Giant of the Senate by Al Franken

From SNL to the Senate

Al Franken

Giant of the Senate. New York, Grand Central Publishing, 2017.

Review by James Baxter

Al Franken’s Giant of the Senate is an excellent book, and an even better audiobook. The difference is, when read by him, Franken’s wonderful stories and self-deprecating wit come through in his deadpan, slightly nasal Minnesotan accent. Anyone who has ever seen the comedian-turned-congressman will have no trouble imagining he’s right there beside you, telling you some of his best anecdotes from a life of trying to make people’s lives a little better.

Unlike his earlier books, which eviscerated the worst of the conservative movement in the U.S., Franken’s latest is a lighthearted, mostly unapologetic look at his own life. From his father’s struggles in business to Harvard, to Saturday Night Live, back to Harvard, to broadcasting and then into politics, Franken weaves a narrative that shows how his choices led him to his post as junior Senator for Minnesota.

If the book has a weakness, it’s that Franken opened the door to his days at SNL but took mostly a hands-off approach. There were a few stories of excesses and rivalries, but if hearing tales out of school about Lorne Michaels and his assembled casts is the goal, the reader will be disappointed. It’s interesting and sometimes tragic, but you can’t help but feel Franken just wasn’t willing to tell the whole story. Indeed, he says as much.

He does talk poignantly about the addiction struggles of his partner in writing and on stage, Tom Davis. He also talks about how, during his early years of marriage while at SNL, his wife Franni Bryson was left to fend for herself and turned to the bottle. These two relationships and the struggles they endured went a long way toward framing Franken’s views toward mental health, addiction and the failings of the U.S. health system.

Not surprisingly, as Franken’s memories draw closer to the present, so too do the raw emotions that they bring out intensify. Franken leaves no doubt that he blames the conservative commentators and the Republican Party for all that ails the United States, especially the Midwest, but mostly buries his anger in his acerbic humour, which is what makes this book so enjoyable. Even if you disagree, you can’t help but laugh.

And his disappointment in some of the people in the GOP is palpable. He says no man has done more to ruin politics in the U.S. than Mitch McConnell, though he admits to liking him as a person. He struggles with his personal appreciation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whose friendship he enjoys and whose politics
he abhors.

Throughout the book, Franken is careful to not break the cardinal rule of the Senate: talking smack about other Senators. Indeed, it’s sometimes uncomfortable to see the lengths to which he goes to be respectful toward people who clearly infuriate him. But Franken is only human and when it comes to Ted Cruz, Franken simply can’t contain his animus.

“I probably like Ted Cruz more than most of my other colleagues like Ted Cruz, and I hate Ted Cruz,” Franken quipped. “He’s kind of a toxic guy in an office, the guy who microwaves fish.”

And that’s the takeaway from the book. Franken has made a career in comedy, where collaboration is critical to success—making people laugh. In the Senate, he laments how a few bad actors—Cruz being the worst—have ruined it for everyone.

“Ted Cruz isn’t just wrong about almost everything,” Franken says “He’s impossible to work with. And he doesn’t care that he’s impossible to work with.”

Despite his frustration, Franken strikes a generally upbeat and hopeful view of the future. While, like most people, he worries about what the Donald Trump presidency will hold for the world, he believes that the mostly-good people on both sides of the aisle will keep America and the world from the abyss.

Indeed, he seems to relish the challenge.

James Baxter is Editor and Executive Chair of iPolitics