Before the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to confirm Jeff Sessions as attorney general on Wednesday, Senator Al Franken wanted to set the record straight one last time on the nominee’s civil rights background. “I know Senator Sessions and I know his record on voting rights,” Franken said in the hearing. “He’s no champion of voting rights.” Franken criticized Sessions for “trumpeting his personal involvement in three voting rights cases and one school desegregation case,” when in fact the Alabama senator was barely involved in those cases. “I guess it just seemed to me,” Franken said, “that perhaps Senator Sessions or the transition team was attempting to revise some of that history and to recast him as a civil rights champion. And as it turns out, that’s exactly what was going on.”
The Minnesota senator didn’t stop there. He accused Ted Cruz, a committee colleague who was absent at the time, of misrepresenting earlier remarks by Franken. When Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn objected, Franken replied, “Senator Cruz did the very thing that Senator Cornyn is accusing me of doing.... He personally went after me. He personally impugned my integrity. You didn’t object then, did you?” Franken even snuck in a dig at President Donald Trump. “Let’s pause for a fact-check,” he said. “President Trump lost the popular vote to the tune of 2.86 million votes. That’s a fact. It’s not an alternative fact—it’s a fact.”
The press ate it up. The Hill: “Franken slams Cruz.” Slate: “Franken Eviscerates Ted Cruz.” Business Insider: “Franken unloads on Ted Cruz and Trump’s voter-fraud claims.” Alternet: “Franken Thoroughly Dismantles Jeff Sessions’ Dubious Civil Rights Record.” Salon: “Watch Al Franken excoriate Jeff Sessions.” Mother Jones: “Franken Tears Into Sessions Over Civil Rights Claims.”
Wednesday wasn’t the first time Franken made headlines in the confirmation hearings for Trump’s cabinet picks. With tough questions, prosecutorial fact-checking, and even a rare bit of humor, the former comedian turned in a series of impressive performances, leading both a CBS News analyst and The Hill to call him “the breakout star” of the hearings. “Franken emerges as liberal force in hearings,” the latter declared. Politico reported that Franken and Senator Elizabeth Warren “make Trump’s Cabinet picks squirm.”
This is an unusual amount of attention for Franken, who has largely shunned the spotlight in his time on Capitol Hill. A Saturday Night Live cast member who later became one of the country’s foremost progressive political satirists, he turned serious when he launched his Senate bid a decade ago. After Franken ousted Republican incumbent Norm Coleman by just 312 votes in 2008, he put his head down and learned the ropes of the Senate. He largely avoided national media, granting interviews mainly to Minnesota outlets. In 2014, a couple of months before Franken won reelection by more than 10 points, The Los Angeles Times ran a profile, “Al Franken takes Senate job seriously (he’s still funny in private).” “It must be said at this point: Sen. Al Franken is just dull,” wrote Michael Memoli, noting that Franken “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.”
This strategy made sense for a freshman senator with a reputation as a wisecracker, and it worked: Franken is indeed taken seriously on the Hill. But a new strategy is in order. As a decimated Democratic Party looks for leadership in the shadow of a unified Republican government—one led by a part-time TV producer—there are calls for Franken to harness his talent as a public entertainer and take on Trump as only he could: with devastating wit. Franken should heed these calls, and his recent performances on the Hill suggest he may already be doing so.
Al Franken was a brilliant, innovative political satirist. He married rigorous, almost academic analysis with the comedic timing of a stand-up act, resulting in what could best be described as funny fact-checking. This month’s confirmation hearings showed that while Franken still (mostly) avoids jokes, he hasn’t lost his taste for debunking conservative misinformation—or exposing right-wing ignorance.
Watch his expert grilling of education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos, which exposed her unfamiliarity with the well-known policy debate over “proficiency” versus “growth” in evaluating students’ performance:
“I think, if I’m understanding your question correctly around proficiency, I would also correlate it to competency and mastery, so that each student is measured according to the advancement they’re making in each subject area,” she said.
“Well, that’s growth. That’s not proficiency,” Franken replied. “I’m talking about the debate between proficiency and growth and what your thoughts are on that.” DeVos said she was “just asking to clarify,” and Franken shot back, “It surprises me that you don’t know this issue, and Mr. Chairman, I think this a good reason for us to have more questions.”
Franken also took on Representative Tom Price, Trump’s nominee for the Department of Health and Human Services, for owning shares in tobacco companies while voting to do their bidding in Congress and for getting a “sweetheart deal” on biotech stock. “It was a private offering that only went to about 20 people, including your colleague Chris Collins, his chief of staff [and] a prominent D.C. lobbyist,” Franken said, according to Politico. “And you reported $50,000 to $100,000 in profits on this purchase. It really begs credulity, sir, when you say you did not know that you got a discount on this.”
