News & Politics

Al Franken Opens Up on His Recount Battle, Rush Limbaugh and Recession Politics

In his first national media interview since November, Franken discusses the trials of his Senate election battle and political fights ahead.

The following is a transcript of Al Franken's first national media interview since November, conducted by Mark Green, which will air onAir America this Saturdayat 3 p.m. PST and re-airing Sunday at 6 a.m. PST. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Mark Green: ...We talked before [going on] air about an election night a few years back when I spent two hours in an emotional deep freeze not knowing whether I had won or lost a close and big race. So how have you handled a three-month -- and counting -- emotional deep freeze?

Al Franken: Well, Frannie and I Iook at each other at night, usually right before we go to bed, and go like: "How long is this gonna go on?" But, it really looks now that it's going to get resolved in my favor, and soon, and so I'm actually excited to get there. So that sort of overcomes the frustration of: "How long can this go on?"

MG: What's the holdup? Haven't you been certified the winner by the secretary of state of Minnesota?

AF: Well, I've been certified as the winner of the recount. So I just want to be fair to everybody. When I was certified by the state canvassing board as the winner of the recount, Coleman, as is his right, filed a legal contest contesting the outcome of the recount. And that was January 6th, the day that I could've been seated as the winner of the recount.

Then we went to trial January 26th, and this is the fourth week. At the end of this past week, the judges issued a ruling, which we think is a great ruling, which narrowed the standards and scope of the absentee ballots that have been previously rejected then the Coleman people kind of did a 180. They had not wanted these ballots included at all, but now that they're behind, they wanted them all included. The narrowing of the universe of these absentee ballots that could be counted is such that we really believe we're going to win, and we're going to win soon.

MG: I can't think of precedents for you -- an over-three-month counting delay in seating a senator and also a comedian moving on to the Senate. Are there any?

AF: Comedy to the Senate? Well, there certainly hasn't been a satirist or a political satirist who's done that. So, that really was uncharted territory during the campaign. But I think it's a good thing. Some people thought that it was an odd career arc, but to me it made absolute sense.

I had always been obviously interested in politics; DFL politics in Minnesota was when I was a teenager. And the reason I wrote political satire was because I thought it -- politics -- was important, that public policy was important. Then I transitioned into books, then into radio. So it all, actually, made total sense to me, as puzzled as many people were and continue to be.

MG: Was there a moment where you thought -- yeah, I can be the first to go from satire to Senate, I can actually run and win and serve?

AF: I don't know about the moment when I first considered running, but I remember the moment where I pulled the trigger, where I said: "I'm gonna do this." I was in Iraq. And I had been sort of toying with the idea. I mean, more than toying -- really actively considering it.

MG:What year was this?

AF:This is right before I announced in December 2006. I'm weighing this, and I'm thinking, like: "Oh, what a tremendous burden on my family. This is going to be a couple years of me not having any income." Then there's a risk to it, and my reputation. And I'm in Iraq with all these guys and women who're there for their third tour, and their families are half a world away and totally anxious every day. These men and women are working their butts off and are in danger. And I'm thinking, like: "What am I talking about? What am I thinking about?"

So, I said I'm going to do this. I figured that at least it would be over by November 4th, 2008, and I wasn't right. The point is that I've always been more of a policy wonk than people probably think a comedian would be. Before I even decided I was going to run, I would go around and campaign for DFL'ers in Minnesota, and just talk to people and hear their stories about kids not getting any health care and the educational system not being what it used to be when I was growing up. The middle-class squeeze, all the issues that we know are salient now in this country. I felt like I could do something, so here I am. ...

MG: When you were campaigning, was your association with Air America a net plus or minus?

AF: It was a net plus, there's no doubt about it. It was a net plus for a number of reasons. One, people in Minnesota who listened to Air America could testify that I was someone who was serious, someone who cared about people, someone who got his facts right , someone who worked hard, so that was good.

Secondly, I had a national audience, so that helped, frankly, in terms of fundraising and other kinds of things. The only downside was, you know, the Republican talking point that I was a communist or a socialist or something like that, on Air America, that I was the same as Rush Limbaugh. I would answer: "No, I'm the opposite of Rush Limbaugh." I'm not the mirror image; I'm the opposite.

MG: Given your famous spats with Limbaugh and [Bill] O'Reilly, what have they been saying about your success, or do you now tune them out?

