Five Rules for Being a Successful Senator
A Review of Al Franken: Giant of the Senate
by Art Friedson, @artfri
If you think making the transition from a 20+ year career in comedy to a United States Senator is tough, you’re right. Just ask Senator Al Franken who tells his story with very smart insights and brutal honesty, peppered with a significant number or laugh-out-loud moments.
Even the title, “Al Franken: Giant of the Senate” is funny when you realize that (a) he’s only served for 10 years (the first six of which he kept a decidedly low profile); and (b) he’s only five-feet six-inches tall. But buried beneath the great stories and the funny punch lines is some very solid advice on how to succeed in the U.S. Senate. Here are five rules that have served Senator Franken well:
Rule #1: Learn how to work with your colleagues. “[T]here are only a hundred of us senators. And none of us can do the job without working with the other ninety-nine,” says Franken. Then he quotes Mike Mansfield who said, “It only takes one senator to make a scene. But it takes more than one to make a difference.”
Franken talks about forming personal relationships with Republicans against whom he votes 99% of the time. He discovered that you can like a person at the same time you disagree with his or her views. More importantly, he discovered that even the most opposite Senator sometimes has a specific issue on which s/he can agree with you, and a senator can get a lot done by cherry-picking those issues and seizing those opportunities.
He also makes clear that he won’t divulge any private conversations with other senators in this book, except for Ted Cruz. That’s because, “I like Ted Cruz more than most of my other colleagues like Ted Cruz. And I hate Ted Cruz.” Franken feels justified in treating Cruz differently because only Cruz has shown such blatant disregard for the rules of courtesy in the Senate.
Rule #2: Nothing is funny once you take it entirely out of context. Very early in his first run for the Senate, Franken learned how a joke -no matter how obvious that it was a joke- could be turned around and used against you. He calls this “The DeHumorizer,” and it was a very effective tool for his Republican opponents. One early example was his clearly tongue-in-cheek comment in an earlier book that suggested, following Republican logic, the U.S. should launch an elderly person into space each week on pay-per-view and use the revenue to lower the federal deficit. Sure enough, the Republicans quoted this as his debt-reduction plan.
Rule #3: If you’re going to live under a microscope, you’d better know how to operate a microscope. If you’re new to politics, one of the things you have to learn about is “oppo research.” Your opponents are going to spend a huge amount of time and money combing through everything you ever wrote, said on tape, or was written about you, to find something embarrassing, and you need to hire someone to do the same thing on you so you’ll know what to expect. For someone who spent over twenty years in comedy and who worked with folks like John Belushi, this was a big task for Franken.
Although Franken had extensive oppo research done on “Al Franken,” somehow the firm he used did not check “Franken, Al.” Thus, they missed a long article he had published in Playboy Magazine many years before that was dripping in racy satire. Of course, it was put through The DeHumorizor and caused a few very bad weeks in his first campaign. He credits his wife, Franni, with pushing back effectively enough to put him back in the game.
Rule #4: Learn how to pivot. One of the most important political skills Franken had to learn was the pivot: how to respond to a direct question by shifting to the topic you want to address rather than answering the question you were asked. Pivoting did not come easy to Franken. He cites a time when he was asked if he ever thought of something funny to say but didn’t say it, and he responded with a very funny story of a time when he did just that [I won’t spoil the story for you, but don’t miss the story of “Hermann The German” and “Stu The Jew “on pages 95-97!]. The DeHumorizer immediately kicked in and once again Franken was in trouble.
Instead of answering the question about thinking of a funny line but not saying it out loud, Franken learned to pivot by saying, “Gee, I can’t think of one offhand, but you know what isn’t a joke? The fact that so many healthcare crises wind up in bankruptcies.” That, he discovered, was the perfect pivot, and from then on he became a master of it.
Rule #5: Empower your staff. From the very start of his political ambitions, Franken knew that he could either be the guy who relied on his gut or the guy who found the best experts and listened to their advice. Especially since his gut always told him to go for the quick laugh, seeking quality advice was a really good choice. The book cites lots of examples, including many times that he would crack a joke to his staff on the way to an event and they would respond somberly, “That stays in the car.”
Another story was more telling about Franken and his process. Senator Franken is known for always showing up for committee hearings well prepared and for asking probing, insightful questions of whomever is testifying that day. One time, Senator Franken was feeling particularly indignant at the testimony he was hearing and he started methodically destroying the witness. At some point, one of his staff members slipped him a note that said, “You’re being an a__hole.” When the hearing concluded, Franken gathered his entire staff together to commend the staffer and to empower every staff member to do the same thing if it was ever warranted.
Al Franken, Giant of the Senate is a great read. Broken into 47 short chapters, the book is easy to read in snippets when you’re on the run. You’ll learn a lot of fascinating information about a really interesting character with a great story to tell. You’ll have a few really big laughs and lots of chuckles. But you will also encounter a resounding affirmation of progressive Democratic politics and values, and a strong case for why it is so important for us to fight for what we believe is right and true. That makes it all worthwhile.