“Humor is a Form of Common Sense”: Further Notes on Franken’s Minnesota Run

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My story on Al Franken’s Minnesota senate run hits the web today, and I thought I’d round it out with some more material on the blog.

There were three things that I heard consistently when I was on the ground in Minnesota. First, no one seemed to mind that Franken’s background is an unconventional one for a Senate candidate. Here were some responses I got when I asked about it:

  • “I think a lot of comedians find real big problems in our world. And they point out problems by making humor out of them.”
  • “It may be time we sent someone different to Washington.”
  • “Anybody who listens to [his radio show] knows he knows his stuff. If you read his books, you know he knows his stuff.”
  • “You can be a comedian and you can still be serious.”
  • “Humor is a form of common sense anyway.”

I was genuinely surprised that Minnesota Democrats (known as DFLers) were not more worried about Franken’s history of dirty jokes and lack of public service. The national media seems to think those two factors make Franken’s candidacy a non-starter, and Norm Coleman, the Republican incumbent, and other GOP forces are trying to play them up as much as possible.

The second thing I found is that Minnesotans deny being abnormally open to oddball candidates. It’s a common media meme, based on the fact that Minnesota elected Paul Wellstone, a short, bald college professor with a fanatical devotion to extremely liberal beliefs, and Jesse Ventura, a wrestler and C-level actor. “I don’t know if it’s just an anomaly,” Franken told me. “People embraced Paul because of his uniqueness, and I don’t know if that was just… unique.” He made the point that Wellstone connected in a very special way with people and was almost genetically truthful, and that voters from any state would have found him appealing. “And Ventura won in a three-way race at a point when the state was totally flush, when the economy was just tooling along, we had a surplus in the country and in the state. And I really believe that during that period… people went like, “How hard is it really to do this?”

Franken pointed something else out. “I think Ventura did speak to people’s dissatisfaction with the blandness of politics at the time. You know he had Skip Humphrey and Norm Coleman on either side of him.” As Minnesota native Garrison Keillor would say, “empty suits.” (Coleman later went on to win Wellstone’s senate seat after Wellstone died in a plane crash less than two weeks before the election.)

Even the professional punditry agreed. I asked Wy Spano, long-time Democratic politico and Director of the Center for Advocacy and Political Leadership at University of Minnesota Duluth, if Minnesotans like quirky politicians. He seemed taken aback. “I don’t know about that,” he said. He paused, and then went into a detailed explanation of Wellstone’s and Ventura’s elections.

This is the way Minnesotans account for their voting history, from Franken and Spano all the way down the line. If you examine the circumstances of Wellstone and Ventura individually, they say, and look at the accidents of history surrounding their campaigns, the explanations reveal themselves. As Mark Ritchie, Minnesota’s Secretary of State, said to me, “I don’t think voters appreciate quirkiness here any more than any place else.”

As for authenticity, it’s on the fore because of Wellstone — a man who Minnesotans, at least politically active ones, clearly still miss. Instead of a senator in Wellstone who was legendary for his rigid principles, Minnesotans got Coleman, a former Democrat with weathervane tendencies. One Democrat described Coleman to me as “one of the most transparently phony people in all of American politics.”

Franken has an aura of authenticity that Minnesotans were buzzing about. Maybe it’s that he sometimes gets so angry over a Bush Administration sin that he stumbles over his words and loses any semblance of a politician’s veneer. Maybe it’s that he has confronted all of the Right’s biggest bullies (O’Reilly, Limbaugh, Gingrich, Wolfowitz, among others) and no half-hearted liberal would put his reputation in harm’s way so recklessly and frequently. Regardless of the reason, people buy in. “We tend to send the same kind of people [to Washington],” said a retired farmer I spoke with Minnesota. “[They] are arrogant, have ambition, and have drive, and when they get there they kind of forget why they went. I think Al is the kind of person who if he got there would be the same kind of person he is now.”

The question is, is that a good thing for Minnesota? And for the Democratic Party?

And PS – I should admit that I spoke mostly to Democrats when I was up north — following a Democratic candidate on the campaign trail doesn’t put you in touch with many Republicans — so people were naturally disposed toward Franken. But the facts as I saw them do have bearing on his chances in the Democratic primary. I did attempt to contact Coleman’s campaign and the Minnesota Republican Party — they didn’t return my calls.

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