MyDD Conversation with MN-Sen Candidate Al Franken

On the morning of Sunday, June 10, I had the opportunity to speak with Al Franken, comedian, satirist, talk radio star and now candidate for the Democratic senatorial nomination in the state of Minnesota.

Over the course of our conversation, Franken and I covered a number of topics, including how someone moves from the entertainment industry into politics, Franken's role in the netroots, the war in Iraq and much more. You can listen to the interview or read a rush transcript below, or download the audio as a very large .mp3 file here.

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Jonathan Singer: Some people liken your run to that of Jesse Ventura, another, well let's call it "non-traditional candidate" who ran statewide in Minnesota. I see, maybe, more of a comparison to a Ronald Reagan, someone who after their time in the entertainment industry spent a number of years honing a political message through a series of speeches around the country. Do either of these comparisons work? And more broadly, what do you have to do coming out of the entertainment industry running for office?

Al Franken: Well I think you're probably right that the arc of this is maybe a little bit more Reagan.

Ventura was in a part of the entertainment industry that is quite different from the part of the entertainment industry I was in, and Reagan was really in a different part, too. I did comedy and I did a lot of political satire. What I did was never completely divorced from politics. I'd say professional wrestling certainly was and much of what Reagan did...

I mean I did comedy that had nothing to do with politics, of course. But a lot of what I did at SNL and what Tom and I did in our act before we joined the show and after we joined the show was political in nature and satirical in nature. So there is a sort of continuum that runs through my entire adult life and in fact starts before my adult life because I was doing satire in school and political satire.

Franken (cont.): But the arc is that at SNL we did a lot of political satire but never felt it was the job of the show to have a political ax to grind. And we felt that for a number of reasons. One, we just didn't think that was the job of the show. The other was that there were a lot of creative people and the show and didn't feel it was fair for some of the writers to dictate the politics of everybody on the show. And also I worked a lot with a guy named Jim Downey, who was a brilliant comedy writer on the show and he's quite conservative. He kept me honest and I kept him honest and we really had the same mission, which was just to do the best satire, best political comedy we could. I felt very good about that 15 seasons of stuff that we did all of us together (that includes other writers as well).

Then when I left the show I felt that it was time for me to be able to express my own politics in a more pure manner, and I did that with "Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations." I wrote it in '95 as the Gingrich revolution was sort of ascendant and the point of the title of the book was a satire on the breakdown in civility and in talking about what the Gingrich revolution, for whom Limbaugh was the mouthpiece, to talk about what they were doing.

And that sort of started me on a new arc, which was people really responded to that in a different way than they had to my comedy, although there's nothing better than making people laugh. So I sort of became more of a satirist - not just a satirist, but a satirist with kind of a dog in the race. I was a liberal, or a Democrat. And I kind of wrote that because I was peeved with Gingrich. You know Gingrich was using these words to describe Democrats, things like traitor and corrupt and things like that. And I didn't like the way the discourse was going, hence the satirical title of the book.

Then I was kind of cooled out a little bit in the late-90s and then Bush got elected and I wrote "Lies and the Lying Liars," because by then Fox, on top of right wing talk radio... there was just this big right wing media that had established an echo chamber that was invading the mainstream media. So that book was largely about the myth of the liberal media and the fact that the mainstream media is affected by the right wing echo chamber, not just Fox and talk radio, but also think tanks and the propaganda infrastructure that they've put together.

In researching that I ran across a Gallup poll that showed about 21 percent of Americans at least claimed they got a majority of their news from talk radio. And at that point there were some people putting together Air America and they asked me to do a show and I felt like I don't want to cede that arena to them, let's try this. And I did it for three years. Very proud of what we did and very proud of my show, a very substantive show. And I said I would use the show to learn as much as I can and I was doing it I sort of made this decision slowly to run for the Senate.

Singer: Talking a little bit about Minnesota. You campaigned a lot throughout the state in 2006. What did you learn from the 2006 election in Minnesota, specifically also how Amy Klobuchar won but also Tim Pawlenty won, and any contradictions between the two messages the voters were sending?

Franken: Amy won by 20 points and Tim won by 1. I think Amy ran a flawless campaign. She I don't believe was ever not ahead by at least 11 points. And I think there's a number of reasons that she was able to run a different kind of campaign than I'm probably going to have to run. She was running for an open seat, Mark Kennedy was sort of chosen by Rove and those guys right after the 2004 election - and Coleman, I guess - and at that point he had won in the sixth district and was a Republican Congressman who I guess they thought looked good. But as time passed and he was anointed, it became clear that being a Republican Congressman in this cycle was not a real asset and so he was very tied to Bush on the war and very tied to this Congress in terms of corruption, not that he himself had been corrupt but he had been voting with them and not actually doing anything about this corruption that was going on.

