Book Review: Giant of the Senate by Al Franken

Book Review:  Giant of the Senate by Al Franken

Alan Stuart Franken, a talented and smooth spoken Harvard educated 60-something, has spent a lifetime  riding a unique mix of humor and  irony to celebrity and a good living .  Most of us late night insomniac TV watchers remember his start as one of the original writers for Saturday Night Live in 1975, a gig that during his tenure netted him some screen time.  Having worked in the entertainment profession as a comedian, actor, writer and director for three and half decades, his name recognition was something that was well established long before he embarked on a political career.

Al Franken has served as the junior senator from the state of Minnesota since July 2009.  In the interest of full disclosure I will state for the record that I had been a Franken fan for several years before he sought public office.  His humor always seemed to find a resonance with me and over time I grew to respect him as a knowledgeable pundit.  I thoroughly enjoyed two of his previous books, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them  and The Truth (with Jokes).  I loved The Al Franken Show and listened to it often during its run on Air America Radio.  He is the only U.S. Senate candidate from outside my home state to whom I have ever donated money.  His latest book, Giant of the Senate, is not merely a detailed autobiography of a Baby Boomer whose middle class suburban Minnesota upbringing prepared him for the Ivy League.  It is far more than a first-person account of a wild and fast lifestyle typical of a 1970s and 80s-era show business career.  It is certainly much more than just a boring testimony of a media wonk-turned-politician about the twisted nature of relationships between members of Congress.  What Senator Franken succeeds in doing through a well written life story reflecting a Harvard-caliber intellect is put a kind and gentle human face on the Democratic Party, the values of which are solidly middle class.  Those values  once upon a time not all that long ago were collectively known as the American Dream.

More than anything, Senator Franken’s story is a wonderful blueprint of how to manage a successful political campaign.  Having taken in the story of how the Senator defeated an incumbent Republican in his first ever run for U.S. Senate by the paltry margin of 312 votes, it is the considered opinion of this reviewer that Giant of the Senate should be required reading for any Democratic candidate running for public office from Dog Catcher to President of the United States.  From dealing with opposition campaign trackers, learning the parlance of the campaign business and dealing with the hostile coldness of the very tangible intangible machine called “the DeHumorizer,” Franken and his Team mastered the craft and won his first reelection in 2014 by over two hundred thousand votes.  It is my hope that all the things Team Franken has done right will transfer well to other candidates and their campaigns.

Video:  Senator Franken at the Commonwealth Club of California, July 7th, 2017

Early in the book Franken devotes an entire chapter to the late Senator Paul Wellstone.  Senator Wellstone was a high profile leader of the Progressive wing of the national Democratic Party.  It is rather obvious that Paul Wellstone was Senator Franken’s political role model.  His world view, voting record and day to day work as a Senator whether it is mundane or high profile, presents as the embodiment of something Wellstone used to say:

“Politics is not about power.  Politics is not about money.  Politics is not about winning for the sake of winning.  Politics is about the improvement of people’s lives.”

For all the other negatives that may accompany the job of U.S. Senator, remembering that simple outlook keeps all exerted efforts firmly rooted in humanity.  If the Senator had nothing more to offer in his book beyond reflections, memories, opinions and jokes, that is one quote that to me is worth keeping and applying elsewhere.

Senator Franken does provide an authentic glimpse of the not-so-fun aspects of serving in the Senate.  Try as he may to make spending hours at a time on the phone in a closed office asking people for money sound fun, I failed to be convinced.  All the same, after receiving one of his fundraising letters that began,  “Dear person I’m asking for money…..” asking strangers to open their wallet carries with it an inherent level of discomfort.  Every job has some aspect of unpleasantness that must be tolerated.

Much of that kind and gentle human face he puts on the Democratic Party I mentioned above comes through clearly when the Senator tells of his real life struggle with his wife, Franni’s, alcoholism.  He tells of how he became a member of Al-Anon  From his time in that organization he was able to constructively channel his experience into a character that became a trademark of his humor.  The clear and clarion message I took from this is one need not be perfect to be a Senator.  One just needs to be motivated and dedicated to improving people’s lives.

Stuart Smalley

For anyone who ever knew Al Franken, I would venture to guess that seeing him end up in the U.S. Senate is not at all a surprise.  Although he has had no formal legal training, his ability to see irony and fallacious reasoning make him a valuable member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.  With a background in comedy, he is probably better prepared than most to withstand the demands of such a rigorous calling.

It took me several weeks to get through Giant of the Senate.  All the same, it was an easy and actually fun read as it provided a behind the scenes view of someone I thought I sort of already knew.  One thing does stand out, Al Franken is the product of a community that provided him with all he needed to succeed.  That is one thing that validated my personal viewpoint that unless a person has the wherewithal, any notion of freedom is purely academic.  More importantly, the story of Al Franken is one of not just success but gentle kindness.  There is indeed value in maintaining one’s humanity in the face of opposition that often seeks to destroy it.  Such is the mission of a Senator who represents our views under that great Capitol Dome.

Thank you, Senator Franken, for all you do.

I rate this book five out of five stars:  *****

2 Comments

  1. Ann Kent
    Sep 3, 2017

    Wonderful insight, Stan, with your descriptive writing. Keep up the great work with your talent.

  2. Lori Holyfield
    Aug 28, 2017

    Great review

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