Let Satire Be His Song

Bizarre though it was to see all the headlines this week touting Al Franken's seriousness about his new job (he spends nearly eight months post-Election Day litigating the results of the vote, and there's any doubt about his seriousness?), Victor Navasky offers Minnesota's junior senator some good advice in a New York Times op-ed today: "Satire -- which has a long and refreshingly subversive history as a form of truth-telling and effective social commentary -- is Mr. Franken's comparative advantage in his new job and he should exploit this blessing, not deny it."

Navasky continues:

The Senate, let's not forget, is already filled with blowhards, policy wonks and, if you will, lying liars. It's a mistake to assume that if he puts his comic talents to work in the Senate, like Rodney Dangerfield, Mr. Franken will automatically lose its respect.

It's understandable that Franken wants to be both respected as a legislator and respectful of the institution he's finally joined. It's only natural that he'd be wary of being cast, and marginalized, as the class clown. But Franken isn't just a comedian; he isn't just a freshman senator. He's also an author who did an extraordinary job, in "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them," of harnessing humor to make a case built on painstaking research (conducted with a team of students while he was on a fellowship at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government) and broad knowledge of the political landscape. The guy knows the subversive power of making people laugh in order to make them think.

And, let's face it, he's not exactly Sonny Bono or Fred Grandy. Unlike Cher's ex, who became a representative from California, or Grandy, the actor who played Gopher on "The Love Boat" before he was elected to the House from Iowa, Franken is well known as an egghead. He already has intellectual and policy cred.

"Fools are my theme, let satire be my song," Lord Byron wrote. From Aristophanes to Jon Stewart, humor has been one of the most potent of rhetorical tools, and Franken has been employing it to talk about politics for decades. Smart, politically acute comedy is even experiencing something of a heyday right now; witness Stewart, Stephen Colbert and the parade of politicians eager to be their guests. And Washington is not without legislators, like Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, who make serious points with lacerating humor.

Though Franken's job isn't comedy anymore, he honed some undeniably transferable skills as an entertainer. Opponents may be waiting to pounce on him for any display of jocularity, but it's a mistake for them, and for him, to view his ability to deploy precision ridicule as anything but a strength. As Barney Frank has said, "Ridicule doesn't work unless the subject is ridiculous."
July 10, 2009 12:30 PM | | Comments (1)


Paul Krugman commented on his NYT blog that, when appearing on Franken's radio show, he wanted to be humorous, but Al only wanted to talk about policy issues. I listened to his show for several years, and he was always extremely well-informed and articulate on the issues.


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