Now that he is a senator-elect, Al Franken is allowing himself a joke or two, and so are the people he is talking to. "Franken, I know why you dragged this whole thing out: you like all the attention, don't you?" President Obama said as he congratulated the former comedian on his long-delayed and court-reviewed election victory.
The president complimented Franken on having "held up well under stress," which allowed the Minnesotan to make the deadpan offer of "tips" on how to survive in the political limelight.
The president, according to Franken, laughed at that one. "He's a funny guy."
No higher praise.
Asked Wednesday by a Minnesota Public Radio interviewer what he would be thinking when he is sworn in next week, Franken dead-panned again. "I will be thinking about protecting the
Constitution from enemies, foreign and domestic," he said.
Wonderfully droll. And long overdue, at least by my lights, though I have to admit that Al and I have been friends for more than two decades.
So take what I say here with the appropriate shaker of salt.
I see where Sen. James of Oklahoma Inhofe called Al "the clown from Minnesota."
That statement, in and of itself, is amusing—since it comes from a man who has declared global warming "to be the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people"; who has demanded, admittedly with no justification, a criminal investigation of the Environmental Protection Agency; who has suggested that Sonia Sotomayor is a slave to "her own race and gender"; and who announced that he would vote against her on the day she was nominated, hearings be damned.
Now that is a clown.
Al Franken is not one.
What the guy has, above all, is a remorselessly logical, mathematically precise mind. It was the brain behind a lot of his humor, which de-pended on reducing things (such as self-help advice) to their logically absurd and contradictory essentials.
He aced the math SATs in high school and a number of math courses at Harvard on his way to a degree there. His son, Joe, did the same on his way to engineering honors at Princeton.
It will be fun, and instructive, to watch Franken asking questions at committee hearings. His first chance to do so may well be So-tomayor's confirmation hearings. He already has said that he wants to ask her about campaign-finance reform. He's for it—especially since he's spent the last two years raising cash.
Not only is Franken not clownish, he isn't so down-the-line liberal, either. The way he had to earn his victory—going to every town in every country and listening to every local concern from farmers, local businesspeople and union members—means that he is no Hollywood liberal. He has been mugged by reality.
He is not dogmatic. He is practical. On Wednesday, he repeated his assertion that he favors "universal" health care that involves "universal access, that is affordable and high quality." "Health-care organizations" should be "patient oriented" not just "profit oriented." But I didn't hear him issue a demand about a sweeping "public option"—the sine qua non for liberal groups.
On foreign policy, don't expect him to be a one-man flock of doves. He reluctantly, but earnestly, supported President Bush's initial deci-sion to go to war in Iraq—though Franken quickly soured on, and then became infuriated about, the administration's handling of the war and other aspects of the fight against terrorism.
After a series of USO tours to the war zone stretching over years, Franken has built up an innate respect for, and trust of, the military. He's not going to be the reflexively anti-Pentagon guy many would expect from a former writer on Saturday Night Live.
Throughout the campaign, the most impressive thing about Al was his focus—and his determination to take the best, and often the most cautious, advice. One would-be advisor told him that the best way to deal with his show-biz background was to shine a light on it, play it up.
"That was 100 percent wrong!" Al told me last night. He was laughing.