Muna Abdulah was born in Somalia but fled with her parents as refugees to a small town in Minnesota, where her father had been sponsored to work on a turkey farm.
Muna excelled in the local public schools and her twin sister was voted homecoming queen. Applying to become a Senate Page, Muna wrote a brilliant essay and then wowed the interviewers. She won the prize. As a 17-year-old, she went to Washington, D.C., to work in the Senate.
“The day the new class of pages arrived in the senate,” Al Franken wrote, “I went down to the floor to meet her in person. Muna was easy to pick out of the group of twenty or so, being the only one wearing a hijab (headscarf) with her page uniform. I went up to her and said, ‘you look like a Minnesotan’.”
I love Al Franken. And after reading Al Franken, Giant of the Senate (by Al Franken, of course) I not only love his wit, I am once again deeply moved by his integrity, his humility, his ability to bring hope and light where there was previously so much darkness and despair.
I confess, for many decades I have been so dismayed (disgusted) with the lack of courage, lack of wisdom, lack of love exhibited by most members of Congress that I had lost all hope that “anything good can come from Washington.” Even Barak Obama, hope of our heart, as one of his first Presidential acts sent more troops to Afghanistan, directly contrary to his campaign promises. What?
I threw up my hands, again. I’m not touching this stew pot of politics. Nothing good ever comes of it.
And then along comes Al Franken. We knew him, first and foremost, of course, from Saturday Night Live—a brilliant and brave satirist, entertainer and all-around funny good guy. And then, thank God, he wrote that brilliant and brave book, “Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot, and other observations,” saying exactly what all (or many) of us were thinking, knowing. But here was Franken saying it openly, clearly, without apology, and with great wit, intellectual vigor and historical perspective.
And then, a few years later, “Lies, and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A fair and balanced look at the right.” Again, a wise guy, a gadfly, truth to power, in clear, all-American prose, without flinching. We need a hundred more such brave, witty, and wide-thinking commentators.
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When Franken ran for the Senate, we all thought it was a joke. But come to find out, he was serious. Eleven days before the 2002 U.S. Senate election, Franken’s good friend, Senator Paul Wellstone, died in a plane crash in Eveleth, Minnesota. His wife, Sheila, and daughter, Marcia, also died onboard.
Wellstone’s opponent, Norm Coleman, now a lobbyist for Saudi Arabia, narrowly won the election over Walter Mondale. Shortly after taking office, Coleman said, “I am a 99 percent improvement over Paul Wellstone.”
Franken was infuriated. “You don’t say that about anyone who has died in the last six months,” Franken wrote. “And my God, you don’t say that about some guy who everyone agreed was a compassionate, tireless champion of the little guy, a loving husband and father, and a colleague whom every senator recognized for his passion and decency. Until that exact moment I had never thought about running for public office. But when I read that quote…my immediate thought was this: Somebody’s got to beat this guy.… At the time, I didn’t think that the ‘somebody” who was going to beat this guy would end up being me.”
After taking much heat for his comment, Coleman later apologized and explained, “I just meant I was a 99 percent improvement when it came to supporting George W. Bush.” Enough said.
In running against Coleman, Franken had to learn NOT to be funny. Otherwise, people wouldn’t take him seriously. And he also had to deal with what he called (and trademarked) the “DeHumorizer.” Coleman’s team combed Franken’s 30 years of comedy writings, satire and skits, including writings for Playboy, and presented them as if they were his personal political convictions.
In addition to these unique challenges, even though Franken had won the Senatorial Democratic nomination, the Democrats in Washington didn’t support him. They didn’t think he had a chance to beat an incumbent. So Franken was on his own.
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I won’t share any more of the details. Franken does it much better, quicker, wittier than I. Obviously, he did win—by one the narrowest margins of any race in Senate history. (He won his second race, four years later, hands down.)
What surprised me most about reading Al Franken, Giant of the Senate, was that it gave me hope again about our political process. Again, that’s something I haven’t had in decades (with the exception of my fleeting hope for the populist Bernie Sanders—a hope which Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Hilary Clinton quickly squashed with dirty tricks behind closed doors.)
Again, it was so strange and unexpected that I have to repeat: reading Al Franken, Giant of the Senate gave me hope again about our political process. Made me think I might even start attending—or at least paying attention to—our local city council meetings.
That’s how powerful this book is. That’s how powerful this man is. He’s the real McCoy. Let’s work to get more like him in office, from the lowest to the highest offices of the land.