Minnesota's comedic candidate?

By Matthew Stone

A comedian by training, but similar enough to a lawyer to earn the respect of the American Constitution Society (ACS), Air America Radio talk show host and best-selling author Al Franken spoke last Thursday before the Minneapolis chapter of the ACS, a national network of progressive lawyers.In his speech and the subsequent public question-and-answer session, Franken made his share of quips against the Bush administration for lying to the country to begin a war and infringing upon Americans’ civil liberties to detect Al Qaeda members staked out in the U.S. According to Franken’s estimates, based on the number of wiretaps the National Security Agency has conducted at Bush’s request, 2,000 to 3,000 Al Qaeda terrorists will be in the crowd at Ford Field in Detroit on Sunday for the Superbowl.

Franken also took on his rightwing critics, especially Rush Limbaugh, for taking facts “directly from his butt.” Franken assured the audience that he subscribes to an incontrovertible standard of truth because he “googles” facts before announcing them on the air.

And it was no coincidence that Franken criticized Minnesota Republican Sen. Norm Coleman for his crusade against United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan ’61. Franken, a St. Louis Park, Minn., native and Blake School (Hopkins, Minn.) graduate, says he is exploring the possibility of challenging Coleman in 2008. He recently moved to Minneapolis, making him eligible to run.

Franken sat down for a private interview and quick meal with The Mac Weekly following his remarks. Below are excerpts from the conversation.

The Mac Weekly: You recently moved back to Minnesota. How are you finding it?

Al Franken: Unseasonably mild. I like Minnesota.

MW: I know your speech was about civil liberties and how the Bush administration is endangering our civil liberties. Would you say that is the most important political issue facing Americans today? Can you point to one?

AF: I think that there are so many that are so important. Health care; the widening gap between the haves and have-nots; the government operating on behalf of special interests, not the public interest, and all that impacts everything. It impacts health care, impacts education, impacts environmental concerns, impacts energy policy. That’s why I’m so disappointed that Democrats aren’t using this Abramoff scandal to talk about ways to get money out of politics.

MW: About that, why would they if so many Democrats are connected to Abramoff?

AF: They aren’t. Why do you assume that? Why do you say that?

MW: Because [Sen.] Byron Dorgan from North Dakota was found to have connections with the Indian tribes and he was advocating on their behalf with Abramoff.

AF: Yeah, but they live in North Dakota.

MW: It was an Indian tribe from Massachusetts.

AF: An Indian tribe from Massachusetts gave to Dorgan?

MW: Abramoff has been found to be pretty tightly connected with an Indian tribe from Massachusetts.

AF: Did the Indian tribe from Massachusetts give to Dorgan?

MW: Yeah. I believe.

AF: It’s either a yes or a no. I’m asking you and you don’t seem to be giving me an answer.

MW: I believe they had been connected.

AF: Well connected doesn’t mean anything. Tell me if the Indian tribe from Massachusetts gave Dorgan money.

MW: I’m not certain. [The Mac Weekly later sent an article to Franken detailing Dorgan’s connection. See the editor’s note below.]

AF: See there’s a lot of confusion here that’s deliberately sewn by the Republicans, who say, “well, Democrats got money from Abramoff. Democrats didn’t get money from Abramoff. Abramoff did not give a single dime to a Democrat. There are several kinds of money here that we’re talking about. And we should make a distinction what they are.

There’s money that personally came from Abramoff. He’s a Republican. Not one cent from him or his wife has gone to a Democrat, as far as I know. Then there’s money that clients of his have given to members and then you can divide that into two different kinds of money.

One is bribes and there hasn’t been a Democrat identified in any of this that falls under that category.

The other is clients who give money to a member because the member supports the cause. It makes a big difference. For example, [Sen.] Conrad Burns [R-Mont.] changed his vote on Saipan [a garment manufacturer accused of paying Chinese immigrant laborers under the federal minimum wage] after getting money from Abramoff’s clients on [the US’] North Marianas Islands. Conrad Burns got a $3 million school for the Saginaw tribe in Michigan after getting money from the man. But it’s done nothing to help his own tribes in Montana.

Then there are trips that are paid for through these various phony groups that are either, like, think tanks, phony think tanks or phony charities that pay for things like golf trips. Those, as far as I know, have only gone to Republicans.

MW: You know [Rep.] Michael Capuano [Democrat] of Massachusetts, a Congressman, recently got back from a privately funded trip to Brazil funded by what seems to be the sources you’ve been alluding to.

AF: And who paid for his trip?

MW: Well, it was interest groups that you’ve been alluding to.

AF: Can you tell me who? I’d like to know.

MW: I can look up the Boston Globe article. I believe it was a few weeks ago probably. Do you want me to e-mail that to you?

AF: Certainly. E-mail it to him. [Franken points to his assistant, who worked for Capuano. See the editor’s note below.] Why would [members of Congress] vote for campaign finance reform? Not to spend so much time raising money.

MW: On to something different. It’s been almost two years since you’ve been doing your show on Air America Radio, which I’m sure was founded to counter the onslaught of right-wing talk radio. How do you think Air America is doing in that behemoth of a task?

AF: I think we’ve made strong inroads. We’re now in about 63 percent of the country broadcasting. We’re on XM. My show is the most streamed show on radio. I think we’re making good progress.

MW: I’m wondering what you think about the anti-war movement we have in this country or maybe don’t have. Something that has struck me is that what we have had is led by a baby-boomer, by Cindy Sheehan. I’m wondering why you don’t think more young people are out there taking part.

AF: Well, I’ll tell you one thing. During Vietnam, one thing Nixon did to try to stop protests was to end the draft. And I think if we had a draft now, you’d be seeing a lot of young people leading antiwar protests. I think baby-boomers kind of remember what antiwar protests are about, what an antiwar movement is about. I think that’s part of it. That culture, it came out of the Vietnam War protests, were baby-boomers, and that came out of, partly out of the fact that there was a draft. People educated themselves real fast about what was going on and they didn’t like it.

MW: One last thing that I know you probably get a lot. What are your plans for 2008?

AF: Well, I don’t know. I’ve made no secret about the fact I’m looking at the Senate, and I haven’t decided yet. Part of me wants to do it, but there’s a lot of questions that are going to have to get answered between now and when I make the decision. Is it more important to be doing the radio show? Would I be the best candidate? Those are sort of the two biggest questions.

MW: Well, thank you.

AF: Sure, absolutely.

Editor’s note: The Mac Weekly later sent Franken two newspaper articles.

One, published by the Associated Press in December, detailed Sen. Byron Dorgan’s (D-N.D.) connections to the Mashpee Tribe of Massachusetts and its donation of $11,500 to Dorgan through its representative Michael D. Smith, Abramoff’s partner.

The article also revealed a fundraiser hosted for Dorgan by the Mississippi Choctaw Tribe in Abramoff’s arena skybox where Washington power players were c
ommonly wined and dined.

The other article, published in January by The Boston Globe, detailed a trip by Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) to Brazil. The trip, worth $19,403, was funded by a non-profit business organization financed by the lobbyists and company representatives traveling with the congressman, the Globe reported.

–Correction: This article as originally published mistakenly called the National Security Agency the National Security Administration. The original publication also mistakenly claimed that Michael D. Smith, the Abramoff partner, had pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe a member of Congress. Smith never faced such charges.