There’s a refrain familiar to any regular Capitol Hill reporter trying to ask a question of Senator Al Franken, Democrat from Minnesota and Saturday Night Live alum: “I don’t talk to national press. You’ll have to speak to my staff. I only talk to Minnesota press.”
Those lines are nearly always followed up by an agile staff member appearing out of nowhere to block Franken from the unfortunately deemed “national” reporter, ready with a business card and an explanation that the senator is very busy and is only giving interviews to local press and won’t you just shoot me an email with your question, please? Thanks!
The song and dance is so routine that reporters have all but stopped approaching Franken, and he’s grown used to the arrangement. Not long ago, while standing outside a Democratic luncheon in the Capitol, I broke protocol and approached Franken with a question as he left the room. He looked at me through his circular frames, grimaced, and said, “You must be new here. I don’t talk to national press.” Didn’t I get the memo?
But on Tuesday, I made another attempt. After all, it seemed like the rules had changed. On May 4, Franken sat down for a one-on-one interview with the quintessential national media program: a network news Sunday show. ABC’s senior Washington correspondent Jeff Zeleny described his interview subject as having made the transition from “comedian to senator.” The next day, Politico reporter James Hohmann was out with a friendly profile of Franken, written with plenty of the senator’s cooperation.
So I approached Franken again, using the ABC interview as an opening. He had told Zeleny there were parts of Obamacare that “need to be fixed,” and I asked Franken to give some specific examples of what Congress should do. “You can talk to my staff,” he said. “I have a couple of pieces of legislation. So you can talk to them.”
Suddenly, an aide was shoving two business cards in my hand and gently directing me away. I tried again. “Do you have a specific—”
Franken cut me off, indignant. “Yeah! If you look at my legislation, you’ll see them,” he said, before walking off. A few minutes later, I tried one more time, hoping to ask what Franken believed was his biggest accomplishment so far in the Senate. This time, he ignored me entirely, and a different staff member said he was preparing for a meeting.
That afternoon, I received an email from his press secretary, which noted Franken’s support for legislation that would “provide relief” for workers hit by the law’s “reinsurance fee,” as well as efforts to make sure volunteer firefighters aren’t hit by the employer mandate and to repeal the medical device tax. But those are small fixes that don’t deal with rising premiums or people dropped from their plans. Are those the only fixes Franken would make to the law he voted for in 2010? And what about his biggest accomplishment? There was no response to those questions.
It’s an ironic turn for Franken, who came of age as a countercultural comedian in the post-Watergate era. In Live From New York, the oral history of SNL compiled by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller, Franken tells a story about speaking truth to political power:
I heard Spiro Agnew was going to be on Tom Snyder’s show, so I just wanted to meet him and harass him a little bit. I brought a tape recorder and went down to their studios on six. Agnew was in the makeup room, so I sat down in the next makeup chair as he was getting made up and I said something like, “You called student protesters bums, and aren’t you the bum” – I think that’s what I said – “because you took the money?” And he just said, “I never called them bums. That was Nixon.” It was like beneath his dignity to address this kid with long hair and to spend too much time on it.
I thought I’d pressed the button to start the tape recorder, but I hadn’t. I’d had it on and turned it off or something. So I didn’t get it on tape. And then I also felt stupid because I checked it out and I was wrong: Nixon had called students bums. At least I did get to say to Agnew that he was a bum.
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.