WASHINGTON – Sen. Al Franken returns to the printed page in a U.S. political climate similar to the last time the Minnesota politician published a book.
“Al Franken, Giant of the Senate,” which hit bookstores Tuesday, takes comedic aim at President Trump and Republican lawmakers whom he blames for fostering a divisive culture in Washington. For Franken, who has emerged as a national leader of the left’s pushback against Republicans, it’s also a return to the kind of work that laid the groundwork for his pivot from entertainment to politics.
Before he ran for office in 2008, Franken was a prolific publisher of political satire. Bestsellers like “Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot” gave the former “Saturday Night Live” writer and performer a second career, and helped lay the groundwork for a senatorial run in the state where he grew up.
Franken’s last book, “The Truth (With Jokes),” came out in the wake of the U.S. attack on Iraq and President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election. Democrats nationally were fumbling as Republicans led the entire federal government. Now in his second term as senator, Franken returns to publishing as a leading figure on the left — but also at a time when Democrats are feeling even lower.
“Watching Donald J. Trump take the oath of office to become the 45th President of the United States was perhaps the most depressing moment I’ve had since I entered politics,” Franken writes at the start of the new book, which is largely a memoir of his time in politics, though with more wisecracks than your average politician’s tome.
Franken is embarking this week on a national book tour, which will also include a handful of Twin Cities stops. On Tuesday, he joined the women of “The View,” on ABC-TV to talk politics.
Franken’s blistering questioning of a handful of Trump appointees helped fuel hope among some progressives that Franken himself would mount a presidential bid; publishing a book has also become a rite of passage for presidential aspirants. But Franken has ruled out a national bid.
“It’s flattering that my name has been brought up, but that’s not what I’m here to do,” Franken told the Star Tribune, saying his focus is on priorities like fighting the GOP health care bill and pushing for action on climate change. “What I’m going to be doing is fighting for the things I think are right.”
On Tuesday, “The View” conversation inevitably got around to Russian involvement in the 2016 election. The question, Franken said with humor, may come down to, “What did the president know and when did his son-in-law tell him?”
Even as he plots Senate machinations, Franken in the new book unloads lots of opinions about many of his Republican colleagues. He has little good to say about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican whom Franken blames for championing a totally adversarial approach to President Obama that he says enabled Trump’s rise.
Franken admits it’s not political beliefs that determine which Republicans he likes. His favorites are those with a sense of humor, like Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. He recounts an exchange in the Senate bathroom, at a time when Graham was struggling to shore up support in a home-state Republican primary. Franken told Graham he would vote for him, were Franken a South Carolinian.
“That’s my problem,” Graham shot back.
Franken even formed an unlikely friendship with Sen. Jeff Sessions, the Alabama Republican now serving as Trump’s attorney general. Sessions’ wife, Mary, became friends with Franken’s wife, Franni, for whom she knitted a blanket when the Frankens’ grandson was born.
But goodwill between the two men became strained when Franken harshly criticized Sessions’ record on civil rights during his confirmation hearing, then voted against him.
“It’s hard to unfairly demonize someone whose wife knit your grandson his favorite blankie,” Franken writes, stressing that he believes his criticisms of Sessions were fair, and that he still thinks Sessions perjured himself during his confirmation hearing.
Franken turns his sharpest daggers on Sen. Ted Cruz: “I like Ted Cruz more than most of my other colleagues like Ted Cruz. And I hate Ted Cruz,” he writes.
Cruz last week said Franken’s just trying to sell books.
Back in his “Saturday Night Days,” Franken frequently dipped into political satire.
He published “Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot” in 1999, not long after leaving the show for good. It hit bestseller lists and spawned follow-ups like “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them,” his 2004 critique of the Bush administration.
Shortly after that he moved back to Minnesota, launching a campaign against Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, who held the seat once occupied by Franken’s political idol, the late Sen. Paul Wellstone.
The new book is dedicated to Wellstone and his wife, Sheila, who were killed in a northern Minnesota plane crash in 2002.
Franken started writing the new book in 2015. He said he initially started writing to answer the question he’s most often asked: Is serving in the Senate as fun as working for “Saturday Night Live”?
“Of course not, why would it be?” Franken said. But he called the political gig “the best job I’ve ever had” because he gets to work on improving the lives of regular people.
A main preoccupation of Franken’s earlier book was debunking what he saw as a growing culture of right-wing falsehoods.
Those earlier times seem “almost adorable” compared to the age of Trump, Franken writes: “Politicians have always shaded the truth. But if you can say something that is provably false, and no one cares, then you can’t have a real debate about anything.”