The next day, Franken is in sneakers and jeans before a student group at Minnesota Community Technical College, talking about the seven USO tours he’s been on to Iraq and Afghanistan. “These soldiers are my kid’s age,” Franken says to the students.
Ann Coulter, an antagonist of Franken’s to whom he devotes two chapters in Lies (titled “Ann Coulter: Nutcase” and “You Know Who I Don’t Like? Ann Coulter”), once remarked at an event with Franken in Connecticut that she won “the bet on whether it would take Al Franken more than or less than five minutes to mention his USO tours.” And yet, when he talks about the troops for the millionth time to this group, Franken has tears behind his glasses.
“Al’s going to have to be real careful about that stuff; he does wear his emotions really close to the front,” says Dave Griffin, Franken’s best friend since they attended junior high school together in St. Louis Park, a suburb of Minneapolis. “I’ve been at I don’t know how many speeches where he’s teared up, and I go, ‘Aw, come on!’ When Al sees my parents, he often gets choked up because they remind him of his parents”—who are both deceased—“so he told them, ‘Walt and Carol, you can’t come to any of my events.’ ” But that is not nearly enough to insulate Franken from the force of his own feelings. “It’s funny,” Griffin continues, “because he is a hard-edged comedian and has taken shots I’d never be able to take, but then he’s very sentimental.”
This used to be the charge against the left in general: that we’re all bleeding-heart, bellyaching babies—the people who brought you humorless feminists and Ralph Nader. But during the Bush years, Democrats have come to own funny. Our political discourse has been dominated by the hilarity of The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and the Franken canon, while the right’s most prominent spokespeople—Coulter, Bill O’Reilly, Dick Cheney—wouldn’t know funny if it sat on their faces. Republicans have become the outraged and the aggrieved, the touchy and the unamused. Power corrupted even their sense of humor.
“I’ve been at I don’t know how many speeches where he’s teared up,” says a childhood friend. “He wears his emotions real close to the front. He’s gonna have to be careful about that stuff.”
Another transformation seems to be happening to Franken on the campaign trail. In the past, he’s often been portrayed as an angry grouch, and indeed his books are as depressing as they are funny in their meticulous detailing of America’s woes. But all this exposure to the youth of today—and media consultants—has had an uplifting effect on Franken. “A lot of the kids I was talking to, the freshmen were like 11 years old when Bush became president, and they don’t remember having a president who was articulate; they don’t remember that the federal government actually could work; they don’t remember when America was a really well-respected country,” Franken tells me later. “And I felt my job was to tell them, No, no, no! We used to be the leader of the world and we can be again! We’re the country that went to the moon and we’re the country that beat Fascism and Communism and rebuilt Europe and we’re the country that’s mapped the human genome and we’re the country that had enough juice left over to invent the Internet and rock and roll, you know? I mean, we’re a great country! So I found myself sort of cheerleading. I was giving not just them but myself a pep talk. Sometimes I say the reason I’m running is my dad’s generation was the Greatest Generation, and I just don’t want ours to be the Worst Generation.” He laughs his bullfrog laugh. “I wanna actually be able to look at my kids and say I tried my damnedest to get us up to the Mediocre Generation. I really did everything I could.”
Franken is generally not as far left as you might imagine the author of Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot to be. Initially, he was in favor of the Iraq war, and for the most part, he’s moderate and has been an avid supporter of centrist Democrats like Kerry and the Clintons. “Al keeps running around the state saying he’s going to be the heir to Wellstone,” says Bill Hillsman, a political consultant based in Minneapolis who worked on Wellstone’s first two campaigns as well as Ralph Nader’s presidential run and Jesse Ventura’s successful bid for governor of Minnesota. “But Al is basically a DLC Democrat. He’s throwing in right now with the Wellstone people,” many of whom Franken has hired for this campaign, “and they’re pushing him to be more liberal than he is. I see this tension between Al’s real political views and the views he’s espoused out there.” In other words, the comedian is seen as being too much of a politician. Hillsman says that his success with Wellstone and Ventura was based largely on their appearance of authenticity, which convinced enough independent voters in Minnesota to elect those candidates over Republican rivals. “In ’96, we had money to do research, and we found out that Paul [Wellstone]’s swing vote was the Perot vote”—Perot got 24 percent of the vote in Minnesota in ’92—“and these are people who disagreed with Paul on almost every issue. As one guy memorably put it, ‘I don’t agree with him, but I think he’s honest, I think he’s got integrity, and I think we ought to have at least one of those sons of bitches in Congress.’ I don’t think people think that about Al. They think it’s much more contrived. He needs to be who he is and stop letting people try to make him into somebody else.”