On a Saturday in mid-November, Al Franken stands in front of a roomful of volunteers at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. The former comedian and talk-show host knows that his campaign troops are fired up over the recount of his race to unseat the state’s Republican senator, Norm Coleman. The official tally ended in a virtual tie, with Coleman leading by only 215 votes out of 2.9 million ballots cast — a margin of seven-thousandth of one percent. To Franken’s campaign volunteers, it seems like Florida 2000 all over again.
The ballot recount, which is mandated by state law, is expected to last well into December — keeping painfully alive the already insanely protracted season of electoral combat between Democrats and Republicans. But rather than throwing red meat to the assembled volunteers, Franken is actually trying to calm them down. Walking back and forth, he leads them in a mock war chant that tweaks the old red-blue outrage:
“What do we want?” Franken shouts.
“PATIENCE!” the volunteers respond.
“When do we want it?” Franken asks.
“NOW!” the crowd demands.
Franken turns to former Clinton adviser Paul Begala, whom he has invited to the meeting to talk about the recount. “You like that?” he says, beaming. “It’s the only dada version of that meme.”
Here’s where things start to sound a little less like Florida in 2000 and a little more like Grant Park in 2008. In the eight years since the Supreme Court handed the presidency to George Bush, there has been very little humor anywhere, on either side of the hottest political battles: Whether it was the launch of the war in Iraq, or the opening night ofFahrenheit 9/11, or the trial of Scooter Libby, the operating vibe has always been earnest, bitter anger. When it came to Blue against Red, you just didn’t joke about how much you hated the other side; you were just too pissed off to laugh about What They Did to This Country.
But there’s something different in the air now, after the election of Barack Obama. All that hating shit just seems old somehow. Republicans are in shock, while Democrats are stumbling around with goofy smiles on their faces, like dental patients walking out of the office still high on laughing gas. For both sides, there are other, more serious things to worry about, like the imminent collapse of the entire system of international capitalism. Which is what makes Al Franken seem almost the perfect person to be carrying the battlefield torch for the Democratic Party in the first Obama-era skirmish between blue and red America.
Like Obama — and in sharp contrast to other 2008 contenders like John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton, who were all wound so asshole-tight and were in such desperate psychological need of victory that they went to extraordinary rhetorical extremes to denounce their opponents and their supporters — Franken is not imbuing the process with unnecessary drama. In tune with the Age of Obama, he seems content to let the chips fall where they may.
“I have a lot of confidence in Minnesota,” he says. “And I think this process will do a lot to restore faith in the system.”
I try to goad Franken into saying something nasty about his opponent, but he won’t go there. He only gets really animated when he mentions that his post-election schedule now allows him to have a proper dinner. “Last night, for instance, I had cauliflower,” he says. “And zucchini. And lamb chops.” Then, as I’m in the middle of asking the next question, he interrupts me as though remembering something important. “I said zucchini, right?”
On the Republican side, meanwhile, the far less cheery Coleman hasn’t gone for any of this post-Obama bipartisan feel-good bullshit, and no wonder — having lost a humiliating gubernatorial race to wrestler Jesse Ventura 10 years ago, he now sits on the verge of becoming the first politician in American history to lose a major office to two different TV entertainers.
This nightmare scenario pushed the incumbent into full-blown war mode the instant a recount appeared inevitable. His immediate strategy was to attack the perfectly normal and legal recount process as illegitimate and “suspicious,” in particular implying that Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie is a left-wing radical bent on delivering the race to Franken. Republicans even went so far as to issue a press release accusing Ritchie of receiving support from the Communist Party of America.
It was behavior straight out of the red-blue death-match ethos of the past 15 years, in which Democrats and Republicans alike were willing to undermine public confidence in the legitimacy of things like elections, confirmation hearings or court rulings to serve partisan ends. The notion that an elected official can’t count votes in an impartial fashion or conduct a lawful criminal investigation simply because he happens to belong to one party or another ought to be antithetical to our view of government, but we have gone there over and over in recent years, training the public to be almost reflexively paranoid about the legitimacy of government action. From independent prosecutors (Ken Starr) to the Supreme Court (Bush v. Gore) to bipartisan congressional investigations (the 9/11 Commission) to the attorney general (Alberto Gonzales), no wing of government was safe from charges of partisan politicization.