AF: Well, you know what? I've already been doing that. I don't know what they've been saying. I really don't. I haven't been paying any attention. That is the great thing about doing this. You really stop paying attention to that.

On Air America, part of the three hours a day is debunking the right and that kind of thing. But, when you're faced with actually trying to help folks, you know, the past couple of days I've been going around talking to mayors in Duluth and Two Harbors, Minn., the mayor of Champlain, the mayor of St. Paul, the mayor of Rochester, county commissioners, etc., trying to figure out how they can get access to the stimulus package and what they need.

That's seems much more productive than trying to listen to Rush Limbaugh or Bill O'Reilly and hear what they think about me. Actually, that was one of the nicest things that happened to me once I left the radio show -- I stopped paying attention to them.

MG: Now that you're paying more attention to [President Barack] Obama than Limbaugh, what do you think about the stimulus law and the proposed new bailout proposal?

AF: Well, the stimulus and the bailout are apples and oranges to me. You do hear some Republicans now say: "Well, we favor a stimulus package, but not this one." That is, I have to admit, something I said about the bailout. I really didn't like the [original] bailout, because it didn't have oversight, it didn't have transparency, and also it didn't seem to do anything about the foreclosure crisis. There were just all kinds of different reasons why I didn't like it. I think I was kind of right about all of that.

But, nevertheless, the stimulus package is something that I definitely would've supported and voted for. We need this. We need to jump-start the economy. We're in a classic, deep recession where the government, in a very "Keynesian" way, has to be the spender of last resort. I think that if I had been there, there would've been a different dynamic [because he would have been another Democratic vote for it].

MG: Should Obama, in your view, be playing the bipartisan card as hard as he is -- or should he be more partisan and legislate based on his Democratic majority?

AF: Well, I think there are two things going on. One, obviously, the votes were very partisan. But I think, at least, the rancor isn't as bad as I've seen.

And I think that as long as this president continues to reach out -- I think the American public pays attention -- maybe there wasn't bipartisanship in the Congress, I think there is in the American people. I think there's some bipartisanship among Republican governors. I don't know how long these Republicans in Congress can continue to do this.

I think the president is right to do this. I mean, I think that there are going to be bills that are harder to pass than this one, and we may need to work across party lines to get their votes. Now, if every Republican in the House is going to vote against everything and then throw a party afterwards, then I don't know what to do about that.

Certainly the Senate is a different thing, a different kind of body. My intention when I go there, and Mark, you know, I'm in this recount because I only got 42 percent of the vote. So did Norm Coleman, and then there was an independent who got 15 percent of the vote. I'm going to have to work on behalf of everybody in Minnesota. My plan is to try to solve problems and help the people of Minnesota, so I'm going to be working across party lines.

MG:The president this week said that he's sending another 17,000 troops to Afghanistan. Is that something that you would favor? You were an early supporter of the invasion of Iraq, but then became a vociferous, eloquent critic of the war. What about Afghanistan?

AF: Well, first of all, as far as an early supporter of the Iraq war, I was really on the fence in a way where I neither spoke out for or against it, which I regret. I wish I had been one of the wise people who had spoken out fiercely against it. But as soon as it became evident that there were no WMD and then as we were conducting the war and the boneheaded way we were doing, I was, as you say, a daily fierce critic on Air America of the way the war was being done, that it was a horrible mistake, and that we were essentially lied into this war.

As far as Afghanistan is concerned, part of the damage from Iraq was that we took the focus off Afghanistan, and obviously, that is where the attacks on 9/11 came from. Afghanistan/Pakistan is now an incredibly difficult problem. We're changing our policy there. It looks like we're putting less stock in [President Hamid] Karzai and taking a different approach there which has to do with paying more attention to the tribes and hopefully doing some kind of Afghan version of counterinsurgency doctrine that we adopted during the surge in Iraq.

I support putting more troops in there, but this is not going to be solved very soon, and this very difficult. I'm glad we have [special envoy Richard] Holbrooke there. We obviously have to combine Afghanistan with Pakistan. This is going to be a long, long deal.

Listen to Al Franken's first national media interview since November, conducted by Mark Green, on Air America this Saturday at 3 p.m. PST and re-airing Sunday at 6:00 a.m. PST.