Al Franken must be the first United States senator to have made a living as a comedy writer or humorist, most notably in the early years of Saturday Night Live. One of his SNL bits involved his mock-serious declaration of the 1980s as the Al Franken Decade. Assuming that he was ever funny, he hasn’t been so since that decade passed on.
Franken had already abandoned humor for politics of the talk-radio kind when he returned to Minnesota in 2007 to run for the Senate. This year, however, he reverted to the facetious tone that permeated his comedy work, with the publication of his best-selling memoir, Giant of the Senate. Franken promoted the book via predictably friendly media outlets—but I was not expecting him to turn up as a guest disc jockey on SiriusXM’s Grateful Dead Channel. During his May 30 stint there, Franken treated listeners to some of his favorite Grateful Dead shows; hosted an interview segment with former Dead members Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann, and Mickey Hart; recalled shows that he had attended at the Winterland Ballroom; and played his favorite version of “Althea.”
In the Senate, though, Franken has not only abandoned humor; he may also have become the body’s unfunniest senator. Consider his approach to opposing two of President Trump’s choices for the federal appellate courts. Trump has nominated Notre Dame University Law School professor Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. At the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Barrett’s nomination, Senators Dick Durbin and Dianne Feinstein conducted a mini-inquisition of Barrett’s religious views. “Do you consider yourself an orthodox Catholic?” Durbin asked. Feinstein concluded her questioning by telling Barrett that “the [Catholic] dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s of concern.” They all but asked Barrett whether she is now or ever has been a member of the Catholic Church.
Their performance distracted attention from Franken’s own McCarthy-like performance. Also a member of the committee, the Minnesota senator questioned Barrett about a speech that she had given to “an extreme right group.” Barrett acknowledged that she had been paid by the Alliance Defending Freedom to give a speech on constitutional interpretation to Christian law students in the ADF’s Blackstone Legal Fellowship program. The ADF is a prominent Christian legal-rights organization that litigates freedom-of-religion claims on behalf of parties such as Masterpiece Cakeshop—a case pending before the Supreme Court this term. Noting that the ADF has recently been designated an anti-LGBT hate group—by the discredited and delusional Southern Poverty Law Center, that is—Franken attacked Barrett as unworthy of confirmation. “Now I question your judgment,” Franken told her. “The root word of judgment is ‘judge,’” he helpfully added.
Franken drew on the same technique to oppose Trump’s nomination of Minnesota Supreme Court Justice David Stras to the Eighth Circuit. Stras taught at the University of Minnesota Law School from 2004 to 2010, where he was a popular and respected professor, and has served on the Minnesota Supreme Court since 2010. More than three months after Stras had been nominated, a Franken spokesman told the Associated Press that the senator was still studying Stras’s “lengthy record.” Finally, in early September, Franken announced that he would oppose Stras’s nomination. He cited nothing in Stras’s scholarly or judicial record; instead, he pronounced Stras guilty of having served as a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, of speaking favorably of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, and of associating himself with the (nonpartisan) Federalist Society.
“I have grown concerned that, if confirmed to the federal bench, Justice Stras would be a deeply conservative jurist in the mold of Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, justices who the nominee himself has identified as role models,” Franken wrote. He went on: “Justice Stras’s professional background and record strongly suggest that, if confirmed, he would embrace the legacy of his role models and reliably rule in favor of powerful corporate interests over working people, and that he would place a high bar before plaintiffs seeking justice at work, at school, and at the ballot box.”
Franken’s formulations suggest McCarthyite guilt by association—though, in this case, the associations are to be admired. There is a reason that Franken filed no specific objections to Stras’s work. Nothing in the judge’s record suggests that he is anything but his own man.
Franken’s left-wing McCarthyism is hard to take seriously, but that doesn’t make it funny. The senator hasn’t been funny for a generation.
Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for SiriusXM