March 8, 2006
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Al Franken Getting Progressives Organized with Midwest Values PAC
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
We've had actors, physicians, and exterminators run for office. Is radio show host, "Saturday Night Live" alumnus, and author Al Franken ready to become a Prime Time player? He is thinking about it. Franken is smart, progressive, and a great voice for the disenchanted. On his Air America radio show, he hosts an array of brilliant progressives, exploring political topics in depth and in fun. Franken is considering a run for the senate, to oppose Norm Coleman of Minnesota. Meanwhile, his newest venture is the Midwest Values PAC, which aims to support progressive/liberal activists with a community network, and help get good people elected. Sounds like a plan.
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BuzzFlash: You recently started the Midwest Values PAC to support progressive candidates, but also to explore your own options, running for the U.S. Senate in Minnesota against Norm Coleman in 2008. When will you make a decision whether or not you’ll run? And how does the 2006 midterm election factor into your decision?
Al Franken: If the Senate is really up for grabs, it will figure in. It’ll make it more important to run, if the Senate is up for grabs. So 2006 does figure in.
BuzzFlash: If the Democrats don’t make gains in 2006, in both the House and the Senate, would you be more inclined or less inclined to run?
Al Franken: A little less inclined to run. Also, part of the calculus is how important the radio show is, as compared to being in the Senate. And, of course, if I run for the Senate, there’s no guarantee I'll win. The radio show is an important platform, not just for me, but for liberal radio, because Air America is the most prominent face of liberal radio.
BuzzFlash: There’s no question of that.
Al Franken: There are other factors, too. Am I viable? Am I the best candidate to beat Coleman? Are there other candidates better? I want us to win the seat.
Al Franken: I’m trying to figure out where I fit in on this, and Midwest Values PAC, I suppose, is part of making myself viable by doing. A part of Midwest Values PAC is going to be raising money for Minnesota candidates, and my campaigning for and hopefully signing up a lot of people in Minnesota. But my feeling was, at least I could do something, whether or not I run. I can do something that’s of value to the party, and to liberals and progressives, and to the country. The PAC has a number of purposes to it, one of which is to raise money and disperse it, and not just to candidates but to organizations like Wellstone Action, where I’m on the advisory board. Wellstone Action trains activists in 27 states to do everything from field work, to being a candidate, to being a campaign manager.
BuzzFlash: We’ve interviewed them. They do fine work. Let me ask about the name of the PAC: "Midwest Values." Are you trying to reframe – take back – the right wing’s definition of values? On the site, you have listings like patriotism, honesty, fairness, hard work, being nice.
Al Franken: Yes.
BuzzFlash: Do you feel that redefining and accurately framing progressive values is one of the biggest keys for progressives to win the election? Have you jumped on the Lakoff framing bandwagon?
Al Franken: I have, to some degree. It just drives me nuts that these guys have stolen values, when they’re corrupt, dishonest, greedy. They hire people by cronyism. They hijack religion and Jesus, when Jesus talked about helping the poor. As I always say, if you cut out every passage in the New Testament where Jesus talks about helping the poor, or helping the least among us – if you cut out each one of those passages, you’d have the perfect box to smuggle Rush Limbaugh’s drugs.
BuzzFlash: One of the values you listed was being nice. And this is BuzzFlash interviewing you. For a lot of progressives, this is a big thing. A lot of people feel like progressives have to be as tenacious as the right wing, and we have to fight back. We have to hold them accountable and change the terms of the debate. How can we be nice, but not be passive? This must be tricky for you, if you’re considering a run for office.
Al Franken: You can be aggressive and nice at the same time. In my workplace, I’m nice to the people that I work with. Maybe I won't always be nice to Paul Wolfowitz, but I at least will engage him in a civil manner until he gets out of control, or Bill O’Reilly gets out of control. But I’ll stand up and fight. I don’t think there’s really a contradiction.
BuzzFlash: You were a friend and a strong supporter of the late Senator Paul Wellstone.
Al Franken: Yes.
BuzzFlash: How much do the untimely deaths of Paul Wellstone and his wife and daughter factor into your decision for the Senate? Is there a shadow cast on that seat?
Al Franken: There is an aspect of that. I probably campaigned more for Paul than I have for anybody else. Then, just a few months after Paul had died, when Coleman was in the Senate, he did a Roll Call interview, and he said that he was a 99% improvement over Paul. I took offense at that.
