Gosh-Darned Pinko and Other Sober Conclusions.” But the Senate, and the country, would be the poorer without him. He’s an American original.
Franken managed not to barf all over his Republican colleague on Inauguration Day, saving some upchuck for the book’s concluding pages:
“When Trump demanded an investigation into those three to five million fraudulent votes [allegedly cast for Hillary Clinton by illegal immigrants], it reminded me of O.J. Simpson, who, after being acquitted of murdering his ex-wife and Ron Goldman, vowed to spend the rest of his life ‘finding the killer or killers.’ ”
He tells us that he remains an optimist, but let’s face it, “This is going to suck for a while.” I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if the sequel to this memoir turns out to be: “President Franken: It Could Happen Here, You Know. Really.”
By Al Franken
404 pp. $28