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.

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On his first Air America show, Franken said of Bush, "He is going down." He and the network's other staffers became an arm of the Democratic National Committee, air-brushing John Kerry's defects as a campaigner and treating their ideological ally Ralph Nader as a war criminal for daring to run again. Air America didn't elect Kerry. Nor could it keep from losing two important stations in its first weeks and, two and a half years into its existence, declaring bankruptcy. But the network survived, with Franken as its marquee name, Randi Rhodes as its brassy afternoon attention-getter and the nonpareil Rachel Maddow offering a beguiling version of Democracy Now with animal sound effects.

Franken fancies himself, apparently, as a singing comic. He'd warble a soulful "Misty" for Christy Harvey of the Center for American Progress; croak a version of "Bad to the Bone" for "resident ethicist" Melanie Sloan; shriek "Born in the USA" for Norm Ornstein, the lonely liberal at the American Enterprise Institute; play the "Little Elephant March" from Hatari for Washington insider Tom Oliphant. They and a few others — Joe Conason, David Brock, Lawrence O'Donnell, David Sirota — became Franken's daily or weekly regulars, his cabinet, his think tank. If the show occasionally droned, it provided high-calorie, factual information.

Indeed, in its three-year life the show has gone from heavy on the comedy to nearly banishing it. He might refer to Ornstein as "the wonkiest wonk in wonkdom," but Franken was in the top 10. He might use Grateful Dead clips as his bumper music, but in the last months his favorite sound bite has been William Kristol's comment, on Apr. 1, 2003, dismissing the "pop sociology in America that, you know, somehow the Shi'a can't get along with the Sunni, and the Shi'a in Iraq just want to establish some kind of Islamic fundamentalist regime. There's almost no evidence of that at all. Iraq's always been very secular." He must have run that clip 50 times, and with each playing he summoned new reserves of outrage.

At the end he could crack a joke. When Conason mentioned that columnist Dorothy Thompson was thrown out of Germany in 1935 for criticizing the Third Reich, Al ad-libbed: "You know what was her sin there: she compared Hitler to Hitler." But now he has to watch his mouth — and what has come out of it the past 32 years of his public life.

For his arrival as a candidate has been long anticipated — especially by those ready to nail him, to link, say, al-Qaeda and al Franken. Today, Conason said, "I'm sure there's a catalog of jokes" that his enemies were waiting to spring on him. (Franken mentioned one: his faux-ignorant observation a few years ago on John McCain's half-decade in Viet Cong captivity: "I mean anyone can get captured. Isn't the idea to capture the other guy?") Franken has to hope that the state that nurtured Garrison Keillor, Mystery Science Theater 3000 and the Coen brothers knows both how to take a joke and when somebody is telling one.

But they also have to get used to Franken's tears. The guy can be simultaneously tough and soft; you could call him a prickly sentimentalist. The other day he sobbed softly as he read the lyrics to American Soldier, by Dixie Chicks tormenter Toby Keith. While denouncing U.S. policy on Iraq, he has been a firm supporter of U.S. troops in Iraq. "As far as I know," he said today, "we were the first in the media to champion Operation Helmet... to provide helmet liners to our Marines" — an effort that "saved lives and brains." He has often misted up when discussing the troops he has entertained and learned from on one of his seven USO tours to Iraq since 2003.

In a speech on his already-purring campaign website (, the new candidate says, "I talked to Minnesotans and listened. They told me that they're sick of politics as usual — and they're sick of the usual politicians." Enter the clown, who's ready to play not Hamlet but Disraeli.

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