Singer: I guess it's not too far off from Norm Coleman, frankly, either.

Franken: Oh, absolutely. Voting for all of these earmarks, voting for not investigating anything. I mean Norm is actually much more responsible, in terms of not doing oversight than Mark was.

Singer: The Democrats were able to show Mark Kennedy for the person he truly was, the type of voting record that he actually had. But Norm Coleman is someone who has been seemingly able to be the leopard who changes his spots, or maybe the politician who changes his teeth (I don't know which is the better metaphor). But how do you get out that message that this is a guy who, let's say, last year voted 88 percent of the time with the President's position?

Franken: I don't think this is going to be that hard, frankly. He voted 98 percent of the time with the President's position the first year he was in. Six months after Paul died he did an interview with Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and said that he was a 99 percent improvement over Paul Wellstone. And then when he apologized for it, finally, he said, "Well I meant I'm a 99 percent improvement over Paul in terms of supporting this White House." And that was true. I'm going to take him at his word.

And whenever he's voted against the President's position, it has always when he's had cover - when the President doesn't need his vote. Barney Frank says about these "moderate Republicans" that they're always there when you don't need them. I mean Norm Coleman was never the 51st vote. He's either the 48th vote or the 52nd vote for something.

So he's worked for Bush and Cheney, especially when you look at the first four years of his being Senator. He had the number one oversight position in the Senate as chairman of the permanent subcommittee on investigations. He had sole subpoena power. He could personally subpoena anyone in the world, essentially. And he didn't use it. He didn't do it. He didn't do his job. He did no hearings on the reconstruction contracting in Iraq. This is his war. And he didn't do his job. But that was his job, not to do his job.

Singer: You talk about Iraq. This is someone who has kind of used rhetoric to say that he is unhappy with the direction of America's policy but has not really followed through with his votes. How would you highlight that? And how would you differ as United States Senator?

Franken: First of all, all you have to do is go back and look at what he has said during the course of this war. This is his war. He criticized anyone who criticized this war.

Jack Murtha in May of 2004 said that we weren't properly armoring our troops. And Coleman said that Murtha was undermining the morale of the troops and emboldening the enemy. He was part of the group that was supposed to criticize Democrats who criticized the President, who criticized Rumsfeld. It was finally in like December or late November of that year that that soldier confronted Rumsfeld in Kuwait and Rumsfeld said, "You don't go to war with the army you want, you go to war with the army you have." But this is like November of '04. We went to war in March of '03. We started preparing for this war well before that. And the idea that we hadn't armored up our humvees by that point was a disgrace. That wasn't the army we had to go to war with. These guys were putting hillbilly armor on stuff that had been two years since we'd been preparing for this.

So that's the point at which any sane person would have said, "We have to get rid of Rumsfeld." And Bush made this... We shouldn't have gone to war, but Bush made this horrible, horrible mistake. You can also say that it's more than a mistake. But most of us make mistakes but also learn from our mistakes.

And Norm Coleman said when Wellstone voted against the authorization to use military force, "I don't question Paul's or the Senator's patriotism, I question his judgment." First of all as we now know, his judgment was quite good. Secondly, when you say, "I don't question his patriotism, I question his judgment," you're actually in the weaseliest way possible questioning his patriotism. Otherwise, why would you bring it up? It's like saying, "I don't question his patriotism, I question his slacks." I mean it's a non sequitur unless it isn't.

And at that time to their should be everlasting disgrace, Republicans were questioning the patriotism of anyone who had questions about the war. And by trying to intimidate any people, they own the war. He owns the war. This is Norm Coleman's war.

And Norm Coleman never called for Rumsfeld to resign. There was one report that he had and then his spokesman quickly corrected it. Rumsfeld made mistake after mistake after mistake, and as McCain said may go down as the worst Secretary of Defense in history, and Norm Coleman never called for him to resign.

He is as responsible for this war as any Senator. It is his war. And he needs to be held accountable. Bush said in 2000 he was going to usher in a new era of personal responsibility. He needs to be personally responsible for his role in this. And he did not do anything in terms of looking into the conduct of this war.

Singer: I just want to ask you a couple more questions before I let you go. The first is on farm policy. Minnesota is a state that has a lot of urban voters but also a lot of rural voters. And right now it's kind of at the seat of the debate over the direction of farm policy. Where do you come down? Do you like the current set of subsidies and what not that kind of tend to favor corn? Or would you like to see some changes that may cause a little controversy in your state?

