How the press and his critics misunderstand Al Franken.
How the press and his critics misunderstand Al Franken.
Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 27 2008 1:53 PM

That's Not Funny

How the press and his critics misunderstand Al Franken.

(Continued from Page 1)

To be sure, Franken skewers his targets, a habit which has contributed to his reputation as a raging left-winger. The Wall Street Journal has reported that Franken's politics "neatly mirror" those of the "liberal base." There's a misperception at work here that conflates blunt opposition to the Republican right with left-wing beliefs. As a confessed Bush hater who's not enamored with the left, I'm a fellow victim of this confusion. Franken is actually a moderate who initially favored the Iraq war and has praised the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

Indeed, what Franken reveals of himself in Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot confounds a lot of blue-state-elitist stereotypes. Franken recounts having said a prayer for George H.W. Bush upon his election, defending Bob Dole's honor to a European journalist, and making multiple overseas trips to entertain American troops. The Franken persona is best summed up by the instance when, upon hearing National Review Editor Rich Lowry claim that liberals had sissified politics, Franken challenged Lowry to a fistfight. When Lowry refused, they met for an amiable lunch. If, say, Jim Webb did this sort of thing, it would be seen as rough-hewn, populist authenticity.

Normally, a politician's self-depiction should be considered self-serving fluff unless proven otherwise. But the book predates any hints of his interest in elective office. What's more, it's so stuffed with impolitic statements that it's unimaginable that Franken could have contemplated ever running for office when he wrote it. He pokes fun at Christianity ("[W]ill someone explain to me how Jesus can be both the son of God and also God?"), calls Ted Kennedy "bloated," and casually admits that "I'd make a terrible politician."

The most surprising thing about Franken's oeuvre is that, as good a satirist as he is, he's clearly smarter than he is funny. Dave Barry once famously defined a sense of humor as a "measurement of the extent to which we realize that we are trapped in a world almost totally devoid of reason." Franken has an infinite faith in the power of reason. Time and again, he tries to present his adversaries with detailed rebuttals and gets nowhere. One book has a small moment of triumph, in which he badgers House budget committee Chairman John Kasich into admitting that Republicans were employing a misleading measure of their plans to cut Medicare. "I took a few victory laps around the table," he writes. Franken doesn't write, however, that Kasich and his fellow Republicans continued to brandish the misleading statistic anyway.

I would guess that Franken is running for the Senate because he thinks he will have moments like these, when the superior force of his reason will carry the day. I have never seen or heard of a successful politician who thinks like this. I can't imagine he'll find politics anything but a crushing disappointment. But I'm eager to see him try.

Jonathan Chait is a senior editor at the New Republic and author of The Big Con: The True Story of How Washington Got Hoodwinked and Hijacked by Crackpot Economics.

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