Jesse Kornbluth, one of the first contributors to the original Good Men Project anthology, profiles Senator Al Franken in the most recent issue of Harvard Magazine. “You Can Call Me Senator” touches on some of our favorite themes here at GMP: how a person’s childhood affects the way they grow into a man, how do you define success for yourself and grow into it, and what makes a politician “good” (see last GMP’s years list of 10 good politicians here).
Here are some excerpts from the interview:
ALAN STUART FRANKEN, now 60, was born in New York, but his father, seeking opportunity, moved his wife and their two sons to Minnesota when Al was young. Joe Franken was a printing salesman, yet Al attended Blake, generally acknowledged as the most exclusive private school in Minneapolis. How did that happen?
There is no better question to ask Al Franken. In his Senate office, settled into the obligatory leather couch, he leaned forward and looked back.
“My brother and I were Sputnik kids,” he began. “My parents told us, ‘You boys have to study math and science so we can beat the Soviets.’ I thought that was a lot of pressure to put on an 11- and a six-year-old, but my brother and I started playing math games in the living room.”
Franken turned out to be a whiz in science and math, and when his brother went off to MIT, the family began to look for a better secondary school for Al. As it happened, Blake was looking for kids just like him.
“Blake was a school chartered for Protestants,” Franken said. “In the 1950s, it started to lose the ability to get enough kids into top colleges. They needed kids who would score well. And they said…‘JEWS!’”
It was almost inevitable that Blake’s Jewish wrestler and honor student glided into Harvard, graduating cum laude in general studies. But his real field of concentration was comedy. In Minneapolis, he’d worked up an act—some improvisation, some sketch comedy—with his Blake classmate Tom Davis. By Franken’s senior year at Harvard, Davis was sleeping on his couch.
On the transition from comedy to politics, Kornbluth writes:
Franken was with SNL from its launch in 1975 until 1980, and again from 1985 until 1995, among the longest tenures of any of the show’s writers and performers. His range was vast. He pranced the stage as Mick Jagger, frequently appeared on the Weekend Update news segment, lobbied for the 1980s to be called “The Al Franken Decade,” and invented Stuart Smalley, a stunningly lame self-help guru whose core message was “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” Michaels thought so highly of him that he wanted Franken to succeed him as producer; the network’s refusal is the main reason Franken leftSNL for five years in the early 1980s.
Franken had, for decades, used politics as grist for comedy on SNL. Leaving the show liberated him from the network censor, giving him more freedom to mockwhat he has described as “conservative Republicans…taking over the country.” His method was only slightly subtle. Some people, he observed, “live to find stuff to be indignant about. And it’s pretty unattractive. That’s why I decided to take a more likable path and be a wiseass.”
And what is Franken doing now that he is in office?
Franken has carved out unanticipated areas of interest. His first bill: providing service dogs to disabled veterans. When he learned that companies choose the credit agencies that rate their financial soundness, he drafted a bill, passed by the Senate and now being reviewed by the SEC, to make that impossible. He’s badgered Internet and cell-phone executives about consumers’ rights to privacy. He sponsored legislation that denies government money to defense contractors that force employees to agree not to sue them. “And he’s always looking out for Minnesota,” says Charles Schumer, recalling a trade bill that saw Franken defying the president and splitting his vote. “He’s made it clear that Minnesota comes first.”
Minnesotans have noticed. In the state, Franken’s most recent approval rating hovers around a respectable 49 percent. (Klobuchar’s is 59 percent—the highest in the Senate.) He flies back to Minnesota often. (“Coach,” he says. “And cheap motels.”) And he reminds his constituents that if they’re in Washington on a Wednesday morning, he serves a breakfast of Mahnomin Porridge (a rib-sticking blend of wild rice grown in Minnesota, hazelnuts, maple syrup, heavy cream, and dried cranberries and blueberries) in his Senate office.
photo: official senate photo, Wikipedia