WASHINGTON ― Al Franken and I have been friends for 30 years, so I got right to the point.
“Will you ever run for president?” I demanded to know in an interview with the 66-year-old Minnesota Democratic senator this week.
There was an ever so slight, theatrical pause.
“Aaah … no,” he then answered, letting loose his patented chest-bursting cackle.
“I’m going to ask [Democratic National Committee Chairman] Tom Perez to start a primary just for vice president. I would run for that.”
“Really?” I asked humorlessly.
“NO! I wouldn’t! That was a joke! See, I thought it was a funny idea because I would be the only one running in that primary. Get it?”
An eerie amount of Franken’s career arc from comedian to politician has consisted of life imitating art and/or vice versa. It’s often hard to know what is meant to be a joke and what isn’t.
This isn’t even the first time Franken has thought about running for president. But in the past it was about comedy, not politics.
He and I discussed the topic at D.C.’s Palm Restaurant 20 years ago. He was planning to write a book making fun of presidential politics. His method would be to chronicle his own imaginary, victorious campaign and his later resignation in disgrace.
Along with the scholarly über-pundit Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute and Mandy Grunwald, one of the Democrats’ leading media consultants, I became a Franken “adviser” for the day.
We brainstormed our way to a “platform” that was vaguely realistic but also risibly trivial: exorbitant ATM fees. Al would “run” on a crusade to reduce them, and would sweep the nation.
Which, in his mind and in the narrative, is what he did in the resulting book, published in 1999, called, Why Not Me? The Inside Story of the Making and Unmaking of the Franken Presidency. It’s a side-splitting tale from beginning to end, and a sendup of every absurdity and hypocrisy of our way of public life.
Now, on the eve of the publication of his new, facetiously named autobiography, Al Franken, Giant of the Senate, the presidential question is out there. This time it is all in real life.
The book is a witty, candid account of his life so far, including his wife Franni’s battle with alcoholism, the joy and pain of writing comedy, the moments of crisis and doubt in his difficult first Senate campaign, and his struggle to balance his need to make audiences laugh with the serious work of the Senate.
Out Tuesday, it has prompted speculation about whether he might run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020. Publications from The Washington Post to Politico to People are asking the question. After all, if he were to run, the new book could serve as what consultants call “inoculation” ― surfacing the “worst” material early to lessen its impact later.
Especially in an era when politics has become almost interchangeable with entertainment (and even comedy), there is a weird logic ― something vaguely approaching destiny ― to the idea that he now at least should consider stepping even higher.
“Trump has so devalued the presidency that people are coming up to me and saying, ‘Al, of course you can do it. … And I say, ‘No! You can’t compare me to him and just say, yeah, you can do it.”
But is the idea realistic? Well, Franken and I have been friends ever since we met at the Iowa caucuses in 1988, and even I have to admit that at first glance the answer is no.
After all, in a three-decade comedy career, Franken appeared half-naked on “Saturday Night Live”; said beastly, crude things at 2 a.m. in the writers’ room; and, in the early years, did a fair amount of cocaine.
Franken is an emotional person, with the ups and downs of a stage performer. He yearns to be liked and can be stubborn to a fault.
Relatively late in life, he has risen fast in politics through his lacerating writing, talking and gift for humor as a rhetorical weapon. He’s never really managed much besides his own career, which actually has been managed by the saintly and ever-patient Franni Franken, to whom Al has been married for 41 years.
Franken does not mention Why Not Me? in his autobiographical Giant of the Senate. Why? Well, it wasn’t a bestseller. More seriously, he wants to run for a third term as a senator in his home state of Minnesota in 2020. He also has a good relationship with the state’s senior Democratic senator, Amy Klobuchar, who definitely IS running for the presidency.
“If Al showed any interest in the nomination it would get very awkward with Amy very fast,” a leading Minnesota political expert told me.
In the age of Trump, Franken is a force. With his sharp mind and the presentational skills he learned in comedy, he has become a progressive star by eviscerating Trump and his circle in Congress, including, famously, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
The comparisons with Trump are telling. The president is a performer who intuitively “knows the room” and defeats foes with words. His feel for TV and social media is unrivaled.
Franken in that sense is the anti-Trump.
He has the theatrical gifts and media experience that Trump has. But Franken studies his briefs with maniacal intensity. He always knows precisely what he is talking about. He is honest to a fault by political standards; indeed, his humor is largely based on “kidding on the square,” which means to say something funny that is also true. He is a devotedly square family man with one wife for life, two adoring kids and a small but growing brood of grandchildren. His idea of fun is to be with them all. He is diligent about spending as much time as he can in Minnesota.
There is no Minnesota bean feed too small for Franken to attend. He is vigilant about his home state’s interests. Like his “SNL” character Stuart Smalley, he genuinely likes people and earnestly wants them to like him back. They usually do.
No bridge-burner in the Senate, Franken in his book eviscerates the deeply loathed Sen. Ted Cruz (no one in the Senate would object) but otherwise is careful to tell only the most anodyne stories, all of which he cleared (as dictated by custom) with the members involved.
He actually enjoys legislating. To that end, he is almost obsessively polite about Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, with whom he disagrees on virtually every matter but whom he has the good sense to flatter personally. He has an even better relationship with Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer.
Franken can become a power in the Senate if the Democrats ever take it back.
But what about the Big Job?
I asked him whether the thought he could handle it, and he gave a long answer that indicated he had in fact pondered the topic.
“I know what a heavy job it is. That’s all I can say,” he began. He used Syria as an example.
When he first heard that President Bashar Assad had used chemical weapons to kill civilians in Syria, Franken said, his first reaction while at the state fair in Minnesota was to demand swift retaliation.
But when it seemed that the Senate might have to vote to authorize such retaliation, the studious and detail-oriented Franken immersed himself in briefings and documents and saw the another side. More innocents would be killed as Assad used “human shields” at all the sites the United States would target.
“The president has to make those kinds of decisions all the time,” Franken said earnestly, “and I am not sure that I would be terribly comfortable having that job for four to eight years.”
That doesn’t sound like a flat no to me.