FROM JUNE 2009 WASHINGTONIAN MAGAZINE:
Let Franken Be Franken!
By Steve Daley
Washington doesn’t need any more hard-working pols. When Al finally gets to town, let’s please . . .
When Al Franken is finally installed as the junior senator from Minnesota, we need him to be Al Franken.
Waiting out the recounts and court fights that have kept Franken back home since November, the former Saturday Night Live star has done a good imitation of your typical 21st-century US senator.
He’s been dull.
Duller than a quorum call. Duller than a Harry Reid/Mitch McConnell photo op. Few interviews, no barbed commentary about Republicans, no declarations in that foghorn of a voice.
There are reasons why. The notion of Senator Al Franken (D-Funny) probably scares both the White House and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
They want his crucial Senate vote, and it’s fine with them if Franken is mistaken inside the Beltway for Mark Dayton, Rudy Boschwitz, Rod Grams, or any of his predecessors from the Land of Sky-Blue Waters.
Franken told the St. Paul newspaper that once he’s sworn in, he’ll be “putting [his] head down and getting to work.”
That’s not what we need. We need some laughs. We need some characters.
Let’s face it: The United States Senate is a place where Utah’s Orrin Hatch is considered witty. Where being colorful means starting a second family at 55. Where wild and crazy means not having a 6 am tennis game three mornings a week.
Let’s take a partial roll call.
Mike Enzi of Wyoming. Ben Cardin of Maryland. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii. Claire McCaskill of Missouri. Bob Corker of Tennessee. Susan Collins of Maine. Herb Kohl of Wisconsin. Roger Wicker of Mississippi.
These are distinguished public servants, but they could walk up to a door with an electric eye and chances are the door wouldn’t open.
We need a senator who might do some impersonations. In his SNL days, Franken nailed a pair of senatorial Pauls—Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts and Paul Simon of Illinois. He aped Pat Robertson, Lyndon LaRouche, and Henry Kissinger.
We need a politician who might plant a camera on his pith helmet and report live from the scene, as Franken did on SNL.
We could use a senator who’d say things like “What do Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole, Phil Gramm, Dick Armey, and George Will have in common? Answer: They’ve all been married one less time than Rush Limbaugh.”
We need a man who would publish a book called Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and preface it with a mock New York Times review allegedly written by former Reagan foreign-policy adviser Jeane Kirkpatrick.
Extending the joke, Franken offered his own fake letter to the editor bemoaning the fact that his “former lover” had been assigned to review the book.
“As anyone who was familiar with the Manhattan eighties’ club scene knows,” Franken wrote, “Ms. Kirkpatrick and I endured a somewhat stormy and all too public affair during her tenure as our country’s UN ambassador. . . . Come on! Be fair. Next time get someone who isn’t my former lover to review my book.”
At the 1994 White House Correspondents Dinner, Franken told the audience he had discussed the merits of an Al Gore joke with Tipper Gore. He shared the joke:
“Vice President Gore continued to show his commitment to the environment by announcing today that he is going to change the policy on the stick up his butt. Instead of replacing the stick every day with a new stick, the Vice President will keep the same stick up his butt for the rest of the administration. Evidently, this will save an entire rain forest.”
Here’s another possibility: For much of his comedic career, Franken had a sidekick. His name was Tom Davis, and he had grown up with Franken in Minneapolis, where they began writing comedy.
Davis was a pioneering writer on SNL, but as a performer he was about as funny as Dutch elm disease. Remember Franken and Davis as the lunkhead gorilla handlers in Eddie Murphy’s Trading Places?
Suppose Franken had a sidekick in the Senate. A Barney Rubble, a Sancho Panza, a Joe Biden, an Ed McMahon, a Vinny Cerrato. A walk-around guy to set up the one-liners, get the bottled water, clear the press away from the Senate elevators.
Match that, Arlen Specter.
The world of entertainment has not been a historic proving ground for the Senate.
Senator Fred Thompson, the truck-drivin’ man from Tennessee, did walk among us for a time. It was after his movie roles in The Hunt for Red October and Curly Sue, though he had started out as minority counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee in the 1970s.
Back when spittoons were still in fashion, a Hollywood hoofer named George Murphy (Broadway Melody of 1940) made his way to the Senate from California, serving a solo term between former JFK spokesman Pierre Salinger and John V. Tunney, described as the lightweight son of onetime heavyweight champ Gene Tunney.
Jesse Helms of North Carolina came to us from radio, and Wilbert Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel of Texas also got his start in radio, offering up old-timey music with the Light Crust Doughboys.
Pappy served eight years in the Senate after being governor, famously defeating Lyndon Johnson by 1,300 votes in 1941. A man before his time, Pappy argued that Texas needed its own army and navy to guard the Mexican border.
“Pass the Biscuits, Pappy” wasn’t much of a senator, but his platform—the Ten Commandments—was good enough to get him elected.
Yes, there was a time when Senator Huey Long raced around Washington under the watchful eye of the Louisiana troopers he brought with him, when committee chairmen were pickled by sundown, when being defined as a character had nothing to do with airport lavatories.
But we know how this ends. Senator Al Franken will go all fair and balanced.
He’ll learn to love those dusty markups on the agriculture committee. He’ll come to believe that every meeting in Washington is “productive” and that every Senate colleague is worthy of placement on Mount Rushmore.
But do we want another distinguished member who will yield the floor? What this town needs is some of that old SNL attitude—the kind that says: “Live from Capitol Hill—it’s Al Franken!”
This article first appeared in the June 2009 issue of The Washingtonian.