It’s no surprise that Coleman went into red-baiting mode after the election. Like Franken a transplanted New Yorker (“I’m the New York Jew who actually grew up in Minnesota,” Franken jokes), Coleman is a creepy, weird-looking character, a beanpole in a suit topped with a rigid mousse helmet of politician hair, like the offspring of a mop and a game-show host. He also has the misfortune of having perhaps the worst sense of humor of any politician running for office this year — a trait that shone through brilliantly in his relentless anti-Franken attack ads, some of which were monstrously, wonderfully unfunny. The best was an ad showing three dipshit-schmoes in bowling shirts — horrible, slovenly caricatures of “regular guys” that apparently represented Coleman’s idea of average Minnesotans — one of whom railed in an overdone Ralph Kramden voice against the liberal Franken, suggesting that maybe they should run for the Senate. “Why not? We’re just as qualified,” the schmoe says. “And we’re better bowlers!” In the annals of dumb, condescending campaign horseshit, it ranked right up there with the “I met Harold at the Playboy party!” Harold Ford-digs-white-chicks ad in 2006.
Coleman’s campaign in general was relentlessly nasty and negative, and included such highlights as an attack ad that starred an outraged, teddy-bear-clutching eight-year-old girl. (“You know what his excuse was?” the girl says of Franken, who had mistakenly underpaid his taxes. “He said no one told him to do it!”) Coleman brought in Rudy Giuliani to remind voters that the Senate is “not a joke,” and then repeatedly pointed an accusing finger at the damning evidence of Franken’s funniness — including a furious campaign against a never-aired SNL skit idea of Franken’s about Andy Rooney feeding Lesley Stahl sleeping pills and raping her in a closet. Why bring up policy when you can focus on stuff like this?
Despite evidence that the relentless negativity hurt him in the polls, the Coleman camp redoubled the same strategy after election night ended with the near-tie, accusing Democrats of trying to “stuff the ballot box” and engaging in “shenanigans.” Coleman lawyer Fritz Knaak, a surprising late-season entrant in the nation’s Asshole of the Year race, complained that the neutrality of the vote-counting process has been “breached” and that the “supercharged environment we’re in leads us to suspect everything.”
Knaak even concocted a Florida-style story of skulduggery, accusing Minneapolis Elections Director Cindy Reichert of keeping 32 absentee ballots in her car “for several days” after the election. Knaak later admitted there was nothing to the story, but that didn’t stop it from being repeated by Sean Hannity, Brit Hume and almost every other hardcore right-wing joker who reported on the matter.
But despite the best efforts of Coleman and other straggler-followers of the old-time religion to turn the recount into a full-blown Florida-esque partisan war, the bloodlust had mostly died down within a few weeks after the election. Perhaps most significant was the retreat of Tim Pawlenty, the governor of Minnesota, from the mudslinging arena. Having initially supported Coleman’s accusations of impropriety with suggestions that “strange” and “concerning” things had taken place in the recount process — in one particularly embarrassing performance, he tried to repeat Knaak’s bogus “ballots in the car” story live on Fox News, but he couldn’t even get Reichert’s gender straight — Pawlenty suddenly reversed course and began campaigning for caution and calm. “It’s in nobody’s best interest, whether you’re a Republican or Democrat or something else, to be taking shots unless there’s some reason to do so,” Pawlenty said on the same day Franken met with his campaign volunteers. “Unless there is evidence, let’s not be throwing gasoline on the fire.”
The public chiding of Coleman to chill out by Pawlenty, the state’s most prominent Republican and a much-talked-about potential presidential candidate in 2012, is the kind of thing that probably wouldn’t have happened back in the heyday of Newt Gingrich or Karl Rove. But this just seems to be the wrong time in American history — and the wrong state — to start a full-blown piss-fight.
“Coleman tried to turn this into a real Warren Christopher/James Baker dueling epic,” says a Franken campaign aide. “But the thing about Minnesotans is that everyone is just sort of calm here. It kind of doesn’t work.”
Even one of the most conservative newspapers in the state, the Fairmont Sentinel, which enthusiastically endorsed Coleman, has been turned off by his hysterics since election night. Among other things, the paper was mortified by Coleman’s post-election pronouncement that he had “won” the race, calling for Franken to concede despite the mandatory recount.
“It’s hard to believe we’re writing this,” the paper wrote, “but it’s clear that Franken…is the one acting with class in this serious situation.”
The Coleman campaign refused to return my phone calls for comment — hardly surprising, given the crisis besieging the senator right now. In addition to the electoral limbo that has enveloped him, a snowballing corruption scandal is gathering speed and heading right for the hapless senator — suggesting that a Coleman recount victory could be a short-lived affair.
