A Conversation with Al Franken

Jon Perr

Al Franken came to Portland today in the service of both Air America affiliate AM 620 KPOJ and the Democratic Party of Oregon.  In between the two events, Franken squeezed in some media time with local television, print and online journalists (including an ersatz reporter or two).

During our brief conversation, an understandably fatigued Franken quickly ranged across the landscape of talk radio and politics.  Ever gracious, fair and balanced, Franken gave kudos to the good guys, blasted the evil doers, and offered a Clintonesque close-but-no-cigar to the rest.

The discussion, to his apparent relief, started on a lighter note.  Asked to name his favorite political irony during his time as a commentator, Franken replied immediately and without hesitation, "Rush being a drug addict, Bennett being a gambling addict, and O’Reilly being a phone sex harasser."  These turnabouts are all the sweeter because "they all talk about traditional values." 

Of Limbaugh, the man who said that drugs addicts "should be put away," Franken said simply that that the serial abuser of painkillers "should be gone."  Franken then went on to offer a recital of the greatest hits of Bill Bennett, author of The Book of Virtues and problem gambler extraordinaire.  Al noted that Bennett, who went through $8 million during his binge, said "I won more than I lost," a point Bennett said was lost on the public as "casinos don't like to advertise when you win."  And special venom, of course, was reserved for Fox host and traditional values advocate Bill O’Reilly.  "I didn't know that phone sex was traditional.  I didn't know the phone was around long enough to be traditional.  Maybe telegraph sex…"

The success of Air America and the struggles of the Democratic Party in fighting the conservative movement were also key discussion topics.  Dismissing one reporter’s suggestion that National Public Radio (NPR) already represented liberal radio, Franken retorted, "NPR is not advocacy or liberal radio.  It's RADIO.  It's actual news."

Acknowledging that today's 24/7 "infotainment" media provides conservatives with a "terrain that gives advantage to people who are unscrupulous with the truth," Franken said his mission on Air America mission is not to get on "their level. I fight back clean, but that doesn't mean I won't fight hard." For Franken, the contrast with conservative talk radio couldn’t be more stark:

"Their [conservative talk radio] level is lying.  We don’t manipulate our audience. We serve our audience."

When it comes to the potential for marketing Air America and, by extension, Democratic messages, Al was much less enthusiastic.  "The thing that interests me least about the radio business is the radio business." As for what passes for marketing and "branding" within the progressive movement, Franken was blunt.  "We have George Lakoff  [author of the current progressive bible Don't Think of An Elephant] and they have Frank Luntz.  Lakoff is a terrible framer." While Democratic advisor Lakoff might conclude that "I've discovered that melody is important", the Republicans "have Paul McCartney."

Before parting, Franken urged the media to cover two key stories he claimed were still flying under the radar.  First, he said, was "corruption in Iraq. $8.8 billion is missing.  The money went somewhere.  Because of it, our soldiers are dying."  The second, Franken insisted, was the issue of foreign aid to developing nations.  During the just concluded British elections, "every party talked about aid to the developing world. We don't talk about that here.  The Christian Conservatives who are supposedly so compassionate don’t talk about it."

For them, Franken concluded with both resignation and a smile, "life begins at conception and ends at birth."

  • Gonzo Journalist (unverified)

    He is suspected to have more tongue in his head than mettle in his bosom.

                    <B>-- Sir Walter Scott</B>

    Translation: more of a sissy bullshit artist than a man.

  • Andrew (unverified)

    Great! Also see my interview with Al Franken via the URL below. He was in Seattle yesterday and I had the chance to ask him some questions.

  • Huff And Blow (unverified)

    Franken doesn't think NPR is biased.

    From the last comment's link:

    Franken relies on blogs for some stories or aspects of them (here's Randi Rhodes and here's Mike Malloy blogsurfing, ripping, reading, and having to retract later. No word on whether Stuart Smalley has suffered the same problem.)

    Franken: "We trust only reliable sources like Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo, Atrios, or Daily Kos".

    Oh gawd. At least Dr. JMM is a real journalist. But, as for the other two, the most polite term I can think up is "polemicist," but that's not accurate.

  • Admiral Rusty Shackelford (unverified)

    Al Franken is a hand chosen opponent. A stiff.

    No one cottons to this guy, he has a nasally whiney voice, is physically unattractive- no one can stand more than 8 minutes of him. He is a ridiculously easy opponent chosen to make the right seem like some sort of supermen in comparison.

