The Franken campaign, of course, thinks it is effectively using the Al-ness of Al. His solicitation letters are marked, “Urgent Gram.” He sends thank-you notes that say things like, “Thanks for coming to my event. I thought I was awesome. Also I appreciated your money. Polls are looking up, things are going great, also didn’t you think I was pretty terrific? I’ve got this in the bag. I’m pretty sure we could quit now and win. Love, Al.” It’s a fine line—Franken has to simultaneously show voters he’s serious while staying true to the Franken brand he has developed over 30 years in the public eye.
“I don’t do a lot of watching what I say, frankly,” Franken says. He is sitting in the den of the Minneapolis apartment he bought in 2005 when he decided to leave New York City, his home since the seventies, and return to Minnesota to investigate a run for the Senate. “Just like when I was on radio: In radio or on live television, there’s things you can say and things you can’t say, and it becomes second nature. But I don’t really censor myself. Well, you know, the stupidest censor thing I had to weigh was, I was in New Ulm, Minnesota, to do a Senate district dinner, so I do it in this park where they have a statue to Herman the German. Now, Herman the German was an actual historical figure.” He waits a beat. “I guess.” And then he gives me a big laugh. “They told me he was, like, a Hun or something, and there’s this beautiful statue there to Herman the German. So I just thought of the dumbest joke, which was I grew up in St. Louis Park—which is the most Jewish suburb of Minneapolis, and by that I mean 25 or 30 percent Jewish, but in Minnesota that’s a lot of Jews. Yeah. So I thought of this joke saying, ‘Well, you have Herman the German, and I grew up in St. Louis Park, where we have a statue of Stu the Jew.’ Okay. Dumb joke, almost really not worth doing, except it’s not worth not doing, except that I saw that there was a Coleman tracker there, a guy taping me, and I’m going, like, okay, what are they going to do with it? Are they going to say that I’m somehow suggesting that New Ulm is anti-Semitic? What are they gonna do with this?” Franken lets fly another major laugh, which happens quite a bit. “I just thought that was a funny one. I thought that was the silliest decision to have to make … and I made it. I think I made the right decision, frankly, I think I did, and that’s why … I’m the clear front-runner today.” He punctuates this joke with his froggy, that’s-just-the-way-it-is lips. (In the primary, though no independent polling exists, he’s running far ahead of his opponent in fund-raising and endorsements. The most recent Rasmussen poll has him five points behind Coleman—not a bad place for a challenger.)
Franken’s campaign may be a sign that the party’s almost over—that is, the Democratic Party as the party of comedy. Colbert’s presidential run is less funny than it should be.
Franken shifts positions and pulls his wallet out of his back pocket and throws it on the coffee table next to a wooden bowl full of fake cherries Franni bought at Target. It’s all chewed up—the work, he says, of the late Kirby, the dog pictured in the Vikings helmet in the campaign slideshow and also framed on the wall in this room. “Now I don’t want to get rid of it, because Kirby did this,” he says, looking at the gnawed wallet. “Because we had to put Kirby down about a month ago. It was awful. He was only 8. He had cancer in his leg, in his bone, and at any minute his bone could shatter. And so I would have cut his leg off—I’ve seen some very happy three-legged dogs—but it had metastasized, so we had to put him down, and it was just awful. You know, it’s the whole family being with Kirby and hugging him while he’s being injected, and it’s the worst.” Franken’s voice is cracking a little. “Let’s not bring it up anymore, because I get upset,” he says, wiping his eyes. “I get really … boy, that was a terrible day. That was a terrible weekend. Really tough. George Carlin once said that anytime you buy a dog you’re buying a tragedy.” He laughs but he has to wipe his eyes again, and again he asks that we move on to another topic, so I ask about what kind of politics he was raised with.
“Great. You go from my dog to my parents. Gimme a second. Sheesh.” Franken takes his glasses off, and Franni comes in and wipes his eyes with her thumbs. She holds his face in her hands and says, “Why don’t you excuse yourself for a minute?”