Franken: The subsidies for corn are probably not going to be necessary. The controversy isn't really about subsidies for commodities because the price on commodities has gone up so far because of ethanol and, in the case of soil, biodiesel.

So the question really is, what's the policy going to be on ethanol. Are we going to move toward a balance, because you can't really grow enough corn to provide enough ethanol and there is sustainability issues when you talk about just growing as much corn as you can, in terms of soil and water. So the question is, is corn ethanol going to be a sort of transition where you keep using corn ethanol but you go to cellulosic - those are the prairie grasses and other kind of biomass that can be turned into ethanol.

I think that's what's going to happen. I think you're going to have a period here where the price of corn is real high, so you're not really going to be needing to subsidize them. The subsidies for those things will actually go way down.

Singer: Final question, kind of getting back to the politics. What's the message that you'd like to send to the progressive blogosphere, if there's one? Is there something you'd like to hammer home to the netroots today?

Franken: I'm one of you. Air America is certainly something that was attempting to counter the incredible right wing dominance of the dialogue in this country and we tended to have people from the netroots on our show.

So I kind of think I'm one of you. I might be a little too old. But certainly my staff - I'm tooling around, too - but my staff is on top of it. And that's just as far as a mode of communicating. But I think that if you go to my website and follow the stuff I'm talking about you can see where I am politically and I think you'd agree with an overwhelming majority of it. You might disagree with some of the things I say, but I would urge them to go on this thing called the internet. And go to and look at stuff. Did you know you can stream video on the internet?

Singer: I've heard that.

Franken: Well, we have video.


Singer: And I think we can also put in some "ch-ching" sounds subsequent to this audio.

Franken: Yeah, yeah. How can they help? I don't know (ch-ching). I don't know what's legal (ch-ching). But anyway they can go to (ch-ching) and just look around. There's different kinds of things you can do (ch-ching) on the site (ch-ching).


Franken: That's Sam's bit. You gotta give... I'm a comedian too.

Singer: It works.

Franken: Sam Seder deserves the "ch-ching."

Singer: Terrific. Well thank you so much for your time today and good luck in your campaign.

Franken: Okay thank you.


Tags: Al Franken, Interview, Minnesota, MN-Sen, norm coleman, Senate 2008 (all tags)



Interesting interview.

As far as comparisons between Franken and Ventura go, however, its important to remember that Ventura won a three-way race with 37% of the vote. Franken will need much more than that to defeat Coleman.

by TheVirginian 2007-06-11 07:35AM | 0 recs
Re: MyDD Conversation with MN-Sen Candidate Al Fra

Franken: I don't think this is going to be that hard, frankly.

That's naive to say the least. Coleman is an incumbent Senator and they are never easy to beat.

Franken is going to have a tough time in MN. Ventura drew a huge number of young males in his three way race with his testosterone fueled campaign. There is no equivalency between the celebrity of Ventura, wrestler and the celebrity of Al Franken, comedian. Ventura also was an outsider running as an Independent. Franken is running as a Democrat (DFL) and has the burden and priviledge of defending the party. What is the appeal of Al Franken to young voters or independent voters? Aren't his virtues at least qualified by some high negatives among MN voters? And he starts the race by saying "I don't think this is going to be that hard"? He doesn't even have the DFL nomination yet.

As Franken himself said incumbent Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty won re-election in '06. It doesn't matter if it's by 1 point or 30 points - close doesn't count in politics. I would hate to see 6 more years of Norm Coleman because Al Franken doesn't think it will be that hard to beat him.

A little humility and a running like you are the underdog (which polls show he is) would go along way.

by joejoejoe 2007-06-11 09:16AM | 0 recs
Re: MyDD Conversation with MN-Sen Candidate Al Fra

On the other hand, confidence breeds a willingness to speak out. Yes, it'll be more difficult than Franken says, and he probably knows that, but if he's willing to take risks that's light years better than a New Dem campaign.

by Englishlefty 2007-06-14 07:29AM | 0 recs
Re: MyDD Conversation with MN-Sen Candidate Al Fra

I mean Norm is actually much more responsible, in terms of not doing oversight than Mark was.

Ah, a comedian running.

I'll agree that he's one of us. I think that he did an important job of getting bloggers on his so (props to Sam and his staff, too on that front). And the one-two of Air America and the blogs have fueled impressive victories in the past.

I hope Franken comes around regularly to keep us up-to-date. And I'll donate when he has a SF fundraiser -- which every candidate must have because we have authentic Chinese cuisine (please post at when it happens if campaign staff happen to be lurking).

by Bob Brigham 2007-06-11 09:51AM | 0 recs


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