    O'Reilly is scummy, but he is no fool. He fought with Franken a little to long and loud -it was a work ala WWE SMACKDOWN. When Fox News sued him, it elevated Franken's and O'Reilly's name recognition, and got "Fox News" said on ABC CBS CNN NBC DRUDGE et al.

    There is no such thing as bad press.


  • (Show?)

    Franken was intelligent, persuasive, genuine, interesting, enthusiastic, entertaining and real tonight that the Dem. fundraiser. My only wish is that we had been smart enough to hire a Dead cover band instead of the AWESOME Vagabond Opera. Though they jam on the klezmer, we could have also provided a few notes of Ripple, Friend of the Devil, I dunno - Scarlet Begonias - to welcome Franken to town.

    I'm hoping he runs for office in MN. Sounds likely.

    Also, people who saw the show this AM said it was the highlight of their lives. Wish I could have attended.

    Franken is learning how to do radio, he's not perfect yet - Limbaugh has 15 years or more on him. But he's getting the hang of it, and he's pretty darned funny!

    Plus, he said "Fucking" like three times to describe Bush & Co. Noone has done that in my earshot in a while - esp. in front of so many people - and he was dead on! Something like "those fucking bastards" I dont' remember exactly.

  • Jon (unverified)

    Following up on Albert's comment, Franken did indeed drop the F-bomb during his gig at the Democratic fundraiser.

    The context? Brit Hume.

    Regarding Hume's disgusting - and erroneous - August 2003 comparison of U.S. troop fatalities in Iraq to the murder rate in California (read, liberal California is more dangerous than Iraq), Franken called the Fox uber fiend, "F**king shameless."

    Probably not the best choice for young ears. Then again, they say the truth will set you free.

  • Becky (unverified)

    I used to think Franken was intolerable until I actually saw him live in Minneapolis a couple of years ago. He was hilarious (I hadn't ever listened to him before - only conservative takes on him). Shortly after, I read his "Lying Liars" book and I've seen everything differently ever since. I used to think O'Reilly was pompous but entertaining. Now I can't stomach him at all because I know he's a stinking liar. I used to enjoy Rush, too, but I can't trust anything that comes out of his lying, blowhard mouth. I listen to Franken whenever I can because even when I disagree with his take on things I can't ever catch him lying and he's funny. Unlike Randi Rhodes (who thinks very highly of herself and nearly intolerable at times), Franken doesn't put party before truth. I have come to respect him and really enjoy his sense of humor. As for his looks, Admiral, who cares? He's a guy. Guys don't have to be good looking, they only have to be smart, interesting, funny, and/or successful - and Franken is all four. Only sissys and girls worry about their looks.

  • glenlivid (unverified)

    Who would of thought that pointing out the lies of Republican shills could be a lucrative line of work for a guy that has worked in both the television and movie industries? It’s one of the things that make our society great! I don’t know anyone else that has called Rush, O’Reilly, Coulter, Hannity, Hume, Bush, and Cheney on their B.S. to such a large audience, and made it fun to read and listen to in the process. The guy is a genuine article and a great American. Unlike most of the chickenhawk, right wing jaw-flappers, Franken has been on as many as four USO tours to entertain our soldiers in combat. He is fond of saying that the reason he can go on USO tours as opposed to O’Reilly is that he (Franken) actually has talent.

    Just the fact that he named a book “Rush Limbaugh is a Big, Fat Idiot” is comedy gold, but I think everyone who reads “Lies and the Lying Liars that Tell Them” will walk away unable to look at the “conservative” media the same again. Franken believes that honesty is the only way to get your point across, and I’d have to agree with him. Let’s face it, if you have to lie to people to sell your agenda, there is something wrong with both you and your agenda. I’m glad he felt the necessity to stand up to the right wing propaganda machine, and I don’t know anyone that could have done it as effectively as he has. I hope he can have the same impact in the Senate that he has in the infotainment industry, but I will really miss him on the radio when he is elected. Maybe someday I will turn on C-Span and watch him grill the hell out of one of the lying Republicans that have made our lives so damn scary.

  • (Show?)

    Frankin was great last night, but Gov. Roberts also really was outstanding. Just a fantastic speaker - really got the crowd pumped.

    But tucked away in Jon's account of last night was a pretty interesting item:

    As for what passes for marketing and "branding" within the progressive movement, Franken was blunt. "We have George Lakoff [author of the current progressive bible Don't Think of An Elephant] and they have Frank Luntz. Lakoff is a terrible framer." While Democratic advisor Lakoff might conclude that "I've discovered that melody is important", the Republicans "have Paul McCartney."

