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My Dinner With Al (Franken)

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Message Susan Lenfestey
Last night I had dinner with Al and Franni. Yeah, Franken. A bunch of folks were invited to their house to "hear his ideas" on the eve of his announcement that he's running for the US Senate, for the seat once occupied by Paul Wellstone and currently occupied by the oily keister of Norm "I'm-a-99-percent- improvement-over-Paul-Wellstone" Coleman. It wasn't an intimate sit-down dinner, but it was home-cooked by Franni, served by volunteers, and we all fit easily in the living room. That sort of dinner. And, it wasn't the usual political crowd, which I took to be a good thing. We weren't expected to give money (yet) and a few people confessed that they were there more to see who else was there than to hear Al. It's no secret that people have misgivings about his chances of tranforming himself from smart-ass comedian to serious candidate. And yet, as political strategist Jeff Blodgett has noted, we Dems don't have a very deep bench right now. So, it's a dilemna. Will some of Al's heated radio comments or profane book bits come back to haunt him? No doubt. But is this a non-issue with the younger voters who turn out in droves to see him and sign on to his campaign? Will his high national profile open the door to an early funding advantage, but slam him on the way out when Norm's "I'm-a- family-man- until-you-catch-me-in-the-act" spin team accuses him of taking money from "sleazy anti-family Hollywood" types? Can his incredible intelligence make up for his less-than- incredible one-on-one people skills? Frankenly, can he be taken seriously, either as a candidate, or in the hallowed halls of the Senate, known for its collegiality and lofty debate? (If you're not laughing, you haven't been paying attention.) Well, the serious, cleaned-up Al Franken is very impressive, and unless Hubert Humphrey comes back from the dead to claim this seat, I'm a convert. Here's why. - Not only is he smart and quick, he is incredibly well-informed. The radio show has been great training for absorbing endless facts and recounting them in quick order. It's almost scary to see how much is churning in that big head of his. In fact, that may be a problem over time -- he knows too much, and giving a sound-byte answer could be difficult. But if a thoughtful and articulate answer is the price we have to pay . . . -He is passionate and has a genuine gut-level compassion for the hard-working middle and under classes, and that comes across. He chokes-up when speaking of people suffering hardships. His background as a working class kid, but more movingly, that of his wife as one of five small children of a widowed mother, is powerful stuff, and he links those stories beautifully to the gubmint programs -- Social Security survivor benefits, Pell grants -- which helped both families not just make it, but thrive. -He has spent more time in Iraq than any one else in politics. (I made that up, but I think it's true.) He's done four tours in Iraq to entertain the troops, and unlike our Commander-in-Chief who serves them a plastic photo-op turkey, Al eats all his meals with the men and women who are stuck in this quagmire. He knows the toll the war is taking on them, on their families, and is outraged at the shoddy veteran's benefits they're getting, benefits the Bush administration aims to cut. (And if you didn't know it, he's outraged about the war too.) When asked his greatest area of vulnerability, he said it was that he cares too much. His role models are Paul Wellstone and Tim Walz, recently elected congressman from Minnesota's 1st District, and a veteran, both known more for their decency and heart than their telegenic flash. -He is serious and hard-working. He's not just flirting with us, he's making a long-term commitment. He was as good last night as I've ever seen him, and much warmer one-on-one. I think as a celebrity he had to keep a physical as well as emotional distance from all those who want to meet him, grab his hand, all of that. Now he has to reverse that and reach that hand out to others. Last night he had no trouble doing so. Minnesota deserves someone better than the plastic and malleable one-time Democrat Norm Coleman, whose contortions to please the President when he was popular, and pass him off when not, should earn him a spot in a circus side show, not in the Senate. I know that doesn't much limit the field, but for now the front-runner is Al Franken, and for now I'm impressed. *** And if you haven't already seen the 8 minute video that tells his backstory.
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Susan Lenfestey lives and writes in Minneapolis.
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