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A Long Night's Journey into Day in Minneapolis

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The lawn signs are still up for Al Franken here in Minneapolis. And they seem likely to stay up until long after the squirrels have eaten the faces off of all the remaining jack-o-lanterns. A mandatory recount looms in Al's still-undecided Senate contest with Republican incumbent Norm Coleman and the results may not be known for another month. Right now, Coleman's lead is an astonishingly slender 477 votes out of almost 3 million cast. A third party candidate won about 15% of them though from whom is still widely debated.

With matters still adrift in limbo, this seems like a good time to reflect on Al Franken's unique accomplishment in this year of unique accomplishments. First of all, I should say that Al has been my friend for 15 years. I don't know Norm Coleman from a hole in the ground (though I'm told the difference is very slight.) And, though I lived in Minneapolis for a year to produce Al's radio show, I am not an expert on local politics.

But I do know that the outcome is close enough that a contest that was a statistical toss-up on Election Day remains one right now. Al Franken (who CNN's Alex Castellanos dismissed as a "lunatic" on Tuesday night) received the votes of more than 1.2 million of his fellow Minnesotans and raised over $15 million in order to fight what turned out to be the most expensive Senate race in the country. Al is a serious contender, despite the opposition's predictable ruse of taking some of his riskier jokes at face value and then declaring themselves to be shocked and dismayed and demanding apologies, etc., etc. I can't think of another candidate who has had to face "selective humorlessness" as a political dirty trick.

To give them credit, good-natured Minnesotans seem to have understood the mechanics of comedy enough to know that what makes Al Franken good at what he does is the ability to calibrate both the outrage and the outrageousness in his material for proper effect. Scandinavians are usually regarded as pretty gloomy bunch but their support for Al shows that they've got just an acute a sense of humor as anyone.

Al was also branded as "too angry" early in the race, conjuring images of fistfights and shouting matches on the Senate floor that might erode the dignity of the place. Of course, that was before the entire country began to start feeling pretty angry, too.

As it turned out, on the campaign trail, Al was neither especially angry nor terribly funny. If he has a tendency toward the former (which I would deny, by the way), he proved capable of keeping it in check. If he was, at times, understandably indignant over the state of our nation, he showed remarkable self-restraint in the face of a sustained and extremely sordid mud-sling from the other guy. Additionally, anyone who came to his rallies expecting a sort-of Kinky Friedmanesque elaborate prank was also sadly disappointed. To get a sense of Al's style on the campaign trail, think Estes Kefauver not Jesse Ventura.

His friends (and his readers and listeners) know that Al has never been "just a comedian." Despite our American fondness for labels and our suspicion of people who do different things well, Al's always been a policy wonk with a special aptitude for intricate issues like Social Security and health care. He's also always been a softy who "cries at McDonald's commercials," as he puts it. Anyone who saw him speak about the plight of Americans suffering from any of the many ills that can be addressed through public policy, whether it's losing a home to foreclosure or losing a son to a roadside bomb, could not doubt his empathy and sincerity.

It would be a truly tasteless joke to compare the first comedian elected to nationwide office with the election of our first black president. (Even though, I, for one, will not be fully satisfied until we have elected a black comedian to the White House.) No matter what comics may say from time to time, a bad set at the Laugh Factory is not comparable to slavery. But there is a connection between Al's journey and Barack Obama's and Obama spoke about it in his victory speech on Tuesday night when he described his election as a defeat for cynicism.

Al's decision to get off of the sidelines where he could have continued his very comfortable career as a comic and a critic, strikes me as just that. Professional humorists get a lot of credit, especially at election time, but, at the end of the day, we're still mere spectators, at a fundamental moral disadvantage from those we ridicule. Al Franken's decision to walk his talk, to take the hard role of participant when things could be so much easier on the cynical side of the public square, sets an example that should make every wise-ass take a long, hard look in the mirror.

Late Tuesday night at the Crowne Plaza in St. Paul before an ebullient crowd that had just seen Barack Obama elected president, Al Franken spoke to his supporters. As he likes to do, Al quoted the late Paul Wellstone, whose Senate seat he hopes to win back. Wellstone, he said, believed that "the future belongs to those who work hard and are passionate." And, he added, to those who are patient.

Whenever I hear Al recite this line, I can't resist a cynical aside to anyone handy or, if no one is, to myself. My stock joke in reply to his stock quote is that Donald Trump works hard and is passionate. Does the future belong to him? Or how about the tireless Heinrich Himmler (not Goering, who was a notorious lazybones)? But last night, the obligatory jest didn't feel right. At the end of the day, making jokes is a little easy compared with making history.