The fall of Franken
From comedy writer to U.S. senator to political pariah
"I did not grow up wanting to be a politician," Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn) said Thursday during a speech on the Senate floor in which he announced his intention to resign "in the coming weeks," following a flurry of allegations of groping and harassment. It might very well be true that as a child Franken didn't care a lick for politics. But for much of his adult life, he sure acted like becoming a politician was his ultimate goal.
Franken's career began in show business, when he and his creative partner Tom Davis parlayed their frequently political style of satire into gigs on the writing staff of the inaugural season of Saturday Night Live in 1975. Franken continued at SNL until 1980, then returned as a writer, producer, and occasional performer from 1985 until 1995.
Despite the popularity of his spot-on impression of a prancing Mick Jagger and his unconfident self-help therapist character Stuart Smalley, Franken was always primarily a political comedian, with many of SNL's send-ups of real-life political figures emerging from his pen. As early as 1988, Franken was appearing as a political commentator on CNN's presidential election coverage and much like Bill Maher, he carved out a niche as a wise-cracking, well-read, outspoken liberal on late night talk shows and serious news programs.
By 1996, Franken had authored the first in a successful series of politically satirical books, beginning with Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and continuing with Why Not Me?, which presents an alternate history in which Franken ascends to the presidency. But it was Lies: And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right — a popular takedown of Fox News and Republicans in the George W. Bush era — that really launched Franken into the "serious" political sphere.
A year later, in 2004, Franken became the marquee star of Air America Radio, a syndicated politically liberal network intended to take on the right-wing radio behemoth. Though Air America was much-hyped, it never garnered a significant following. By 2007, the network's finances were in such dire straits that Franken's paycheck bounced and the whole operation shuttered shortly thereafter.
Richard Corliss wrote in a 2007 Time magazine profile that Franken "has in a way … been running for office since the late '70s." And Franken had indeed been actively laying the groundwork for years.
When the Senate seat held by his political mentor — Minnesota Democrat Paul Wellstone — had gone to Republican Norm Coleman after Wellstone died in a plane crash shortly before the 2002 election, an infuriated Franken began hinting of his intention to return to Land of 10,000 Lakes — where he grew up — to earnestly pursue a political career.
Among Franken's pre-campaign civic service bona fides was his participation in USO tours, where he performed for troops deployed in Middle East arenas of conflict in what was then known as the "War on Terror." And it was an accusation by his fellow USO performer Leeann Tweeden that Franken had groped and forcibly kissed her — the former claim backed up with damning photographic evidence — that set off a slow drip of accusations by seven other women of groping, unwanted forced kisses, and other inappropriate sexual conduct by Franken.
For a time, Franken appeared to be surviving the maelstrom of outrage, making qualified apologies and promising to "learn" from his mistakes. But the dam of support from Democratic colleagues broke yesterday, with dozens of Democratic senators calling for him to step down.
In announcing his intent to resign, Franken took shots at President Trump and Alabama Republican senatorial candidate Judge Roy Moore for the many allegations of sexual impropriety made against them, calling his own imminent departure from the Senate "ironic" given the severity of the charges made against his GOP counterparts. Franken also characterized some of the allegations made against him as false and others not comporting to his memory of the events — a position that can also be reasonably described as "ironic" given that his speech began by declaring that "all women deserve to be heard and their experiences taken seriously."
In what now seems like a different lifetime — but was in fact only a few months before Harvey Weinstein's outing as a monstrous sexual predator unleashed a reckoning for powerful men in media, show business, and politics who have likewise been sexual abusers — Al Franken was a political superstar. His book Giant of the Senate was on the New York Times bestseller list, his name was being floated as a possible contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, and he had just begun to re-introduce his public sense of humor — something he had made a deliberate decision to shelve in 2008 to keep from undermining his ambition to be taken seriously as a senator.
Popular in his home state, influential in Washington, D.C., and endowed with national name recognition, Franken could very well have become the first Jewish person to occupy the Oval Office. But his own bad behavior was his undoing.
As an artist, specifically a comedian, Franken presented himself as the type who calls BS when he sees it. Though there was more than a bit of bitterness in his pre-resignation speech to the Senate today, were he on the outside looking in on his own predicament, Franken would have found plenty of hypocrisy and sanctimony to mock before his Stuart Smalley character would turn toward the camera and say, "Al, you're good enough and smart enough, but doggone it, you've got to go."