National Politics

Al Franken takes Senate job seriously (he's still funny in private)

Former 'SNL' star and provocative author Al Franken is now one of the most understated members of the Senate

It must be said at this point: Sen. Al Franken is just dull.

How dull is he? He says the most memorable conversation he's had as a senator — "hilarious" even — was a wonkish discussion with former President Clinton about how to finance energy retrofits.

During travels throughout the state, he stops at Dairy Queen and always orders the same thing: a plain vanilla cone.

The former "Saturday Night Live" writer and actor generally shuns the national media unless it's to talk about one of his obscure pet issues, such as corporate media mergers or net neutrality.

Even his reelection is a little bit boring. More than five years after the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld his razor-thin 312-vote margin of victory, the Democratic senator is low on the list of endangered incumbents this year, even as several other Democrats are fighting to hold their seats.

Apparently dull is good politics for Al Franken.

It's not that Franken is no longer funny — he is, though it's mostly out of public view. But one of the more noteworthy aspects of the former comic's first Senate term has been his effort to avoid the spotlight and to play against type.

"I'm in a different job," he said in an interview. "My old job was being funny, basically. And that's not my new job."

The transformation from comic and political commentator to one of the most understated members of Congress' upper chamber is often attributed to the so-called Hillary Clinton model, a reference to how the former first lady strove to lower her profile and focus on constituents' needs after she was first elected as a senator from New York.

Franken also faced the prospect of filling the shoes of political giants who'd held the seat: Hubert H. Humphrey and Walter F. Mondale — and his friend and political inspiration, the late Paul Wellstone.

Indeed, Franken says he went to Washington "to be the workhorse and not a show horse." The acerbic comedian who once declared the 1980s as the "Al Franken Decade" has been hesitant to exploit his celebrity status in the new post. "I had years in show business and had plenty of camera time," he said. "By being perceived as someone who was rushing to the camera all the time, it can undercut your effectiveness in the body."

He may be stone-faced in the halls of the Capitol, but there's one thing Franken cannot suppress: that laugh.

His cackle, notorious among lawmakers, often pierces the din of conversations on the Senate floor during votes. He credits his distinctive laugh with helping him develop relationships across the aisle.

"If you talked to almost any senator, they would say, 'Yeah, Al laughs a lot and really loudly,'" he said.

He acknowledges that as a comic he once used his humor "very pointedly" against the GOP. Among Franken's several left-leaning political books are "Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations" and "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right."

But as he has spent time getting to know Republicans, he has worked to give them a better understanding of his commitment to issues, Franken says.

"I've always considered myself a serious person," he said. "And I don't think there's any contradiction between being funny and being serious. I don't think of them as being opposites."

He quickly found that humor can be an effective tool in legislating. "It's the great bridge-maker," he said.

Colleagues agree that a little sense of humor can go a long way in Washington's hyper-polarized climate.

"He has a great laugh, a disarming laugh. It's very genuine," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), a 30-year Senate veteran. "The one thing I always notice about Franken is that when we go into the Senate for a vote … more often than not you find him on the Republican side. Once in a while you can see them laugh together. Maybe Al says something funny or something like that. That does a lot to break the ice, believe me."

Those close to Franken, and Franken himself, often seem exhausted by the continued discussion of his past job as it relates to his current one. That's one reason he's tended to refuse media interviews to non-Minnesota outlets. At the start of a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, he asked skeptically, "The headline won't have 'No Joke' in it?"

Though he may keep his colleagues laughing in private, his brand of comedy, which always tended to be dry, is now basically arid in public. Anyone hoping for a chuckle from reading Franken's Twitter account or an occasional "daily affirmation" offered by Franken's sickeningly positive Stuart Smalley character will be sorely disappointed.

It's even something of a running joke in Washington. At the 2013 Gridiron Club dinner in Washington, President Obama dubbed Franken "the second-funniest senator in Minnesota," behind dinner co-headliner Amy Klobuchar, the state's senior senator.

On a recent trip through rural western Minnesota, Franken touted his work on a trio of agenda items that have generated little buzz in Washington: a new farm bill, legislation that overhauled federal worker training programs, and clean energy infrastructure projects. Despite gridlock in Congress, Franken emphasized where he had delivered results, and seemed to revel in discussing them at the most granular level.

It was Bill Clinton's similar mastery of minute details of energy retrofits that impressed Franken so much, he says. Launching into a spot-on impersonation of the former president, Franken recalled how Clinton even offered to walk through the finer points with Franken's staff. "I said, 'Wow, Mr. President,'" Franken recalled. "It was hilarious just being on the phone with him for an hour and getting into local bonding issues."

At another stop, at a manufacturing company in Willmar, Franken had a friendly debate with the company's conservative president, who was opposed to using taxpayer funds to support job training programs. After some back-and-forth about the merits of a law Franken backed, the two joked about how they wished Franken could stay longer to continue the discussion. "We could sit down and watch some Fox," Franken quipped.

Franken's campaign is highlighting a list of relatively modest proposals that Franken helped turn into law: food safety and drug compounding bills, a provision of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street overhaul bill that dealt with credit rating agencies. He also played a key role in ensuring that the so-called 80-20 rule was included in the Affordable Care Act. It requires insurers to spend a large portion of premium payments on actual healthcare services and is seen as one of the more widely accepted components of Obama's healthcare law.

"Working Hard for Minnesota" is Franken's rather unflashy slogan as he runs for a new term. And in the campaign ahead, it appears that both parties are content to focus on Franken's legislative resume rather than his comedic past.

Franken's Republican opponent makes clear he'd rather highlight Franken's votes to support Obama policies than what he'd done before going to the Senate.

"I have no interest in what Al Franken did 25 years ago, absolutely no interest," businessman and GOP candidate Mike McFadden said. "I do have an interest in terms of what he's done over the last 5 1/2 years in Washington."

Republican colleagues who have worked with Franken were reluctant to say much about their partnership. Former GOP Sen. Norm Coleman, whom Franken narrowly defeated in 2008, scoffed at the idea that Franken had accomplished much since replacing him.

"He's touting the fact that he's got a few provisions [passed] in six years," Coleman said. "That's not a workhorse. That's an invisible horse."

If anyone is playing for laughs, it's McFadden. His most recent ad employs a Franken impersonator struggling to launch his boat in one of the state's 10,000 lakes. (The message: Franken votes with Obama 97% of the time.) Another ad ends with the Republican on the receiving end of a football to the groin, prompting him to voice the "I approve this message" disclaimer in a high pitch.

Franken supporters say the focus on his accomplishments is an implicit acknowledgment of how successful he's been at being accepted by all sides as a credible legislator.

"They spent so much money in his first campaign making him look like a buffoon," said Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.). "You're with him for five minutes and you see that's not true."

So far Franken doesn't seem threatened by his opponent's attempts to encroach on his comedy turf. But the campaign has opened the door — perhaps briefly — to some of Franken's signature humor.

"Good oral hygiene is important — and so is our grass-roots fundraising," Franken wrote in one campaign missive, which had the subject line, "Not a message from your dentist."

Twitter: @mikememoli

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