Vote for Me, Al Franken

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Ann Heisenfelt / AP

Comedian Al Franken is framed by the Seal of the State of Minnesota as he talks to a guest on his radio show on Air America before announcing he will run for U.S. Senate in 2008 in Minnesota, February 14, 2007.

In Illinois a week before the 2000 election, Franken joked that "It would be much easier for me as a comedian to have Bush as President. It would be a gold mine."

Well, Bush's presidency did change Franken's career. It made him a best-selling author, of Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right (a book whose subtitle cued Fox News to sue him, unsuccessfully of course, for appropriating the channel's catchphrase) and The Truth, With Jokes. In 2004 his passion to mobilize progressives against Bush's war, and for the election of a Democratic President, landed him the job as host of a daily, three-hour talk show on the new liberal network Air America Radio, where — for a time, and in a few markets, among certain demographics — he got higher ratings than Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly.

Now, at 55, the cum-laude graduate of Harvard, longtime cast member-writer on Saturday Night Live and co-author of the alcohol-horror movie When a Man Loves a Woman thinks he's good enough and smart enough — and doggone it, enough people like him — to be the next U.S. Senator from Minnesota. On his final Al Franken Show, he announced that he is running to reclaim the seat that Sen. Paul Wellstone lost when he, his wife and daughter were killed in a plane crash two weeks before the 2002 election, and which was won by Republican Norm Coleman. The New York City-born Franken, whose parents moved to the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park when he was four, has long honed his campaign slogan against Coleman: "I'm the New York Jew who actually grew up in Minnesota."

Regular listeners (and I'm one of them) had expected this announcement for more than a year. There was a time, early in his move from Manhattan to Minnesota last January, when he was interviewing every progressive candidate in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. ("If elected, I promise not just to catch dogs but to care for them.") Lately, we knew Franken was serious about running because, when guests would start dissing Coleman on the air, he would change the subject. He knew that FCC laws forbid a declared candidate from having his own radio show.

In the last segment of his last show, Franken made it official. "I've decided to move on to another challenge... I'll be running in 2008 for Paul's seat." With an artful blend of humility and pride, he said, "I know I have an awful lot to learn from the people of Minnesota." Sounding a tad like Stuart Smalley, Franken said he was running "to help our country become everything I hope it can be and everything I know it can be."

In a way, Franken has been running for office since the late '70s, when he would appear on SNL's Weekend Update segment and announced, "Vote for me, Al Franken. You'll be glad you did!" In his possibly ironic role as a relentless self-promoter, he proclaimed the 1980s "the Al Franken Decade." In 1999 he published Why Not Me?: The Inside Story of the Making and Unmaking of the Franken Presidency, the myopically prophetic account of how he won the 2000 election and shortly thereafter lost the presidency (though his attempt to personally kill Saddam Hussein sounds like a natural poll-gooser, doesn't it?).

Franken could have made millions more writing books and giving speeches than he did as a talk-show host — especially for a network that often didn't pay his back salary. But he had been startled to learn that 21% of Americans got most of their news from talk radio, which at the time was overwhelmingly right-wing. "I didn't want to sit on the sidelines," he said today, "and I believed Air America could make a difference."

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