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Al Franken, Perry Mason, and Health Care: An Unlikely Trilogy


"One more thing, then we'll talk about health care."

I attended a party last night in honor of Senator Al Franken's big win (finally). The Senator clearly was enjoying himself as he addressed the crowd, and he talked about how much fun he was having in Congress. Senator Franken recalled Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor's statement in her confirmation hearings that she originally was inspired to be a lawyer by an episode of Perry Mason. The Senator loved Perry Mason too, he told her! It turns out a number of Senators--on both sides of the aisle--have a weakness for Perry Mason. And Dragnet. And Highway Patrol. Senator Franken appears to be disarming and connecting with his colleagues on the left and the right on account of law and cop shows. At the end of his speech he made a brief and serious plug for a public option, and connected a lack of health care (or decent health care) to our economic woes. But the bulk of his talk was about the fun stuff, about the way television surprisingly has been a way to reach across the aisle.

The Senator's retelling of his encounters was entertaining. But what seems to be breaking the ice for him in Congress is not so much his humor as his humanity. At some point, we were all a bunch of kids watching TV and movies, reading books, and letting pop culture influence our notions of what is fair and unfair, right and wrong. At some point, we probably rooted for the same outcome of the episode, the same ending to the movie. Yet some of us are running this country now, while the rest of us are watching the news, wondering when our elected officials will get their acts together.

This got me thinking: could there be a set of shared values about justice we all absorbed from Perry Mason? (Citizen Kane? To Kill a Mockingbird? Law and Order? Heck, Ally McBeal?) If our elected representatives asked themselves what their inner child, or even just their pre-elected self, would think of the games that are played now, what would the answer be? (How much time must we spend on "death panels" while people are dying because their health care is inadequate or nonexistent?)

Senator Jim Inhofe famously called Franken a clown. Franken responded by saying that could have been a compliment. Perhaps Senator Franken's clowning around--his willingness to be just a guy who used to watch Perry Mason and is thrilled by his newest role--provides a more serious reminder of why our elected officials (hopefully) run for office in the first place: they want to do some good. They want to feel like they felt watching their favorite shows. We all want this health care episode to have a happy ending. I hope that Senator Franken's willingness to share this part of himself opens some closed doors and minds. It sounds like he's off to a good start.