BuzzFlash: What did you learn from Paul Wellstone, watching his career, and what do you think other candidates should take from his legacy? He’s sort of a mythic figure for "Wellstone Democrats."
Al Franken: He was authentic. That’s one thing that people should carry away. There are people who voted for Paul who didn’t agree with everything he espoused, but they knew that if he said something, he actually believed it. They knew instinctively that he was on their side, and they just admired him. To get elected, it helps to be authentic, and not change who you are and what you stand for to suit the fashion of the day. Paul, of course, brought great passion and hard work to what he was doing. And clearly he was someone who liked people.
BuzzFlash: Perceptions are established quickly, and they’re very hard to shake. Even though many perceptions are grossly simplified and sometimes even absent of reality – Gore is boring, Kerry waffles, Bush is a good ol' boy - it’s something that candidates have to deal with. How do you combat the oversimplification of a person’s character? What will happen when people ask, can a comic take the U.S. Senate seriously? How would you, or how can any candidate, change how people perceive you?
Al Franken: I don’t actually think that’s going to be too hard. People don’t have that much of a prejudice against a comedian. They see people like Jon Stewart and me, and think, oh – this actually is a way to look at politics – there’s something about satire that gets to the truth of something, maybe in a better way than we hear from most politicians.
BuzzFlash: One would hope that maybe we are getting more sophisticated.
Al Franken: I think a lot of people are more sophisticated about that, and it filters down through the electorate.
BuzzFlash: You must be ecstatic that you didn’t do an interview for the film "The Aristocrats." Are you familiar with the film?
Al Franken: I am. But I haven’t worked up my "aristocrat." I suppose if I’d been asked to, I would have worked one up.
BuzzFlash: After you get elected, maybe you’ll have to come up with the Senate version.
Al Franken: On the floor of the Senate - tell the aristocrat joke. I’d be the first senator to do that.
BuzzFlash: It seems there’s a double standard in terms of celebrities going into politics, between Democrats and Republicans. The Republicans seem to understand the true power of nominating charismatic candidates. Although the Republicans talk down liberal Hollywood, they elected Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who are both actors. It’s interesting, when you look at the polling, that Schwarzenegger got elected even though most people disagreed with his policies. A lot of it comes down to just telling your personal story. Are Republicans better at that, or maybe choose that strategy, whereas Democrats have a tendency to talk about issues and policies? You’re a very charismatic man, and people are listening to you. What’s your take on that?
Al Franken: I do tell my story. I grew up sort of middle class. It’s not like I was drunk until I was forty; and I didn’t serve in the National Guard. I do talk a lot about my dad and growing up in the time I did. When I was promoting my last book, the chapter I would read at the book signings was called “Al Franken Talks About God.” It was really about my dad, and the beliefs that I got from him. People responded to that. So when I do talk about my life, it resonates with people. People get a sense of who I am. I had to laugh when I was on Michael Medved’s show the other day, and someone called up and said, “You elitists just can’t stand that this hick from Texas is President.” Well, my dad didn’t graduate high school. And this hick from Texas’ father was president, and his grandfather was senator and a trustee of Yale. It’s very funny.
BuzzFlash: What issues are especially important to you? What’s the big picture stuff you would like to be a part of as senator?
Al Franken: There are a lot of issues. There’s early childhood education - I think that's one that we would get a lot of bang for the buck on. I’d like to see teachers who teach in high-risk areas get paid an exorbitant amount of money, so that teachers would compete for those jobs - so that the very best teachers would be lining up. One of the things that just kills me is that kids who live in at-risk neighborhoods have the least resources dedicated to them because education is paid for by property taxes. I would love to see them get the best teachers and best principals.
Renewable energy is something that I think every Democrat agrees on. We should be really doing it, as opposed to Bush saying something and then actually doing the opposite - cutting research in the clean coal technologies, and stuff like that.
There’s conducting foreign policy in a rational manner, understanding that it’s important to work with the rest of the world.
BuzzFlash: Let me pick up on that. One of the frustrating things is that the Democratic leadership can’t seem to figure out how to communicate values on national security, terrorism, and defense. Why does this trip up so many Democrats? Why can't more of them just say what they really feel about the issues, especially when you look at the war in Iraq?
