Ever since he declared his campaign for Senator, Al Franken has been trailed by endless Stuart Smalley jokes. In TNR's latest issue, though Jeff Rosen trails Franken around and concludes that Franken is, indeed, good enough and smart enough:
In recent years, congressional hearings have become little more than televised sideshows in which most senators rely on questions scripted by their staff and seem unable to ask tough or even relevant follow-ups. Franken clearly aspires to an older tradition, when lawmakers could think on their feet and were capable of grilling witnesses without aides handing them notes or whispering furtively in their ears. He studies issues exhaustively, which allows him to negotiate directly with senators and their aides rather than intermediaries. His staffers say that he encourages them to challenge him during the murder boards he assembles to prepare for hearings and sometimes insists on staying past midnight.
I saw evidence of Franken’s careful preparation firsthand, when I testified in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last March on the Citizens United campaign-finance case that enabled unlimited corporate spending in election campaigns. One of the witnesses, Bradley Smith, had criticized a provision of a bill Franken had introduced which said that if a foreign national controls more than 20 percent of a company, that company shouldn’t be allowed to spend unrestricted amounts on American elections. When Smith confidently stated that 20 percent ownership didn’t constitute corporate control, Franken pounced:
FRANKEN: Yes or no, please. Do you know how Delaware, the leading state for corporate law, defines a controlling shareholder?
SMITH: No, I do not, nor do I think it is relevant to the question of whether control ...
FRANKEN: I asked you to respond yes ... or no, sir, and you said no, you do not. ... Now, the fact is that thirty-two states that define control with a number, thirty-one of them define it as twenty percent ownership or less, most of them less.
Franken is not an attorney, but with a few deft questions he had demonstrated that Smith, a law professor, didn’t know what he was talking about.
Not only that, but, gosh darn it, people like him!
For all of his efforts to play down his past life as a comedian, Franken frequently deploys humor to bond with Republicans in the Senate. “Every time I vote against a Thune amendment, I go up to him and say, ‘John, I voted against you this time, but I swear it’s the last time!’” Franken told me gleefully. “I do it every time! And Thune does a very funny Perot; yes he does.” Franken added that Kansas Republican Pat Roberts is a “huge” fan of Jack Benny, the vaudevillian comic. “He’s really funny—although we never agree on anything—and every time we see each other, we go, ‘You again!’” He added, “There are some people here that I have a very fond relationship with that I didn’t imagine I would.”
Jeff, unlike me, places a high value upon Senatorial comity, whereas I think it's a shame Franken has had to sheath his satirical edge. I've written about this before, but the overt hostility toward Franken by right-thinking people everywhere reflects a mistaken belief that comedy and satire are incompatible with intellectual seriousness. In any case, Jeff's piece -- which is subscription only, so subscribe! -- is a terrific read and you should absolutely read it in its entirety.