Sen. Al Franken does the political pivot

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) balanced humor and seriousness while speaking to a Washington audience about his new book, “Giant of the Senate.” Photo by Dan Schere.

The political pivot is an art, and for someone who spent most of his career making people laugh, not an easy one. But Al Franken learned to master the skill in 2008 when the former “Saturday Night Live” writer and liberal activist ran as a Democrat against incumbent Minnesota Republican Sen. Norm Coleman and unexpectedly unseated him.

“I was taught that if Norm Coleman is 20 points ahead of you in the polls and you’re asked, ‘How do you think you’re going to beat him?’ The pivot would be, ‘You know, when I go around Minnesota, Minnesotans don’t care about polls,’” he said. “You see? That’s a pivot.”’

Franken didn’t do much pivoting — a fancy word for changing the subject — at a sold-out appearance on June 6 at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington to promote his new book, titled with Franken-like faux self-importance “Giant of the Senate.”

During the Q-and-A with CNN anchor Jake Tapper, Franken said what he really thinks about President Donald Trump and his administration.

“They’re not acting like people who have nothing to hide,” he said of Trump’s cabinet. “That’s all I’m saying. And that’s just from 66 years of observing human nature.”

Franken described his showdown with Attorney General Jeff Sessions during Sessions’ confirmation hearings in January. As he grilled Sessions about his possible contacts with Russian officials during the 2016 presidential campaign, Franken asked Sessions if he would recuse himself from the FBI investigation into alleged Russian efforts to meddle in last November’s election.

Sessions, Franken recounted, responded by answering a question that he had not asked: Sessions said he’d had no contact with Russian officials. However, he had in fact met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak twice, and he later recused himself from the FBI investigation.

Sessions “pivoted from ‘I’m not going to talk about recusal’ to ‘I’m just going to lie here,’” Franken said. “That was not part of the pivoting thing I was taught.”

Asked by Tapper what he thought the result of the investigation would be, Franken said he wanted to “wait and see where the facts lead.” Then he took a combination jab and laugh line at Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner — one of the figures at the center of the Russia investigation.

“The question will be what did the president know and when did his son-in-law tell him,” Franken said.

Franken was just getting warmed up. He noted that in his book, he said that he likes Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz more than any of his colleagues do. They all hate him, Franken said.

“There’s 100 people in the Senate, and your ability to get things done depends on your work being good … and you just have to get along,” Franken said. “And [Cruz] doesn’t make an attempt to do that. He’s a toxic co-worker. He’s a guy that microwaves fish. And the only thing he’s done in the Senate is close down the government.”

Franken’s balance of the serious and silly resonated strongly with the audience.

“I think he’s doing an amazing job,” said Fairfax resident Philippa Hindman. “I think he’s made the transition from being a comedian to being a serious senator and yet retaining that sense of humor and his charm.”

Bethesda resident Laurie Friedman agreed.

“I thought it was really funny when he said Ted Cruz was like the office worker who puts fish in the microwave,” she said.

While Franken has managed to shed much of his comedic demeanor since his arrival in the Senate, it took some time to learn to play it straight.

Franken said on his first day on the job, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) asked him how things were going on the far left. Franken’s response: “Great. How are things on the nutcase right?”

While this interaction was good-natured, Franken said his jokes got him in trouble the next year, during Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan’s confirmation hearing. As Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), then minority leader, was testifying against Kagan’s nomination, Franken, who was seated behind the dais, made a series of sarcastic facial expressions.

McConnell “was treating [Kagan] like she was a promising debutante,” he said. “And I rolled my eyes. And then I smirked. And then I laughed.”

McConnell responded by telling Franken that the hearing was “not ‘Saturday Night Live.’” Franken said he immediately understood his mistake and sent a note of apology to McConnell’s office. The two made up and shared a friendly dinner.

“Every once in a while, Mitch can be a mensch,” Franken said. “Although I’m not sure he knows what that means.”

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