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Good Enough, Smart Enough

Why Al Franken will be a superlative senator.

A full six months after the freshman class of senators was sworn in to the 111th Congress, Al Franken is now joining its ranks. Partly because of the circumstances--an election decided by 312 votes out of 2.9 million ballots cast, a protracted legal battle--and partly because of Franken’s own background and fame (or notoriety), he will receive a bewildering degree of attention and media scrutiny. Much of that scrutiny will be aimed at waiting and watching for him to falter as a senator: by showing his shallowness, flying off the handle, revealing an ignorance about complex policy nuances, taking extreme and unreasonable positions, or finding the real work of the Senate boring and tuning out.

Given his background as a satirist and experiences before entering politics, from Saturday Night Live to talk radio, it is not surprising that many people, including many political sophisticates, are expecting little from Senator Franken. But as a close friend of his for more than 20 years, I expect something else. I expect him to become a first-rate senator who will dive into the key issues with gusto and depth, who will rely upon his deep relationships with experts to come up with innovative ideas, and who will use his personal skills to build bipartisan relationships.

Al and I grew up a few blocks apart in St Louis Park, a suburb of Minneapolis, but we did not know each other; we became friends after we met at a presidential convention party in 1988. As a C-SPAN and MacNeil/Lehrer junkie, he knew and admired my work, and I knew and admired his work, whether he was performing at Dudley Riggs's comedy club in Minneapolis or on SNL. I joined him in 1992 as his “pollster” and sidekick on Comedy Central’s Indecision ’92, the pioneering coverage of the conventions and presidential campaign. Our families bonded and became close; over the years, we have traveled together, done comedy together, and talked incessantly, usually daily, about politics, our kids, and the country. In one of his books, Why Not Me?, a satirical fictional account of how he beat Al Gore in the 2000 Democratic primaries and went on the win the presidency, I am featured as his campaign manager and then his White House Chief of Staff (before being imprisoned).

The Al Franken I know is a comic genius--and a genuine, deep policy wonk. He can relish puncturing the pomposity of Bill O’Reilly or Ann Coulter--but he has built friendships with conservatives like Gary Bauer and G. Gordon Liddy. He cares about public policy, follows it closely, tries to work problems through to solutions, and revels in the details. He is whip-smart--as smart as anybody in the Senate. He is incredibly disciplined; over the past two-and-a-half years, he has been working 15 to 18 hours a day, six to seven days a week, preparing to run for the Senate, running for the Senate, and then dealing with the aftermath of a close election. If anything, the ordeal of the past eight months has given him more self-discipline, along with more perspective and humility. He attracts talented people around him, and knows how to use them to enhance his own talents. He is passionate about helping people, from the Indians and farmers in Minnesota to the state’s business community. And during his multiple USO tours to Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq, he has developed a particularly close bond with our troops.

On his radio show, where I did a regular hour every week, we talked seriously about issues like the Iraq War, terrorism, and health policy--and these discussions were far more in-depth than almost anything else I have done on radio and television. Of course, a good part of the radio show was humor--from the faux “polls” we did that focused on the critical swing group of “don’t know’s” in the electorate to a segment where he lamented the state of the universe called the “Oy, Oy, Oys.” But beyond the humor and unlike most talk radio, left or right, there was little if any bombast, no attempt simply to tip the scales heavily in one partisan or ideological direction, but an honest discussion of options and realities.

During the Senate campaign, I would have long phone conversations with Al, usually when he was in the car with staff, driving from one end of the state to the other. We would sometimes talk about the campaign, but more often would end up with wonky discussions about alternative energy options, how to get to serious health care reform, why it made sense to shift major military resources to Afghanistan, how to handle the weak leadership in Pakistan, what to do to avoid the dangers of deflation, how to repair the shattered mortgage market, and so on. In these talks, Al certainly wasn’t the man I’ve seen caricatured. He did not start out with a knee-jerk, left-wing opposition to expanding troops in Afghanistan; he was open to the idea of nuclear power as one part of an alternative energy package; and he did not reject out of hand market-based solutions if he thought they would work.

Al shares the worldview of Paul Wellstone, his late friend who held the same Senate seat before his tragic death during his 2002 reelection campaign. But he is also a pragmatist who will try to find allies for ideas and programs that do not necessarily fit any predictable ideological mold.

Having missed the orientation programs that new senators get in the months following an election, Franken may need a while to find his sea legs and come to understand the folkways, language, and operations of the Senate. But those expecting a bombastic comic who will be a laughingstock in Washington will soon find something else: a formidable, talented policy actor who will be taken seriously, because he will be a serious player.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

By Norman Ornstein