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How Al Franken learned to stop being funny and love the Senate

Franken attends a Senate committee hearing. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Melina Mara

Sen. Al Franken writes about "The Funny" like it's a dangerous disease his political career has been perennially at risk of falling victim to.

Launching his first campaign 10 years ago, the Minnesota Democrat needed to convince party leaders, donors and activists that his career as a comedian was not a fatal liability. After he won, he needed to convince fellow senators that he was not the caricature they remembered from "Saturday Night Live."

Pollsters, consultants and D.C. fixers urged him to act as serious as possible to disabuse such notions.

Franken confesses in his new book that he struggled to keep "The Funny" in a box much more than he's ever let on publicly. He recounts in vivid detail an inner-dialogue during a 2009 hearing of the Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee about a proposed Employee Non-Discrimination Act. The room was packed with LGBT advocates, but no Republican senators had shown up.

As others made opening statements, a joke occurred to the then-freshman: "Wouldn't it be funny, I thought, if, when I was called on, I said, 'I think it's a shame that none of the gay members of the committee showed up today'? I knew, of course, that telling the joke was a really bad idea. It would undermine everything I had been working toward: to be seen as a workhorse and not a showhorse, and yada yada. The 'yada yada' came from the Devil as he popped up on my right shoulder. 'C'mon!!!' the Devil yelled. 'Tell the joke! It'll kill!!!'

"'Now, Al,' the Angel appearing on my left shoulder said calmly, if a bit sanctimoniously, 'you worked way too hard for far too long to do this, and you know it.' 'It'll kill!!!' the Devil screamed, hopping up and down. 'It'll get a HUGE laugh!!!' . . . The Devil was positively vibrating with excitement. . . . 'Screw the press!!!'"

Franken devotes seven pages to the protracted debate between the angel and the devil in his head:

"The other side will accuse you of saying that all the Republicans on the HELP Committee are gay," the angel tells him.

"It's a joke!!!" the devil snarls. "Everyone will know it's a joke!"

"Of course they will, Al. But you know how this works," warns the angel. "They will all pretend they're deeply offended."

"The cacophony coming from my left and right trapeziuses was making it hard for me to pay attention. And, frankly, both the Angel and the Devil were making valid points," the senator recalls. "I started experiencing a kind of vertigo. You know that feeling you get when you're on the balcony of a very tall building and start to panic because you realize you could just throw yourself off?"

Franken decided to not make the joke: "As I read my opening statement, I thought of my actual staff up in our office blithely watching their boss on TV with no inkling of the anguished psychodrama I had endured and how, for the moment, anyway, my reputation, and their jobs, were secure."

The fact that Franken includes this anecdote midway through "Giant of the Senate," in chapter 28 of 47, demonstrates that he's gotten over many of his earlier trepidations. He made a deal with himself: "From that day forward, it was okay for me to be mildly funny. In spots."

-- Happy Independence Day Eve from the Florida Panhandle. Franken's 406-page book was published on May 30, but I finally got around to reading it on the beach this weekend. It is the most candid memoir I can recall by a sitting senator, tracing his trajectory from comedy to activism to politics. It's also the funniest, with humorous vignettes about groups giving him awards just so he'd agree to come speak at their events and hitting up rich people for money during call time.

Most coverage of the book during its rollout focused on the chapter in which Franken laces into his colleague Ted Cruz, but the most interesting chunks are about how he learned to become a polished politician. Often, that is a narrative of biting his tongue. There's certainly something President Trump, who seems to hold nothing back, could learn from his liberal critic's self-discipline.

Franken won his Senate seat eight years ago by 312 votes and only came to Washington after a legal battle that dragged on for eight months. "I learned something very important during the recount: not to trust my instincts," he writes. "For example, when I heard (Norm) Coleman suggest I step back and let the healing begin, my instinct was to respond with something biting and sarcastic. But, wisely, my team told me to shut up. Which I did."

The 66-year-old was hypercautious and largely inaccessible during his first term. His office often declined to weigh in on the biggest stories of the day, preferring to pick his spots. The reporters who roam the hallways of the Capitol disliked him because they found him brusque when he refused to ever answer their questions.

