The New, Old Al Franken

by Eliana Johnson

The Al Franken Americans have come to know as senator is a different man from the one they knew as a comedian: sober, self-contained, even reflective. It’s the sort of transformation that often happens when celebrities arrive in Washington, a city that doesn’t abide eccentricities or colorful personalities. Franken is up for reelection this year, and the new Franken is on display in one of his latest ads, which features him touring a factory in rolled-up shirtsleeves and visiting a farm clad in plaid. It praises him for “helping kids with mental-health issues”: In January of last year, Franken proposed the Mental Health in Schools Act, which would have devoted more resources for mental-health treatment in public schools. (It’s still stuck in committee.)

But from time to time, the old Franken emerges — last week, a 2012 videotape emerged showing him parading around with orange traffic cones on his chest like a pair of breasts – and it’s awkward when the vulgar comedian collides with the sensitive Democratic lawmaker. The latter is an advocate for children suffering from mental-health issues — as his hometown paper reported, he’s made it a “centerpiece” of his work in the Senate — while the the former displayed a revealing and callous indifference toward the mentally retarded. 

At the 2004 Democratic convention, Franken, who was attending the convention in his capacity as a radio host with the now-defunct Air America radio network, spoke with two reporters from another network. Both had Down Syndrome. You can hear in his voice that he wasn’t happy about it.

The following year, in 2005, the radio hosts Opie & Anthony played the interview before they welcomed Franken on their XM radio show. The old Franken explains his 2004 interview: “There were a couple guys, and one was smarter than the other,” he said. “There were actually two guys, I think they’re both Down Syndrome, and one actually made a lot of sense. . . . We stayed with each other . . . and then the other guy made no sense.” Prompted by his politically incorrect hosts, he laughs about the use of the term “genetic disaster” to refer to the mentally retarded. 

Franken is polling well ahead of his Republican challenger, Mike McFadden, in large part thanks to the fact that he’s had the discipline to shelve the personality that made him a household name and a viable politician in the first place. Welcome to Washington, where phoniness wins friends and (re)elections. 

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