WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Al Franken returns to the printed page in a U.S. political climate similar to the last time the Minnesota politician published a book.
Al Franken, Giant of the Senate takes comedic aim at U.S. President Donald Trump and Republican lawmakers, whom he blames for fostering a divisive culture in Washington.
For Franken, who has emerged as a national leader of the left’s pushback against Republicans, it’s also a return to the kind of work that laid the groundwork for his pivot from entertainment to politics.
Before he ran for office in 2008, Franken was a prolific publisher of political satire. Bestsellers such as Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot gave the former Saturday Night Live writer and performer a second career, and helped lay the groundwork for a senatorial run in the state where he grew up.
Franken’s previous book, The Truth (With Jokes), came out in the wake of the U.S. attack on Iraq and ex-president George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election. Now in his second term as senator, Franken returns to publishing as a leading figure on the left — but also at a time when Democrats are feeling even lower.
“Watching Donald J. Trump take the oath of office to become the 45th President of the United States was perhaps the most depressing moment I’ve had since I entered politics,” Franken writes at the start of the new book, which is largely a memoir of his time in politics, though with more wisecracks than your average politician’s tome.
Franken’s blistering questioning of a handful of Trump appointees helped fuel hope among some progressives that Franken himself would mount a presidential bid; publishing a book has also become a rite of passage for presidential aspirants. But Franken has ruled out a national bid.
“It’s flattering that my name has been brought up, but that’s not what I’m here to do,” Franken said, adding his focus is on priorities such as fighting the GOP health-care bill and pushing for action on climate change. “What I’m going to be doing is fighting for the things I think are right.”
Recently, when Franken appeared on The View to talk politics, conversation inevitably got around to Russian involvement in the 2016 election. The question, Franken said with humour, might come down to: “What did the president know and when did his son-in-law tell him?”
Even as he plots Senate machinations, Franken in the new book unloads lots of opinions about many of his Republican colleagues. He has little good to say about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican whom Franken blames for championing a totally adversarial approach to former president Barack Obama that he says enabled Trump’s rise.
Franken admits it isn’t political beliefs that determine which Republicans he likes. His favourites are those with a sense of humour, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. He recounts an exchange in the Senate bathroom, at a time when Graham was struggling to shore up support in a home-state Republican primary. Franken told Graham he would vote for him, were Franken a South Carolinian.
“That’s my problem,” Graham shot back.
Franken even formed an unlikely friendship with Sen. Jeff Sessions, the Alabama Republican now serving as Trump’s attorney general. Sessions’ wife, Mary, became friends with Franken’s wife, Franni, for whom she knitted a blanket when the Frankens’ grandson was born.
But goodwill between the two men became strained when Franken harshly criticized Sessions’ record on civil rights during his confirmation hearing, then voted against him.
“It’s hard to unfairly demonize someone whose wife knit your grandson his favourite blankie,” Franken writes, stressing that he believes his criticisms of Sessions were fair, and that he still thinks Sessions perjured himself during his confirmation hearing.
Franken turns his sharpest daggers on Sen. Ted Cruz: “I like Ted Cruz more than most of my other colleagues like Ted Cruz. And I hate Ted Cruz,” he writes.
Back in his Saturday Night Live days, Franken frequently dipped into political satire.
He published Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot in 1999, not long after leaving the show for good. It spawned follow-ups such as Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, his 2004 critique of the Bush administration.
A main focus of Franken’s earlier book was debunking what he saw as a growing culture of right-wing falsehoods.
Those earlier times seem “almost adorable” compared to the age of Trump, Franken writes: “Politicians have always shaded the truth. But if you can say something that is provably false, and no one cares, then you can’t have a real debate about anything.”