Minnesotans have a special relationship to carbohydrates. At the annual Bruce Vento spaghetti dinner in Oakdale, the meal consists of two kinds of pasta, and bread sticks, and they serve dinner rolls. The main attraction is the keynote speech by state mascot Garrison Keillor, but first comes an auction of pies and cakes to raise money for the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. Mike Ciresi, who is Al Franken’s chief rival for the endorsement of the DFL, does some gallant bidding for Franni Franken’s apple pie, but ultimately it slips through his fingers. Ciresi’s wife, Ann, is a more ardent competitor, though, and there is a lot of whooping among the 600 or so Democrats gathered here at the Oakdale Prom Center when Mrs. Ciresi and Mrs. Franken get in a bidding war over a triple-layer cake. After six or seven rounds, Franken stops putting her hand up, and the dessert goes to Anne Ciresi for $325. Al Franken grins, faces his table, and says, “Well, we win again!” Then he goes to the men’s room and misses being acknowledged by the emcee.
Almost every speaker makes reference to Paul Wellstone, the progressive Minnesota senator who died in a plane crash with his wife and daughter eleven days before the midterm elections in 2002. His seat went to Republican Norm Coleman, and five months after Wellstone’s death, Coleman infamously told the Capitol Hill newsletter Roll Call that he was a “99 percent improvement” over his predecessor. A day later, he apologized, explaining that he had meant a 99 percent improvement in terms of supporting the Bush White House—“which is the truth!,” Franken likes to say.
Al Franken was close friends with Paul Wellstone; they got to know each other when Franken donated his comedic services to Wellstone’s campaigns. Now that Franken is himself running against Norm Coleman, he makes reference to the Roll Call incident every chance he gets. He can’t stand Norm Coleman, and seems to believe Coleman’s assumption of the Wellstone seat is a kind of sacrilege. At one point in the Vento dinner, all the elected officials and candidates present stand up and introduce themselves: “Mark Ritchie, secretary of state.” “I’m Senator Amy Klobuchar.” But when it’s Franken’s turn, he doesn’t say what he’s running for and he doesn’t mention Mike Ciresi (or any of his other opponents for the DFL’s endorsement). He says, with intensity, “I’m Al Franken, and I’m gonna take down Norm Coleman.”
Coleman’s devotion to the Bush agenda has served as a significant impetus for Franken to attempt a transformation from funny progressive spokesman to viable political candidate, which is no small challenge. As the host of his own show on Air America for three years and the author of a string of best sellers, Franken was able to combine the comedic talents that landed him on the inaugural staff of Saturday Night Live with his liberal zeal unproblematically. He could call right-wingers “fuckheads,” as he did in the 2006 documentary Al Franken: God Spoke; he could title a chapter of his book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them “I Bitch-Slap Bernie Goldberg.” But as a candidate, he has to sound normal, earnest, grown-up—he has to remember to say, “That’s off the record” after he says, “Fuck him!”
As it turns out, sounding wonkish is not much of a problem. Inside the satirist was always a know-it-all trying to bore his way out. His 26-year-old press secretary, Jess McIntosh, tells me she “worries” sometimes that “he can be serious to a fault.” (But that, of course, is exactly what the Franken campaign is hoping voters will see: the Harvard brain behind the showbiz wit.) And somewhat surprisingly for a comedian who pioneered SNL’s subversive humor and got famous playing the mawkish self-help guru Stuart Smalley (who would stare in the mirror and assure himself, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”), Franken can be very, very earnest.
I got a ride back to my hotel after the Vento dinner from a young Franken campaign staffer, a senior at Macalester College. He told me about an event that had taken place earlier that day at his school, at which he’d introduced Franken by saying that Franken’s book Lies inspired him to go into politics. “Al teared up,” he tells me. I say that’s pretty impressive and suggest that he must have a way with words to get a veteran comedian who’s been sued by Fox and called a “vile human being” by Bill O’Reilly to cry in public. The young man gives me a funny look. “Al’s very in touch with his emotions.”