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Al Franken Is Super Serious

9:08 AM, May 9, 2014 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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Political satire became a large part of Franken comedy, and later he capitalized off it when he transitioned into a bestselling author (Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them) and radio talk show host. But when ABC's Zeleny asked what Franken the comedian would have satirized about Franken the senator, he demurred. “That would be a really hard subject to satirize,” Franken said. “I've just been impeccable.” 

He’s also been quite serious. That recent Politico profile is headlined, “Sen. Serious (D-Minn.) lightens up,” and argues that by “keeping his head down” and focusing on the mundane but important work of government and legislating, Franken has cultivated a reputation for seriousness, wholly separate from his comedy background.

In truth, journalists have bought into the “serious” narrative from the beginning of Franken’s term. Following a lengthy recount process that stretched for months before incumbent Republican Norm Coleman conceded the race, Franken was sworn into office in July 2009. The Minneapolis Star Tribune headline of Franken’s swearing in said it all: “Serious, Ready to Work.” The comedy veteran took the oath of office “without doing one single funny thing,” wrote the Los Angeles Times with a tone of surprise. (Perhaps the reporter hadn’t seen Franken’s box-office flop, Stuart Saves His Family.) Six months later, Gannett News Service had a story highlighting how Franken had shown his “serious side” so far, complete with confirmation from his very serious Democratic colleague Chuck Schumer.

“He’s serious, conscientious,” Schumer divulged. “He cares.”

In 2012, Politico’s Senate reporter Manu Raju landed what he called a “rare interview with a non-Minnesota outlet.” Raju’s piece depicted Franken as a cut-up behind the scenes but nevertheless an “ultra-serious” legislator who sometimes let his passion get the best of him. One incident was described as a “profanity-laced tirade on White House adviser Gene Sperling in a closed-door meeting about taxes.” Embarrassing, perhaps, but relatively tame for a guy who once joked about raping CBS reporter Lesley Stahl. The Sperling story helpfully made Franken seem like a policy-focused, sincere guy. So did Politico’s headline: “Senator Serious.”

Franken’s media strategy is to cooperate only on his own terms, and this week’s ABC and Politico interviews suggest the Minnesota Democrat feels the need to reemerge and earn some goodwill as he begins his 2014 reelection campaign. Franken recently released his first TV ad of the race, a straightforward 30-second spot featuring a Minnesota business owner praising him for “listening.” The ad notes a Franken-authored bill to "cut skills gap" and fill 3.5 million jobs, but since being introduced in the Senate in 2013, Franken's bill hasn't even had a vote.

Does Franken have reason to panic? Not quite yet. Minnesota is reliably Democratic, and RealClearPolitics still rates the seat as “likely” to remain in the party’s hands. But a Suffolk University poll late last month showed Franken unable to get above 45 percent support when matched up against two top potential Republican challengers in 2014, despite their relative lack of name ID among Minnesota voters. In Washington, Republicans hope businessman Mike McFadden can win the nomination and see him as their best chance at taking down Franken. It doesn’t hurt he’s raised nearly $3 million in the last 10 months. State senator Julianne Ortman also has support from many in the GOP, including Sarah Palin. Both Ortman and McFadden will be vying for the state convention’s endorsement this summer before the August 12 primary.

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