Earlier this year, Coleman was named one of the four most corrupt senators by the nonpartisan Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. The main complaint was the discovery that Coleman had been living rent-free in a basement apartment in the Capitol Hill townhouse of a Republican operative named Jeff Larson, who happens to run a telecommunications firm called FLS Connect (which worked for the McCain campaign to issue anti-Obama robo-calls plugging the Bill Ayers connection). Coleman’s political action committee has paid FLS Connect some $1.6 million since 2001, and Coleman hired Larson’s wife as a “casework supervisor” in his St. Paul office, paying her a total of $101,218.
Then came an even weirder story: Reports surfaced that an Iranian businessman named Nasser Kazeminy had not only paid for Coleman’s “lavish clothing purchases” at Neiman Marcus in Minneapolis but had forced the former CEO of Deep Marine Technology, an offshore-drilling supplier in which he is a major investor, to make illegal payments to Coleman. In a lawsuit, the ex-CEO, Paul McKim, alleged that Kazeminy forced the company to make three dummy payments of $25,000 apiece to a Minnesota insurance company called Hays, where Coleman’s wife — an aspiring actress and inventor best known for her “Blo & Go” (that’s not a joke) hands-free hair-dryer attachment — works, ostensibly, as an insurance agent. According to McKim, Kazeminy said the payments were necessary because “U.S. senators don’t make shit.” He added that the Iranian told him Coleman’s wife worked at Hays and “she could get the money to him.”
Making matters even more damning for Coleman, another lawsuit filed by other shareholders in Deep Marine Technology alleged basically the same thing, with one addition: The new suit accuses Kazeminy of trying to use the company to make payments to Coleman directly, before he cooked up the scheme to funnel the money through the senator’s wife. Both suits include what appears to be ugly evidence, including a $25,000 invoice from Hays to Deep Marine Technology for services that apparently were never rendered. (Coleman, Kazeminy and Hays all deny the allegations.)
If Coleman ends up losing the recount, the Kazeminy scandal may be nothing more than a final, quirky footnote to the 2008 presidential race. Coleman, after all, played a prominent role in the McCain-Obama contest by spearheading the Republican drive to expand offshore drilling, the lifeblood of his pals at Deep Marine Technology. On June 12th, Coleman introduced a bill in the Senate that called for more drilling in American waters; five days later, on June 17th, John McCain, in a complete reversal of his previous position, came out in support of more offshore drilling. After initially arguing that an expansion would do nothing to increase America’s energy independence, Obama himself eventually came out in favor of drilling — although he insisted that other energy measures were far more important.
Wouldn’t it be something if all that flip-flopping, cross-accusations and idiotic campaign noise had its roots in Norm Coleman taking 75-large and a bunch of Neiman Marcus suits from some Iranian dude with an offshore-drilling supplier? “They didn’t pay his wife $75,000 for nothing,” says Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “Something is going on here, but we don’t know what it is.” The Senate Ethics Committee has yet to announce an official investigation into the lawsuits.
In sharp contrast to Coleman, Franken is about as clean as a politician gets. What’s more, he offers an interesting referendum on the relationship between humor and politics. Given that humor is about telling the truth and politics is about pretending to tell the truth, Franken’s career in a sense is a reverse of predecessor entertainer-pols like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura — he is defecting from a world of reality to a world of make-believe, not the other way around.
Which only makes it depressing to hear him spout schlock political lines (“As you go around Minnesota, I hear from people. And they’re anxious about the future”) or commit humor sacrilege and apologize for his darker jokes (“There have been jokes that I’ve done that weren’t funny….I’m sorry for that”). When I ask him about Coleman accepting free suits from a campaign contributor, I can almost hear him crafting a joke on the subject — only to have him catch himself and go all serious on me: “The culture of corruption in Washington is everyone’s problem, and I’m going to make sure I do everything in my power to fight it.”
It’s sad to see this kind of transformation, but I suppose we should give Franken a chance to prove that a win in this recount will not be a step down on the scale of humanity. After all, it’s funny enough to realize that the ugliest, mudslingiest campaign season in recent history may well end with a quiet, civil, orderly recount in a laid-back Midwestern state that saves its vitriol for hockey games. The Bush era is gone, and this time around there will be no mob scenes, no high-court coup d’état, no hired tough guys in chamois shirts barging into the counting rooms. We’re past that shit and neck-deep in real problems now. But don’t expect it to last. If Franken wins the recount, as analysts think he might, he can look forward to a first term as the right wing’s chief symbol of the coming Apocalypse. Which, if he plays things straight enough, might be his funniest role ever.
[From Issue 1067 — December 11, 2008]