    That's pretty at odds with the Lakoff-As-Golden-Boy narrative that's been running through this site for the past few months. I think it speaks to the fact that you can be dead on about the importance of framing without being a master at the actual craft. Lakoff's failed 2003 effort to defeat a Texas medical malpractice cap is also an example of theory not meshing with the electoral realities of a political campaign.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    Franken should not be mistaken for a progressive, at least not in the rigorous sense of the term. He is a middle of the road Dem, not the second coming of Paul Wellstone; even if they both wrestled in their youth.

    Franken can be annoying, but which conservative commentator is not?

    Personality aside, blue talk radio is a very important development. It is promoting liberal communication in the urban, already blue markets where it is heard and will change the political balance in not-so-blue markets it may soon penetrate.

    I am glad to hear most hosts [not Franken, though] criticize D's for not living up to the party's values. A little hand slapping can help limit the bad influence of lobbying and campaign contributions.

  • (Show?)

    Posted by: Gonzo Journalist | May 10, 2005 07:05 PM Posted by: Andrew | May 10, 2005 07:20 PM Posted by: Huff And Blow | May 10, 2005 08:12 PM Posted by: Admiral Rusty Shackelford | May 10, 2005 08:27 PM



  • (Show?)

    Posted by: Charlie Burr | May 11, 2005 11:30 AM

    Agreed about Lakoff... his writing are very valuable, but more as a sort of technical white paper on the issues and not as the actual practice of framing and "marketing" of policy, political campaigning or the text-book of progressive/liberal rhetoric.

    As a graphic designer who works in marketing and communications for a living (for a fortune 500 company) Lakoff's points are very valid and his writing is good foundational knowledge, but he sucks at actual message crafting and delivery.

    Getting people to be effective, solid key-communicators at the state, local and grassroots level is vital. Lakoff is but one resource, but certainly not a talking points guidebook or a cliff-notes silver bullet solution by any stretch of the imagination.

  • Samuel John Klein (unverified)

    While I was thrilled to know that Al was coming to town and got to hear some of the nice things he and Katherine had to say about KPOJ and Oregon in general, I would have much more preferred to attend in person, as this team are my heroes.

    But at $100/ticket, (billed as "just" $100 on the radio, or by myself as "just" 1/9th of a bi-weekly paycheck) this wasn't happening unless I won the call-in competition or won the web-drawing. I did't win either. It didn't happen.

    Republicans may be actively beggaring me, but nothing makes me feel poorer than when I can't afford to see a show like this because...well, because I'm too poor.

    Can't there ever be a version of these shows for us...well, working folk who can only pay for the cheap seats?

    I'll still listen to Al. His show is brilliant (and better than what's on other stations), but is it too much to ask to be able to see someone like him and Katherine in person without declaring bankruptcy...

    ...oh, wait. Can't do that anymore. Forgot. Sorry.

  • harpy (unverified)

    I attended the broadcast at the Governor Hotel and I was disgusted with the choice of topics and guests Franken chose for the morning. The largest segment was an interview with WW writer, Nigel Jaquiss, about the OLD Goldschmidt story. To come to Oregon and then proceed to dredge up our oldest, dirtiest story for a public re-airing is just stupid! A good 1/3 of the audience left after that segment. Sec. of State Bill Bradbury was there, but was not asked to speak. Why not discuss Oregon's vote-by-mail elections? It felt like the morning was spent kicking dead horses from Goldschmidt to O'Reilly's combat lie (tape played 3 times!) Oregon has a lot to add to the national discussion but Franken was not interested.

  • glenlivid (unverified)

    "It felt like the morning was spent kicking dead horses from Goldschmidt to O'Reilly's combat lie (tape played 3 times!) Oregon has a lot to add to the national discussion but Franken was not interested."

    You've got some good points, harpy. I think it's because Franken is on a tour, of sorts, that keeps the content of his show a little lighter, but overall he is more interested in the national scene than anything else. He doesn't get bogged down in state-by-state details because he spends so much time addressing the lying media, the war and the awful republican agenda. Personally, I like the fact that he reminds us daily what a mistake this war was and spends the rest of his time talking about the lies that most repubs take as biblical from their talking point stooges.

    If you've read any of his books, you'd know that his main agenda since he started was addressing the right-wing dominated media and how much they bend the truth. Does he do in depth coverage of issues? No he really doesn't. I don't think that was ever what he was looking to accomplish, so if you look at his start with writing books to his year with Air America, I think he's been fairly consistent.

    As far as Goldschmidt is concerned, the Willamette Week writer just won a Pulitzer this year, so it is kind of a big deal from that perspective.

connect with blueoregon