Franken Will Have to Prove Himself Again

By Howard Fineman
|  Tuesday, Jun 30, 2009  |  Updated 5:45 PM PDT
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Democrat Al Franken, right, with his wife Frannie Franken smile as they meet the media at their house in Minneapolis on Tuesday.

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WASHINGTON - Al Franken and I have been friends for more than 20 years, but I admit I wasn’t sure he could do what was required to be where he is now: a soon-to-be-seated U.S. senator.

Long before his memorable campaign in Minnesota, the rap on him was that he was perhaps too acerbically funny for his own good, too uncontrollably combative, too Hollywood — just too much of a hell-raiser for politics, too meta, too media.

I shared enough of that CW to harbor my own doubts. Well, the CW was wrong and so was I — and now Al’s reward for proving people wrong is to have to do it all over again.

For as the pivotal Sixtieth Democrat, Al will be on the very fault line of American politics. He will have to show the same remarkable discipline and control that he mustered in defeating Republican Sen. Norm Coleman twice — once at the polls and a second time in an agonizing, eight-month-long court review.

In an ironic twist, a man who got famous for his out-of-bounds, deliberately over-the-top humor must once again be a model of decorum and close-to-the-vest style as he enters the Senate.

(His much-delayed victory statement exhibited just that somber tone.)

In the Minnesota race, Republicans tried – and ultimately failed – to make Al stand for the proposition that Democrats are somehow out of the cultural, Main Street mainstream of America. But that doesn’t mean the GOP won’t try it all over again.

The truth is — as I think about it — Al is one of the most disciplined (certainly hardest working) people I know, and looking back on his transformation from comedy to politics, the focus, planning and care he put into the new enterprise is astonishing.

Read in reverse, his transitional career as an author and then radio host on Air America can be seen for what it was: an exercise in immersive self-education that got him up to speed on dozens of issues and on the ways and means of political combat.

Similarly, when he set out to reassert his roots in his home of Minnesota, he (and his wife, Franni, and his two kids) did so with a thorough doggedness and a tart, low-key sense of humor that fit neatly into the landscape he was learning.

As for the Hollywood stuff, Al never ran away from it (indeed he raised tons of cash out there, and in many other places not called Minnesota) but his sheer doggedness, his wife’s pies, his nice kids, his Prairie Home Companionish drollery — all of it served to undercut the idea that he was some fancy pants.

He was a liberal, sure, but certainly a Minnesotan.

For more than two years he went to every county, every town, every Democratic-Farmer-Labor local convention — you name it — and never once made a joke of it all, or even made a joke of himself. It may sound like nothing, but it’s hard for a comedian in that situation to resist the temptation to turn his own ambition into a joke.

He never jeopardized his campaign by succumbing to his lifelong hunger (need) to get a laugh. The politics always came first.

He also never lost his cool — and it was a war of nerves between him and Coleman over who would.

During the long recount and court reviews, Franken kept his head down and his mouth shut, allowing his lawyers to speak for him most of the time. He gave not a single national press interview, and spoke to the local press very rarely. The idea was to do it the Minnesota way: with deep respect for the locals' love of laborious process — and not to presume to lecture the courts.

His approach today was the same: no interviews at all on the day he effectively won the race.

Behind the scenes, he might fuss about the legal over-reaching of the Coleman team — or, during the campaign, about Coleman’s and the GOP’s TV ad attacks — but, for the most part, Franken used his sense of humor to keep himself loose and amused.

And now he has to do all of this again. Republicans already are decrying what they regard as a dictatorship of the majority. Rather than take on a popular president, or a Senate leader no one has ever heard of, the GOP is going to delight in trying to blame the passage of controversial legislation on a former comedian who won his Senate seat by 315 votes.

They’ll try to goad him into being either too funny or too nasty or both — but, based on what we now know, it won’t be easy.    

Howard Fineman is an NBC/MSNBC News analyst and Newsweek's senior Washington correspondent

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