A decade ago, Al Franken wrote a book called "Why Not Me?" He imagined himself winning the presidency, only to resign due to uncontrollable mood swings. As he was sketching out the book, I supplied him with the boring details of life on the trail (Al and I met 21 years ago in Iowa, where he was trolling the caucuses for "SNL" material). My reward? Al wrote me in as an easily corrupted NEWSWEEK correspondent who becomes his press secretary in exchange for a new Jaguar and gallons of Glenlivet.
Now I find myself in a dizzying hall of mirrors, where life is imitating art, which once imitated life. The laughman is now "Landslide Al." After a painstaking recount, Minnesota's secretary of state declared last week that Al, a Democrat, had beaten the GOP incumbent, Sen. Norm Coleman, by 225 votes. Coleman is challenging the final results in court, a process that could take months. Talk about mood swings.
I've tried to avoid writing about my friend, but Al, who won't talk to me on the record in the middle of all this, is in an agonizing, delicate situation: the presumptive senator-elect, but not certified officially, and thus not seated, hunkered down in his Minneapolis townhouse as an urgent, historic era begins in Washington.
How should Al handle himself now—and when (if?) he finally gets to the Senate? A few thoughts from his "press secretary":
Keep calm and carry on. The Republicans are trying to provoke him. They want to turn him into their fundraising piñata now that Hillary Clinton is off to State: he will be the new embodiment of liberal evil. The Wall Street Journal, Bill O'Reilly, Ann Coulter—you name it, they're on the case. Al has to go into Full Norwegian. I asked Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute about this. He's Minnesotan and he's Al's closest personal adviser and counselor. (He helped on the book, too, and got the role of straight-man aide, grinding out gravely sensible memos to the meshugeneh candidate.) "Al can't respond. He has to be above it all," says Ornstein.
Say something! At the same time, Al can't remain on the policy sidelines. He's not seated yet, but he has lots of incentive, if not a moral duty, to speak up on critical congressional decisions. He doesn't want to be presumptuous, but he could write op-eds and speak on substantive issues. He's talked about health care and the burdens on the middle class. He has to keep doing so.
But nothing too funny! During the long campaign, Al kept the jokes mild and infrequent. He should keep it that way until he proves that he is a "policy wonk and a pragmatist," says Ornstein.
Open a "transition office." It's expensive, and he is stuck, once again, in a nightmarish routine of raising money to fend off the Coleman legal challenge, but Al might want to set up an ongoing operation to follow the issues and seek the advice of Minnesota voters. It's a good way to get out of the townhouse.
Study Hillary. She wrote the instruction manual for disarming Senate enemies. Before Hillary Clinton arrived, she was regarded as Lady Macbeth in a pantsuit. But she gradually won over her critics by working hard, keeping her head down and behaving with unpretentious grace. And she benefited from low expectations. Al's are even lower: "His critics think he is a shallow, emptyheaded screamer," says Ornstein.
If Al can survive Coleman's last-ditch effort, he'll be a member of the real-life Senate soon enough. It's a story even he couldn't make up.