“Franken politely asked [Supreme Court nominee Sonia] Sotomayor, ‘How often have you decided a case on an argument or a question that the parties have not briefed?’ He wondered whether that constituted judicial activism.

“Good question. Why was the junior senator from Minnesota — the one sworn in only a week ago — the first one asking it?”

— Dahlia Lithwick, “What a Waste,” Slate.com, July 15, 2009


Since he was finally seated after a historically contentious election, Americans have heard numerous such probing queries from US Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota. In January, his well-informed questioning of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos during her confirmation hearing revealed her ignorance of the growth-vs.-proficiency debate, an intense exchange that went viral and almost lost her the office.

The granular research the Harvard-educated ex-comedian conducts in preparation for such hearings should come as no surprise to anyone who followed his mid-2000s radio show on Air America. That depth informs his sharply written new memoir, the ironically titled “Giant of the Senate,” in which he notes politics always offered abundant material for his comedy, even before his 15 career-making seasons with “Saturday Night Live.” Self-aggrandizing politicos were particularly vulnerable targets — a fact Ted Cruz should have heeded.

Dedicated to late mentor Paul Wellstone, “Giant” is sometimes unexpectedly sweet and often laugh-out-loud funny, even when Franken writes earnestly about the importance of not being funny on the job, and his hardworking staff’s efforts to quash his satiric wisecracks. Inevitably, he screws up. One memorable eye-rolling incident on the Senate floor prompts a deserved rebuke from then Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and causes a minor kerfuffle in the press. That Franken lambastes himself for disrespectful behavior may make the book more palatable for right-leaning readers. That he not only acknowledges McConnell’s graciousness in accepting his public apology for that incident (“He had done me a real solid”), but also writes about befriending Republican legislators he likes (Mike Enzi, Lindsey Graham, Pat Roberts) as well as working with those he dislikes, gives the book depth.

“It’s a lot easier to negotiate with people you trust and whom you don’t personally dislike. That’s why you fight as hard as you can for your principles, but you try not to be a jerk about it. It’s why it’s important that your word is good. It’s why it’s important to try to build these relationships with colleagues across the aisle, whether it’s through family bonding or inside jokes or writing a country song together (which I did with Orrin Hatch). … Part of [my job] is looking for opportunities to find common ground, because that’s how stuff gets done.”

That’s just common sense. But such passages are refreshing since there’s so little common sense — or bipartisan comity — on display in the current Senate (or House), and because compromise necessary for effective governance has been openly disdained by ambitious newcomers. Cruz merits a grimly amusing chapter, “Sophistry,” in which Franken’s examples of his “absolutely toxic” coworker’s pomposity illuminate how the public loses when politicians violate rules of decorum. (He gives himself permission to excoriate Cruz because Texas’ junior senator breached protocol by calling McConnell a liar.) Notwithstanding those broadsides, and Franken’s unrepentant defense of Democratic policies, the book’s most hopeful takeaway may be the civility it champions in the face of ugly political realities. He doesn’t buddy up to McConnell or George W. Bush, but he finds their humanity.

“I really think that if we don’t start caring about whether people tell the truth or not, it’s going to be literally impossible to restore anything approaching a reasonable political discourse. Politicians have always shaded the truth. But if you can say something that is provably false, and no one cares, then you can’t have a real debate about anything.”

Franken shows how perspectives acquire nuance inside the generally maddening legislative process, and flexes his satirist muscles “identifying hypocrisies and absurdities” in dispiriting Trump administration policies and cabinet picks. Despite a “broken” political system, he finds reason for cautious optimism in his diverse constituents as well as his own political story.

“Even on my worst days, the people I represent give me a purpose that can’t be shaken by some obnoxious procedural delay or jaw-droppingly terrible Trump tweet. I represent incredible people. And my job is simply to be as good as they are.” 

Live Talks LA presents Al Franken in conversation with Chelsea Handler at the Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale, at 8 p.m. Saturday, July 8; $45-$100. Venue info: (818) 243-2539. Franken.senate.gov, livetalksla.org, alextheatre.org