One note of disclosure before I start: I haven't always been an Al Franken fan. Saturday Night Live was okay when he was writing for them, but I really despised Stuart Smalley. It's a Minnesota thing. To really understand, you have to deal with in-your-face meekness and drive past Hazelden every time you visit your family.
No, my love affair with Al Franken started in 1996 when I heard he'd put out Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations. I loved that he didn't merely look shocked and ask, "How can all these conservative mouthpieces lie like that and get away with it?" as so many others were doing. No, he took the blowhards' own schtick and skewered them with it. That he used their tactics to be much funnier than they were was a bonus.
It was Franken's next book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right that made me take Franken seriously. In this book, he dropped the schtick for an emphasis on research. He demonstrated, clearly (while still being funny), that policy should not be made on the basis of what one thinks should be the truth, especially not when the truth is available. For what was largely sold as satire, that book is one of the most thoroughly researched documents I've seen.
That wasn't the only thing Franken did in Lies. He's the first writer I've seen talk about his research staff (whom he worked with while a Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard) in the text of his book, rather than relegating them to the acknowledgments. That impressed the hell out of me. He didn't have to do it, just like lawmakers don't have to recognize that their staffers play a huge role in governing our country, but he did. That makes a difference in the quality and loyalty of one's staff, as I can attest after having seen them at Franken HQ and the get out the vote campaign.
Lies was also where I discovered that Franken was a huge Paul Wellstone fan and supporter. Franken had been living in New York for twenty years. He didn't need to follow Minnesota politics then, but he did that too. As a Wellstone fan myself, that means a lot to me.
Shortly after the book came out, around the time his radio show started up to combat the right-wing noise machine, a local magazine ran the cover story, "Why Not Al?" It suggested--in 2004--that a 2008 senate run wouldn't be such a strange or unwelcome thing. I agreed completely. A progressive, evidence-based senator? Hell, yes! That's exactly what I wanted then and what I want now.
But what about his temper, I hear? A couple of thing, actually. Have you ever noticed that the video clips of Franken's "scary" temper are usually about 20 seconds long? I'll let Al add the context they're missing:
I think the [ad] you're probably referring to is of me being "angry" right? And there's one in which I swear and I talk about the shamelessness of somebody in it and this was when Fox in August of 2003 said that our soldiers in Iraq were safer than residents of California. They were trying to trivialize the danger that our troops were in order to serve a political agenda, which is to say that the war was going well. Britt Hume made the point, he said Iraq is the same size as California and yet we're losing only 1.7 troops a day while six people died every day in California. Well, there are 300 times more people in California. When this was pointed out to Brit Hume, instead of apologizing to our troops and the families of our troops, he said: 'Well admittedly it's a crude comparison, but it's illustrative of something.'
My response when I heard that was, "Yeah, it illustrative of something. It's illustrative of what a jerk he is." But instead of jerk I used a different word and I'm not happy with my reaction to that, and it wasn't a comedy routine. It was just me being angry that they had trivialized the danger that our troops were operating under. I've been on seven USO tours. I see how magnificent our troops are. I don't apologize for being outraged when Fox News deliberately trivializes the danger that our troops are operating under. I don't like the way I did it and I don't like that it's on tape.
There's also another thing they've done. I tell the story about Paul Wellstone running alongside his son David Wellstone when David was in cross country track. It's a pretty funny story because Paul would run alongside him on this two and a half or three mile race and at the end of the race he would go, "You can do it. Keep going. Take this guy." And I do this impression of Paul. Well, they have taken a tape of me and sped it up to make me look like I'm crazy. And it's all this distortion and they just want to distract from the real serious issues that Melvin was referring to. We have issues regarding education, regarding health care, regarding jobs. My goodness we're seeing the economy collapse and there's no credibility. We have no leadership anymore.
There's a lot to be angry about at the moment. Personally, I want a representative who doesn't shrug these things off. And Franken has demonstrated, with his books and his radio show, that being angry doesn't make him less effective.
As for the rape joke, um, so what? Yes, rape jokes are going to be painful to rape victims. The world's funniest joke is going to be painful to those who lost someone to gun violence. Every (good) joke is going to be painful to someone. If you want to judge Franken's views toward women, evaluate him when he's being serious.
And whatever your views on pornography, don't whine that he wrote about it in Playboy. Really. I want a politician who isn't afraid to talk about sex. I want one who is perfectly clear that abstinence-only sex education is a failure and who is more concerned about the quality of justice that our country provides than about whether her marble breasts are covered. Enough with the squeamish Puritans, already.
Speaking about policy positions, I love Franken's policy pages on his campaign site. Some politicians tell you why an issue is important. Some tell you what steps they want to take. Franken does both. For example, from his education page:
In addition to funding issues, I believe that the No Child Left Behind law must be dramatically reformed or scrapped altogether. I'm for accountability, but I'm not for the deeply-flawed NCLB system. I once read about something called McNamara's Fallacy. It goes like this:The first step is to measure whatever can be easily measured. This is OK as far as it goes. The second step is to disregard that which can't easily be measured or to give it an arbitrary quantitative value. This is artificial and misleading. The third step is to presume that what can't be measured easily really isn't important. This is blindness. The fourth step is to say that what can't be easily measured really doesn't exist.
-- Reading comprehension and math skills tests only measure reading comprehension and math skills (and, I suppose, test-taking skills). We should measure critical thinking, teamwork, creativity, and other important skills. And we have to reverse the narrowing of our curriculum that has de-emphasized science, art, civic, and physical education.
-- Stop duplicative testing. My daughter taught third grade in a public school for three years, and she was constantly frustrated by the amount of classroom time that had to be devoted to testing and test preparation. While we need to measure student progress, too many districts have overlapping district, state, and federal tests. We should audit tests at the district, state, and federal level to ensure that this doesn't happen.
-- Instead of punishing low-performing schools, use research-based interventions to help them improve. Give them the resources to hire, develop, and retain the best teachers by offering increased pay, safe working conditions, and sufficient support staff and facilities.
Whereas Coleman doesn't say what he wants to do for us. Instead he tells us what he did before. He doesn't have a general education policy page (seriously), but this is from his college costs page:
-- Senator Coleman introduced bipartisan legislation with Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), the College Textbook Affordability Act of 2007, to reduce the astronomical cost of college textbooks. The recently passed Higher Education Reauthorization bill included language nearly identical to this proposal by Senator Coleman. As every student and parent of a college student knows, there is an enormous discrepancy between the price of books at regular book sellers and those at college bookstores. The Coleman legislation would help bridge this gap..
-- This year, Senator Coleman joined with Republican and Democratic colleagues in a bipartisan effort to ensure that funding for the Perkins Loans program, a vital source of reduced interest loans for students from low income families, remains at $65.4 million and is not cut.
-- In May 2008, legislation was passed into law that would ensure students have federal loans available to them no matter the status of the private loan student market.
Actually, from the way it's written, I'm not sure he did the third one. Either way, I much prefer Franken's thoughtfulness and his enthusiasm for meaningful change.
What do I want from my next senator? I want someone with a passion for the truth. I want someone who looks at the evidence in setting policy. I want someone who collects and keeps good minds around him. I want someone who doesn't forget where he came from even as he succeeds somewhere else. I want someone who will be a voice for the people who are left voiceless. I want someone looking forward, not backward.
I want Al Franken.