But Franken’s most unexpected exchange during the confirmation hearings happened with Rick Perry, the former Texas governor and energy secretary nominee.
“Thank you so much for coming into my office,” Franken said to the governor. “Did you enjoy meeting me?”
“I hope you are as much fun on that dais as you were on your couch,” Perry replied, before quickly realizing how his remark sounded.
“Well, I think we’ve found our Saturday Night Live soundbite,” he said to Franken.
The laughter was a relief not just to the hearing room, but to progressives, too. These are dark days for the left, with no shortage of doom and gloom from Democrats and left-leaning media outlets (including the New Republic). We could all use a little comedy, and no elected Democrat is better at it than Franken. Used to skewer Trump and the Republicans, his humor could be politically effective. Will Rahn, CBS News’ political correspondent, argued as much earlier this month:
Perhaps the SNL writer-turned-progressive pugilist is the ideal Democratic politician for the Trump era. Like the president-elect, he excels at insult comedy. Also like Mr. Trump, he can come across as kind of a jerk, although that’s likely to be considered less of a liability than it has been in the past....
[G]iven the sorry state of the Democrats, a newfound prominence may be unavoidable. He knows what he’s talking about, as the hearings have shown, and has a comic’s natural ability to notice and exploit weaknesses. In the Age of Trump, those will be particularly skills for any Democrat.
Moreover, Franken has a sense of theatre that few politicians possess. Mr. Trump shares this attribute—think of the many rallies and the many rallies to come. Show business is better training for politics than we sometimes acknowledge, particularly when it’s combined, as it is in Franken’s case, with some genuine wonkery.
It’s not just that Franken is funny and quick-witted. His particular brand of comedy equips him to defend truth against the lies, falsehoods, and untruths peddled by Trump and the right-wing media.
Franken even wrote a book titled The Truth (with jokes). But another book of his, Lies (And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them): A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, shows Franken’s obsession with getting the facts right. He devoted multiple chapters to the woman who would later write In Trump We Trust: E Pluribus Awesome! and become one of Trump’s biggest boosters. Chapter 2: “Ann Coulter: Nutcase”; Chapter 3: “You Know Who I Don’t Like? Ann Coulter”; followed immediately by “Addendum to Ann Coulter Chapter.” One classic Coulter takedown involved a passage in her book Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism, in which she claimed that New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman had “blamed twenty years of relentless attacks by Muslim extremists on—I quote—‘religious fundamentalists of any stripe.’” As Franken points out, Friedman wrote nothing of the sort. It’s a story better heard than read:
When Franken launched his national show on the now-defunct Air America Radio in 2004, the program’s very name was a taunt to Franken’s biggest nemesis. “Some people have asked me, why the name The O’Franken Factor,” Franken said at the time. “Well, one reason and one reason only: To annoy and bait Bill O’Reilly. Bill, if you’re listening right now, and I know you are, please listen closely. In the United States of America, satire is protected speech, even if the object of the satire doesn’t get it.”
For Franken, baiting O’Reilly was never a challenge. The host famously erupted at him when they spoke on a book panel together in 2003. (“Shut up! You had your 35 minutes!” O’Reilly bellowed. “Shut up!”) His hatred of Franken became obsessive, and he never got over Franken’s election to the Senate. All because Franken used LexisNexis to call out O’Reilly’s lies.
For years, Franken showed how to nail these and other conservatives, including Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity (whom Franken once got to admit he misspoke). So why not unleash Franken on Trump himself?
After Trump’s election, a series of writers—including Lee Siegel at the Columbia Journalism Review—blamed liberal comedians like Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart for the rise of Trump. Some claimed these comedians contributed to the very “fake news” and “truthiness” they’d set out to satirize. At the Federalist, Mollie Hemingway wrote that The Daily Show and The Colbert Report helped kill civil discourse, paving the way for “social justice televangelists” who “dropped comedy for advocacy.” This, she argued, ended up helping the Republican candidate: “People are persuaded when they are able to come to their own conclusion, not when they’re told by some shrill harpy or hectoring preacher that they’re a shitbag for voting for Trump.”
But the model for Franken wouldn’t be Stewart or Colbert. His humor has always been drier than theirs, his style more subtle. He has always attacked the right’s arguments with near-fanatical detail and depth—meticulously, and sometimes hilariously, dissecting their factual inaccuracies and other flaws. That’s exactly what Franken has been doing on the Hill these past few weeks, and it packs more punch than his books ever did because he has the gravitas and pulpit of a U.S. senator. “The lies are all they’ve got,” Franken told Rolling Stone when Lies (and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them) came out more than a decade ago. “And the misrepresentation. And the ugliness. Oh, and the bullying. I get down in the mud with these guys because somebody has to.” He was referring to right-wing media personalities, but his words could just as easily apply to Trump and the GOP today. Here’s hoping Franken gets even dirtier.