Al Franken is on a mission. The "Saturday Night Live" alumnus has been subjecting the American right to scorn and mockery for years, first as a political satirist and more recently as a talk radio host. Now, Franken is seriously considering a Senate run in 2008 and promoting a new film about his political coming of age.
"God Spoke," the new documentary by Nick Doob and Chris Hegedus, tracks Franken's unlikely evolution. Its title is a dig at Rush Limbaugh, who proclaims to millions of dittoheads nationwide that he has "talent on loan from God."
The filmmakers began following Franken in September 2003 during the runup to the presidential election. Over the next two years, they captured Franken as he feuded with Bill O'Reilly, helped launch Air America Radio and entertained U.S. troops in Iraq. You can tell Franken's mission is going well because Bill O'Reilly gets more unhinged every time he hears Franken's name. But surprised and disappointed by John Kerry's defeat in 2004, Franken begins to feel the pull of a new vocation -- to challenge the junior senator from Minnesota, Republican Norm Coleman. (He has not officially declared his candidacy.)
In "God Spoke," Franken usually appears in sweats and sneakers (even when pitching Air America to key investors), but he wore a tie to our interview, albeit a loosened and slightly wrinkled one. He seemed subdued compared to the onscreen Al who crashes the Newsweek party at the Republican National Convention and delivers his Kissinger impression to Henry Kissinger.
Franken speaks candidly about his hopes and apprehensions. He wants to carry on the progressive legacy of his friend, the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, who was killed in a plane crash just days before he was to face down Coleman in the 2002 midterms. Franken was at Wellstone's memorial service and was enraged by the way the event was misrepresented by the right-wing media and cynically exploited by the Coleman campaign. He exposed these distortions in a scathing chapter of his 2003 bestseller, "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them."
Ben Wikler, one of Franken's collaborators on this book, says the Wellstone chapter wasn't written with political aspirations in mind. However, Franken's takedown captured the imagination of a lot of Minnesotans. Democrats in the state were looking for payback and a lot of people thought "Senator Franken" had a nice ring to it. Franken thought so too. He recently moved back to Minnesota and started the Midwest Values PAC.
Franken knows he will face a bitter campaign if he decides to challenge Coleman. The right-wing noise machine is already gearing up for a potential Franken run. Franken puts the question to himself bluntly: "Can I do this? Is it worth ruining my life?" He seems acutely aware that if he enters the fray, he will have to tone down his offbeat, sometimes bawdy sense of humor. You can't call Rush Limbaugh a big fat idiot on the campaign trail.
Franken spoke to AlterNet last week in Manhattan.
LINDSAY BEYERSTEIN: What kinds of things, if you could accomplish X, Y, and Z, would make it worthwhile for you to run?
AL FRANKEN: Moving toward universal health care. If Democrats take the House, someone should introduce a bill on the first day covering every kid in the country. I don't know how you vote against that. If you go around Minnesota and you talk to people about kids who are developmentally challenged, money has been cut off for that by the Bush administration and the Republican administration in Minnesota. Yet, they're spending more money on prisons.
This is the kind of thing where if you can make a difference in those people's lives you're really making a difference. It's not about you. ... Other developed countries have universal health care, and they do it cheaper and they have better results. And we're not that much dumber than other countries. We can do this.
Renewable energy. Look into the long-term: Why are you taking money out of kids with developmental problems and putting it into prisons? That's really short-term thinking.
Trying to improve our democracy by publicly funded elections. There's all kinds of things that need to be done. Respecting science again. I would like to do a law where no political appointee can change the language of a scientific report without getting the scientists who made the report to sign off on the language change. That's a law I'd propose on the first day, I think. Have a foreign policy that makes sense, that builds on our working with the rest of world instead.
BEYERSTEIN: In the film you talk about your USO tours. Has Iraq changed since you were last there, and would you go back under the current security situation?
FRANKEN: I am going back. I'm going back in December. It's very safe going with the USO. Ben [Wikler] has been on it with me. We never felt afraid at all. You're traveling with a sergeant major of the army. The last thing they want is for anyone with the USO tour to get hurt. You're flying into a base, and you're on the base. You're really not in danger.
The only time you have anything at all is taking helicopters to forward operating bases. There have been some helicopters shot down. I don't think I felt a moment of fear. ... In the way that it's changed, it doesn't make any difference in what we do. I'm not a Shia living in a Sunni neighborhood.
BEN WIKLER: I heard on the tour that it was different, but not in a way that affected the performers.
FRANKEN: When we went from BIOP (Baghdad International Airport) to Camp Victory, it was very eerie. It was the middle of the night or something. Instead of one set of [concrete] "Bremer walls," they would have three and barbed wire.
It just felt like such a fortress. It felt eerie. The lighting was eerie, like you were in a noir movie. Oh, man. And you're in a bus with entertainers, with some Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders going through this nightmare. But you're like, "They're not going to hit us because we're inside a perimeter inside a perimeter inside a perimeter."
BEYERSTEIN: What are the politics of the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders?
FRANKEN: They're right-wing. One of the funniest things at Camp Anaconda in Belad was when the base commander had arranged for us to meet with five Iraqi nationals. As we're going in, the two cheerleaders, one of whom was probably 22 and one was 25 or something -- they always have to dress identically, that's part of their rule. They have all these different outfits. They're in a certain kind of Dallas Cowboys warm-up outfit, and they're walking in to be briefed by five Iraqi nationals. And they're like, "Why are we coming in here?" And I'm like, "You know, Misty, you'll learn something." Her name was Misty.
They were saying it with a sense of humor. Which is like, "I'm not that interested in this, what am I going to learn? I'm a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader, why am I being briefed by five Iraqi nationals?" She said it a way that was very funny. It was very interesting. They were completely loose cannons! [Laughter]
BEYERSTEIN: What do you hope the movie will accomplish?
FRANKEN: I'd like people to see it and go, "Yeah, we'd better friggin' vote and get our friends to vote this November."
BEYERSTEIN: Who do you see as the audience for this film?
FRANKEN: Fans of mine, and that's probably it. I didn't get to say this on Letterman last night, I'm kicking myself -- it's not going to be as big as a Tom Cruise or a Mel Gibson movie.
BEYERSTEIN: You're probably pretty inured to most of the personal attacks from the right-wing. But are there things that still really get to you?
FRANKEN: I am getting a little thicker skin, but I don't like it. I told a story on Letterman. I did a Fourth of July parade for Tim Walz who's running in the First District in Minnesota. He's a great, great candidate. It's in St. Peter, Minn. People go, "Hey, Al!" And you go over and you shake hands and people are really friendly. About halfway through the thing, this woman yells, "Go home!" And I should have a thick enough skin to just ignore it, but I just can't let these things go.
So I go, "Who said that?"
And this woman said, "I did."
She's standing about 10 feet away and she says, "We don't need carpetbaggers."
And I said, "Would it help you to know that I grew up in Minnesota?"
And she said [Minnesota accent] "Ohw."
So, I won her over. Part of me, and Ben knows this very well, is that these things stick in my craw. I want to, one-by-one, go, "Who said that, you don't know what you're talking about!" Explain to them why they're wrong. There are some people where it's just absolute viciousness and deliberate taking out of context, that kind of thing. And I guess that you just can't deal with it.