Al Franken is a strange hero for a 14-year-old in a petit-bourgeoisie household to have. Even stranger is the indifference felt by that same 14-year-old 13 years later when Al Franken resigned from the Senate in disgrace amongst well-documented accusations of sexual assault. Al Franken was a fixture in my house. From his appearances on Saturday Night Live, to his brief stint as a talk radio host on The Al Franken Show, Al Franken appeared as a kindly Jewish neighbor who was always willing to give those damn Republicans what-for.
Perhaps it was the whiteness and the deep Republican Protestantism of my hometown that made the Jewish liberalism of Al Franken all the more appealing. There were no Jewish kids at my school and the demographics leant very heavily Republican. Yet, there I was, waiting for my bus to arrive, reading Al Franken discuss the FBI’s inadequate counter-terrorism funding in his bestselling Lies and the Lying Liars who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. The next year, Franken’s book would be my primary source in my social studies fair project, “Is the Fox News Channel Biased?”, which won third place.
Franken was something of a unicorn to someone in a lower-middle class family. Lacking the proletarian fervor or mean-spiritedness of Michael Moore or the smug matter-of-factness of liberal columnist Joe Conason (himself a relic of mid-2000s liberalism), Al Franken was almost an exemplar for how politics should operate. Always be funny, always focus on the facts, and always provide a witty rejoinder. Franken’s response to Ann Coulter’s suggestion that if she could be any historical figure, she would be Joe McCarthy, was a thing of beauty. Franken said that he’d be Hitler so he could prevent the holocaust. Likewise, Bill O’Reilly’s fury at Franken during their discussion on C-Span was almost poetic.
“If a blowhard crypto-fascist like O’Reilly can be so incised by this mild-mannered comedian, he has to be doing something right,” thought the young lad, beaming with joy at the prospects of the political right being undone by the comedic sensibilities of Franken and Jon Stewart, whose Daily Show was reaching the height of its cultural significance. The world seemed rife with possibilities. Bush would be taken down by the respectable Vietnam veteran, John Kerry and harmony would return to America. Kerry would end the Iraq War, undo the Bush tax cuts, and restore respectability to the American republic. On the way to the polling station, my father and I listened to The Al Franken Show for election coverage, paying close attention to the now-infamous exit polling data suggesting a slam-dunk for the long-chinned Massachusetts senator.
But that victory never arrived. Instead, Kerry delivered a dirge-like concession and the return of Clintonian-style governance seemed a distant possibility. The next year, Franken delivered an electoral post-mortem in the form of The Truth (With Jokes), a strangely autobiographical account of Franken’s involvement in the 2004 Presidential Race. Here, even for a 14-year-old who bought the book on its release day, cracks appeared in the façade. Franken’s predictions for the future of progressivism proved completely vacuous. Among other impossibilities, Franken predicted that Air America Radio would play a major role in galvanizing the American left (the now-defunct radio network closed in 2010, but most local affiliates including the one in Georgia folded years earlier than that.) He predicted that universal health care and progressive tax reform would take place under a nameless and formless democratic president, and that Bush would be impeached and his cabinet would be convicted of corruption.
Of course, none of these events came to pass, with the exception of Franken’s prediction that he would unseat Norm Coleman in the 2008 Minnesota Senate election. Even then, Franken’s victory was the result of a highly contentious series of recounts. But, worse than Franken’s semi-comedic “predictions” was the fact that none of the jokes in The Truth (with Jokes) were funny. If the adage “it’s funny because it’s true,” is in fact true, The Truth (with Jokes) provides ample evidence. Franken’s 2005 book is equal parts soppy self-satisfaction and autobiography (the chapters on Franken’s father’s death and his marriage are now eerie in light of Franken’s sexual misdeeds) and Democratic Party fan fiction. Franken’s predictions are really thinly-veiled wish fulfillment – the kind of elaborate desires that a child expresses to Santa.
Yet, The Truth (with Jokes) represents a throughline with Franken’s earlier book, Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot. In Big Fat Idiot, Franken half-jokingly suggests that Bill Clinton is “the greatest President of the twentieth century,” praising Clinton’s foreign policy in particular. Specifically, Franken beams with delight over the Clintonian missile program that can provide world peace abroad from the comfort of the Oval Office. Here, Franken’s unfounded nostalgia for Clintonian peacemaking (Clinton’s missile program proved deadlier for aspirin factories than malignant dictators) dovetails with his own political ambitions. Franken provided no positive vision for society in either his satirical writings or his political career.
Indeed, Franken’s books presage some of the worst aspects of contemporary liberalism. Franken’s fawning over the Clinton missile program anticipates Obama’s drone policy, his obsession with Fox News and O’Reilly’s show anticipates Donald Trump’s ascendance to the White House and his own strange obsession with the news channel. Franken, in many ways, paved the way for a celebrity politician to take the White House. After all, Franken was a celebrity politician, whom before using graduate student labor to pen polemics against what Conason called “The Republican Noise Machine,” was known for his Stuart Smalley character on Saturday Night Live.
It is only fitting that O’Reilly and Franken go down the same way. The talk show host who told Franken to “shut up – you’ve been yapping for thirty-five minutes” was also busted for sexual harassment, leading to his sudden departure from The O’Reilly Factor. Yet, O’Reilly’s behavior seems almost more characteristic of his public persona. In Lies, Franken points out some truly hilarious and sexually explicit excerpts from O’Reilly’s “political thriller,” Those Who Trespass. Interestingly, Franken points out that the main character of O’Reilly’s book is a thinly-veiled personage of O’Reilly himself, expressing his innermost sexual desires (O’Reilly describes the main character’s performance of oral sex on a female character in uncomfortably specific detail).
Yet, Franken, in both his career as an entertainer and a politician, makes sure to present himself as the moral exemplar I viewed him to be. Franken lambasted Bush, Limbaugh, O’Reilly, and others as “chickenhawks” and draft-dodgers. On the opposite side, Franken praised John Kerry for his bravery in Vietnam and touted his own involvement in the USO as evidence that he truly cared about the troops, unlike Republicans who see the troops as cannon fodder for pointless wars. Not only does Franken’s posturing betray a bizarre valorization of war for an ostensible anti-war candidate and public persona, we now know that Franken was sexually harassing the same troops he claimed to care so deeply for.
The fall of Al Franken and Bill O’Reilly could have been written by Nabokov. Franken and O’Reilly’s “debates,” in retrospect, resemble Humbert Humbert and Clare Quilty fighting over Lolita at the end of Nabokov’s most famous novel. Yet, both men weren’t vying for the sexual object of their obsession; they both clearly had plenty of sex. Rather, Franken and O’Reilly’s Lolita was public trust. What would have devastated a 14-year-old Alex Cole instead only appeared as fodder for societal criticism. The “debates” that I treasured as an adolescent, the discussions that truly excited me, were a mere ritual for male dominance in an irrational and absurd political structure.
What Franken’s fall reveals is not so much “the end of an era,” but the unmasking of 2000s liberalism as not only an electoral failure, but a moral one as well. The nomination of Hillary Clinton has more to do with the childish optimism of Franken’s The Truth than with a desire to continue Obama’s legacy. After all, Franken was a huge supporter of the would-be political dynasty and wrote glowing praises of Hillary Clinton in Big Fat Idiot. It is no wonder that Clinton met the same fate as Kerry, just as Franken did with O’Reilly.
Featured image taken by Lorie Shaull