This was all part of the plan, and it paid off when he got reelected handily in 2014. He has opened up more and more since then, and now he's (mostly) unplugged. He appears to have concluded that he's proven himself and will be well positioned to secure a third term in 2020 - which more likely than not will be a good year for Democrats, especially in Minnesota.

He's honest about drug use at "SNL" in the new book: "I used to say, 'I only did cocaine so I could stay up late enough to make sure nobody else did too much cocaine,' which was a joke, but not too far from the truth. For whatever reason, I never became addicted."

-- Franken writes about adjusting to his late-in-life career switch. When he started thinking about running for office while working as a talk radio host, Franken's first coffee was with Jeff Blodgett, who had managed the late Paul Wellstone's Senate campaigns: "The one piece of advice that I remember most vividly was Jeff's suggestion that, as an exercise, I write a five-minute speech without any jokes in it. 'Why,' I thought, 'would anyone would to do that?' I was a comedian. All the validation I had received in my career had been for making people laugh, even if I was talking about something serious. Clearly, I had a lot of learning to do."

The senator writes that, soon after he launched his campaign, a political writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune requested an interview on the topic of how his comedy past was relevant to his run for office. "I was thrilled," Franken writes. "My team was horrified. . . . The campaign was trying to get the media to focus less on my career in comedy and more on my public policy positions. . . . There was no guarantee that (the Star Tribune) story would end up being helpful."

He declined the interview request, but Franken wound up arguing with the reporter at a subsequent event about a blog post he disliked. He said his spokespeople "learned never to let me out of their sight again, not even for one second." "I learned that in politics, unlike in show business, being right doesn't give you the right to be a jerk," Franken explains.

-- The senator said he needed to learn "a set of weird and occasionally sociopathic Politician Skills," from how to avoid giving trackers embarrassing footage to pretending to remember someone's name: "Possibly the most ridiculous Politician Skill I had to learn, though, was how to 'pivot,' which basically means 'not answer questions.'"

If a reporter asked him about trailing in the polls, for instance, he practiced with his spokespeople how to dodge: "My instinct would be to answer the question. But that's not what you're supposed to do. You're supposed to say, 'When I go around the state, Minnesotans don't talk about polls. They talk about their kids' education. . .' And so on. . . . I had always been taught by my parents and my teachers to answer questions directly and completely. Which I did for the first ten months of my race, driving my team nuts. But of course, my team was right. Reporters would just use the most interesting (and, usually, unhelpful) sound bites in my lengthy responses to their questions, instead of writing about the message we wanted to get out that particular day."

Franken finally learned his lesson after an unhelpful New York magazine story, and he still marvels that in-state journalists let him get away with it: "A couple of days later I had a sit-down interview with a Minnesota print reporter who had interviewed me a number of times before. I have no recollection of the actual content of the interview, but I distinctly remember the thrill of using a new skill. Right out of the box, I pivoted to avoid answering a perfectly valid question so I could instead talk about whatever it was I was supposed to talk about that day. And the reporter seemed just fine with it! So I did it again on the second question. Again, the reporter seemed to have absolutely no problem. On the next question, just for the hell of it, I really overdid it, pivoting gratuitously. Again, I completely got away with it. The rest of the interview involved a string of egregious pivots followed by hammering home some point or other. When the interview ended, the veteran reporter turned to (Franken's communications people). 'Hey, he's getting a lot of better!' he said with a smile. 'I think he's got a real shot!'"

-- Franken's pollster, Diane Feldman, conducted focus groups to shape how the campaign would message about his past as a satirist: "They didn't think the fact that I had been a successful comedian meant that I was intelligent. So it turned out that telling people I went to Harvard was a good thing, because it reassured them that despite having no experience in politics and having called some people some bad names, I was probably at least smart enough to handle government work. It was the first recorded instance of it being a good idea to tell people you went to Harvard."

The first-time candidate also learned how opposition research works. The team he hired for "self-research" failed to find an article that nearly derailed his campaign because the byline in Lexis Nexis was "Franken, Al," instead of "Al Franken." It was a piece he'd written in 2000 for Playboy Magazine about the future of virtual sex.

The senator notes that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee tested alternative candidates even after he had locked down the state party's endorsement because Chuck Schumer was still worried he couldn't win. Franken also laments that Barack Obama refused to campaign with him in 2008 because he feared the association.