Al Franken: With the war in Iraq, there’s so much uncertainty and complexity to where we are right now. You can look back and say we were lied into the war, and there was no planning for an aftermath of the war, or the planning that was done was willfully ignored by the Administration. Now, I think that withdrawing immediately would be a perfectly bad ending to a perfectly badly done bad war.
You do have to respect Murtha. His view is that our being there just makes things worse, and we've just got to get out of there, and get out of there as quickly as we can, in six months or something like that. Others of us believe that we can’t do that – that we have created the situation. We find ourselves in a no-win situation, but if we just left, it could descend into total chaos, which it’s pretty close to now. I mean real civil war. And that’s irresponsible. We owe it to the Iraqi people not to do that. There is so much that’s uncertain about it that, I think anyone who’s honest about it doesn’t have the answer. We’ve been put in a no-win situation.
BuzzFlash: Let's switch gears. You’ve been a radio host for a few years now on Air America. What do you like most about it?
Al Franken: I like that it keeps me learning. It keeps me in the news cycle. I like actually being on radio. I like great guests. And I’ve put together a regular cast of really great guests like Joe Conason and Tom Oliphant, Norm Ornstein, Josh Micah Marshall, Paul Krugman, and Dahlia Lithwick. I’m very proud of that. I enjoy talking to these great people.
BuzzFlash: Is it exhausting?
Al Franken: It’s not exhausting to do the show. What’s hard is to do the show and do something else.
BuzzFlash: Do you ever relax, or do you constantly feel like you have to be reading every single paper that comes out?
Al Franken: I relax, but I feel guilty doing it. But I’m on a bit of a mission now, so it’s okay. And it’s not about me, it’s about the people who aren’t getting health care. It’s about the kids that aren’t getting educated. It’s about troops who are getting maimed and killed. You’ve just got to suck it up and keep working.
BuzzFlash: It seems that you understand the first rule of talk radio, and maybe politics – that you have to be entertaining first and informative second. Do you agree with that?
Al Franken: I don’t know if I’d make that a hard rule. On my show, I try to be informative, entertaining, or sometimes actually emotional. We have a mix of stuff.
BuzzFlash: Between now and 2008, what would you like to see happen with your Midwest Values PAC, besides increasing the fundraising and growing? And what’s going to happen with your show between now and 2008?
Al Franken: Midwest Values PAC is presented at our website - MidwestValuesPAC.org. Instead of just fundraising, a big part of Midwest Values PAC is to build up a community of activists. They can find places to go to acquire political skills, and it's about developing relationships with other people who are activists. Let’s say you’re interested in campaign finance reform, in clean elections, in public financing of elections, and you’re blogging about that. We can tie you to other people that are blogging about that. You can find someone in your area who's interested in that and maybe do a meet-up. Or we can let you know when a state representative candidate in your area is having an event, and you can go to that.
It's about community networking and creating a progressive community, which I think was one of the problems we had in 2004. The weekend before that election, I was taking the train down from New York to Washington, and talking to this guy about the election. He says, “My wife’s in Michigan campaigning, and my psychiatrist is in Pennsylvania.” I said, “Is your wife from Michigan? Is your psychiatrist from Pennsylvania?” “No, no, no – they’re New Yorkers.” I felt then like we were going to lose, because it’s really about neighbor to neighbor stuff, and building that kind of social capital.
A few months ago I went up to Duluth and talked to students there who know how to organize. The University of Minnesota-Duluth had an 88% turnout in 2004. That’s because they knew how to build up social capital, and knew how to organize, and knew how to find out who was interested in what, and talk to them about it. I think that’s how we will win. That’s a huge piece of what we’re doing with the website.
BuzzFlash: It’s one we’re pleased to help you promote, so best of luck to you. And I hope you do run, not only because I would like to see you in the Senate, but I have to say there’s a sick part of me that would love to see old Al Franken material be used in a negative attack ad.
Al Franken: Well, you convinced me. Tom Davis and I used to do, "The Franken and Davis show is brought to you by the Communist Party, working for you in Africa." I do want the public get an education in what irony is, and the uses of it. One thing that’s great about America is that Americans do understand ironic humor more than, say, the Dutch. That’s one great thing about this country. I think a Franken candidacy would advance that.
BuzzFlash: Thank you so much for speaking with us.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Interview Conducted by BuzzFlash Senior Editor Scott Vogel.
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The Truth, With Jokes (Hardcover), by Al Franken (a BuzzFlash Premium)