Al Franken has built a 30-year career by marching to the tune of his own drummer, starting as a writer and occasional humorous commentator on "Saturday Night Live" before reinventing himself in the ’80s for a lucrative run as the very gay and very needy self-help guru Stuart Smalley.

That character and five Emmys for writing elevated Franken into a string of other opportunities, including a satirical day-by-day planning book and even a feature film called "Stuart Saves His Family." Yet that was by no means Franken’s final career phase, for after two seasons playing  a nebbishy newsman on his own NBC sitcom called "Lateline,"

Franken wrote a scorchingly funny attack on the right-wing media called "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right." The book hit No. 1 on the venerable New York Times bestseller list, partly thanks to a threatened lawsuit from the Fox News Channel over his use of the words "fair and balanced."

But two years later, the American situation is more dire than before, thanks to a second Bush term that is spiraling out of control, and Franken is here to help save our sanity with a new book, titled "The Truth (with jokes)." He’s also attempting to save the nation in his daily role as liberal radio network Air America’s most prominent host, and in 2008 he hopes to save Minnesota by running for the US Senate from the Land o’ Lakes.

Before he can accomplish any of those heroics, however, he will speak at Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium tonight as part of his national book tour.

In an exclusive interview with the Weekly, Franken talked about his unlikely career, shocking political revelations, and why he just can’t wait for the brand new holiday of "Fitzmas."

"This book is filled with black humor about awful things, but that’s a good place to be these days. There’s bigger fish to fry than deconstructing Ann Coulter, because the Republicans won the last election on fear, smears and queers, but did not bring us any change, which is what Americans really want," said Franken.

"They exploited 9/11 to get into Iraq and I think all this is coming home to roost, and even quicker than I thought it would. Hell, when I wrote the book, there were actually people who thought the president was competent," he said.
Indeed, Franken has turned his sights on the culture of hypocrisy and cronyism running rampant in the administration and Congress these days — a scenario that was just spotlighted by President Bush’s recent failed nomination of his former secretary, Harriet Miers, to the US Supreme Court. He is also  giddy over the prospects for indictments of Republicans ranging from Dick Cheney on down through House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and is amazed that so much trouble has been visited upon the Republican Party at a time when it has virtually total dominance over the federal government.

"I’m looking forward to the midterm congressional elections of 2006, and I think my motto for that race would be ‘subpoena power.’ We need to take at least one of the houses and get subpoena power, because imagine how much more we could do when these guys are getting indicted while holding all the power. That’s hard to do," said Franken, laughing. "The day [special prosecutor Patrick] Fitzgerald hands down the indictments, I’m celebrating a new national holiday and calling it Fitzmas. One of the things that really irks me is the lack of oversight that Congress has given to our contracting in Iraq, because there’s a tremendous amount of war profiteering, which Truman called treason, and I agree. As a result of not reconstructing fast enough, we’ve lost the support of the people there and fueled the insurgency."

While he takes pride in the wide array of topics he addresses in "The Truth," ranging from Bush’s bungled Social Security plans to the shocking abuse  of the Terri Schiavo case by Republicans for political gain, he’s particularly pleased with being able to show a dark side of Tom DeLay that goes far beyond the widespread accusations that he has raised funds illegally. In fact, Franken provides ample evidence that the allegedly anti-abortion politician has looked the other way for the past decade after being presented with evidence that American-run sweatshops in the territory of Saipan are forcing female workers to have abortions in order to keep their jobs.

"A Republican lobbyist named Jack Abramoff went into Saipan and helped it stay exempt from US labor and immigration law while allowing them to make garments that say ‘Made in USA’, while bringing women from China, locking them up in barracks and forcing them to get abortions," explained Franken. "Abramoff is friends with Tom DeLay, and he brought DeLay in for a luxury Saipan, and DeLay promised not to let legislation get to the House floor that would put them under our labor laws. DeLay killed it even after it passed in the Senate in legislation by fellow Republican Frank Murkowski of Alaska. So DeLay’s the guy who closed down Congress over Schiavo and called an emergency midnight session for that, but it was fine with him that they were aborting fetuses. And he knows that that’s part of the problem over there.  

“This time it was terror that was used against people. It was scaring them, scaring people so they felt they needed someone to care for them. Bush said he was resolute, and they smeared the other guy enough to make you think he was a little nancy. They took a genuine war hero and turned him into this French-loving wuss, below this guy who got out of serving. Social issues play, but I think we can respond to that. During Clinton, abortion went down every year, and it’s leveled off under Bush, and we’ve got to make the argument more effectively,” said Franken.

Franken and the rest of Air America’s hosts have had to deal with their own kind of battles for support lately, as the 19-month-old network of 70 stations had to overcome an extremely rocky start in which a shady financier failed to provide enough funds to keep the channel on the air in Los Angeles and Chicago.  Despite giving plenty of fodder for enemies like Rush Limbaugh to scoff at them, the network has battled back to become a viable and growing force for the long run.

Perhaps more importantly, Franken’s show could offer him a platform to mount an effective run for a US Senate seat in 2008 that would wrest control back from Republican Senator Norm Coleman and return the seat to the grand liberal tradition it had established under the late, great anti-war Senator Paul Wellstone. Ironically, a real-life political run would make for an interesting study in how prescient Franken was when he wrote the novel "Why Not Me?" in 1999, which purported to tell the story of a disastrous Franken presidency.

"I moved back to Minnesota in January, and I will look at the 2008 Senate seat. And as far as Republicans criticizing me over being from show biz, I didn’t hear them do that over Arnold, Reagan and Grandy, but they’d do it," he said with a touch of feistiness. "I tend to talk a lot of policy and wonkery on the show, and I think people will know that I’m serious about this. Paul Wellstone said the future belongs to those who are passionate and work hard. So I have to do that, and we all do if we’re gonna turn this thing around. Be just and good." 


Al Franken reads from, discusses and signs "The Truth (with jokes)" at 8 p.m. tonight at Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium, 1201 E. California Blvd., Pasadena. For more information, call (626) 449-5320.