-- Looking back, Franken identifies a few teachable moments from his first months in the world's greatest deliberative body. One wake-up call came during the confirmation hearing for Justice Sonia Sotomayor. She said she'd been inspired to go into law by watching "Perry Mason" as a kid. Franken wondered how a television show in which the prosecutor always lost would inspire someone to become a prosecutor. She noted that Perry Mason actually lost one case. It turned out to be two cases, but Franken was upset that reporters focused on the Mason back-and-forth and not his substantive points about the activism of the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts.

"Actors often claim not to read their own reviews. I don't know much about actors, other than that they are all liars, but I can say that most senators do look closely at their press coverage," Franken writes. "In the wake of the Perry Mason incident, (my staffers) became what I can only describe as hypervigilant, a concerned Paul Drake or fretful Della Street, if you will, to my cavalier Perry. . . . Thus, new rules: I could be funny in the office, but only with members of the staff, not in meetings with visitors. It was also okay to be funny on the floor with my colleagues, as long as I wasn't loud enough to be picked up by the C-SPAN microphones. And, for God's sake, no physical humor! . . . After a couple of months, this was all driving me kind of nuts."

--Franken writes about his rude introduction to what he likes to call the "DeHumorizer," in which Republicans stripped away the context that made his jokes funny and presented them as deeply offensive: "I've come up with a strategy to avoid falling prey to the Republicans' DeHumorizer. I built one of my own. It's called my staff. . . . Any staffer driving me, for instance, is encouraged to respond to things I say with, 'Okay, that's for inside the car.' Or the oft-used, 'Fine. Get it out of your system.'"

The senator depicts himself almost like a baby rattlesnake at times, learning to control his venom as he cross-examines Republican witnesses. Questioning a conservative scholar from a think tank during a 2011 hearing, his health-care staffer slipped him a note: "You're being an a-hole." Franken thanked her and immediately called an all-staff meeting to relay what happened. "I don't want anyone in this office ever to be afraid to call me an a-hole," Franken writes that he told his aides.

He writes that one of his worst days in office was when he rolled his eyes at Mitch McConnell while presiding over the Senate during the floor debate over Elena Kagan's nomination to the Supreme Court: "As soon as Mitch had finished his speech, he marched up to the podium and let me know he was furious, as he had every right to be. 'This isn't 'Saturday Night Live,' Al!' he said . . . Mitch is very smart, and for his purposes that was exactly the right thing to say - after all, the political press had been itching to write something about Senator Yuk-Yuk causing trouble by reverting to his old ways. . . . I handwrote a note of abject apology to Mitch and walked back over to his office to deliver it personally."

He also learned that you can't tell jokes in Senate floor speeches because there's not really an audience, so viewers would hear no reaction.

Sometimes Franken is self-conscious that he's not a natural politician. After roundtables around the state, he said it became a ritual to joke with his driver when they were safely ensconced in the car: "Fooled 'em again!"

-- Franken has clearly been keeping a diary for years, so the book includes many jokes he wished he could have told in the moment - but his staff wouldn't let him.

A few involve handwritten notes. He wanted to congratulate a constituent on her 110th birthday by quipping, "You have a bright future." He wanted to wish John McCain a happy birthday this way: "Hope you have a great year. Of course, any year would be better than the five you spent in the Hanoi Hilton." Aides blocked both drafts from being sent out.

When Antonin Scalia opposed the 2015 Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriages, Franken wanted to facetiously refer to the late justice's dissent as "very gay" in his statement. "My staff said no," he writes. "But they didn't say I couldn't put it in a book someday!"

-- A breakthrough for Franken came when someone overheard him joking with his bodyman on the Senate subway about the Tiger Woods cheating scandal. "I'm thinking of introducing some kind of Tiger Woods stamp," Franken said. Later that day, his press secretary Jess McIntosh stepped into his office to say a tipster had passed the comment along to a reporter. The senator admitted he said it. "Ugh," said McIntosh, her shoulders slumping. "Then I just won't return the call." She turned to head back to her desk, in Franken's telling, when he called her back in. "Tell them I was citing it as an example of a bad idea," he instructed her. "Which she did."

"The student had become the master," Franken writes.

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