Sen. Al Franken devotes two chapters in his book, “Al Franken: Giant of the Senate,” to Texas politicians.
The first, Chapter 34, “I Meet George W. Bush,” describes how the Minnesota Democrat and “Saturday Night Live” alumnus met the man who he had relentlessly mocked as a “terrible president,” and after sharing some jokes and a high five, realized, “Holy mackerel, I like him.”
The second, Chapter 37, “Sophistry,” details how much he loathes Sen. Ted Cruz, whom he describes as a smarmy, condescending grandstander.
“He’s the exception that proves the rule,” Franken told the American-Statesman, explaining his decision to abandon normal senatorial courtesy in writing about Cruz. “The rule being that in order to get something done, you’ve got to work with other people and have other people like you.”
Franken and Cruz will bookend the Texas Tribune Festival this weekend. Franken will be interviewed by Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith on Friday night. On Sunday, Smith will moderate a discussion with Cruz and his Texas Republican Senate colleague, John Cornyn.
Smith said that he didn’t know Cruz would figure so importantly in Franken’s book when he arranged for Franken’s prime spot at the conference, but said, “It’s the cherry on the sundae.”
As far as he knows, Smith said, “it’s the only event that has both Al Franken and Ted Cruz on the program,” and, he said, no speaker in the festival’s history has generated as much advance interest and excitement as Franken.
“It’s viva la resistance” in America right now, Smith said. Austin is a hotbed of resistance to Trump, Smith said, and Franken has emerged as a hero of the left.
In his book, Franken writes about his assiduous efforts to build friendships across party and ideological lines.
It can be argued that it was Franken’s questioning of Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions at his confirmation hearing for attorney general that led Sessions to recuse himself from the Russia investigation and ultimately resulted in the naming of Robert Mueller as special prosecutor.
And yet, Franken writes, he and his wife, Frannie, consider themselves as friends with Sessions and his wife, Mary, and when Franken’s grandson Joe was born, “Mary knit him a baby-blue blanket, which became his favorite.”
“It’s hard to unfairly demonize someone whose wife knit your grandson his favorite blankie,” Franken writes. “Which is why when my job meant doing everything in my power to deny my friend his important position, I was relieved that there was so much to fairly demonize him for.”
Of Cornyn, Franken said, “John and I get along really well.”
“Sometimes we’re at odds because he’s in their leadership, but mainly we get along,” Franken said. “He certainly has been my lead co-sponsor on things, or more, I’ve been his lead co-sponsor on a couple of things, like the Justice and Mental Collaboration Act, which basically was about continuing to fund mental health courts and crisis intervention training to police and corrections officers. “
Cornyn and Franken, who both serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee, also bonded over Broderick Crawford, who starred in the 1950s police show, “Highway Patrol.”
During Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearing, shortly after his arrival in the Senate, Franken asked Sotomayor about her assertion that TV lawyer Perry Mason had actually lost one case.
During a break in the hearing, Franken said, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., “comes in and says, `actually, Perry Mason lost two cases,’ and then Sessions says, `I like Dragnet,’ and then Cornyn says `I liked Highway Patrol.’”
At which point, Franken chimes in that he worked with Crawford in 1977 on “Saturday Night Live.”
Coburn, Cornyn and Sessions were impressed.
“So this was my first big breakthrough with my Republican colleagues,” he writes in the book. “My point is, the Senate is filled not just with lawyers, but with old white men.”
Bush and Perry
Franken bonded with George W. Bush after Bush told him, ‘You were always my favorite comedian on ‘Saturday Night Live.’”
Franken shot him a skeptical look. “OK, I was lyin’,” Bush said.
“Well, you’re my favorite president,” Franken replied.
Franken got the same good vibe off Rick Perry, whose nomination for secretary of energy he opposed as a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
“I actually enjoyed him more than I thought I would,” Franken said. “He actually had done the work of reading up about me in terms of some of the things that I cared about, and that impressed me, and he seemed like a charming guy. “
“I liked him, and then he said that weird thing in the hearing,” Franken said.
That “weird thing,” was Perry recalling a cordial pre-hearing meeting in Franken’s office and remarking, “I hope you are as much fun on that dais as you were on your couch.”
Still, Franken said, “I understand why he was governor for so long and why people thought he might be a great presidential candidate. I think he ran into a confluence of things, with his back and the medicine he was taking for his back and that kind did him in, because I think he’s better than his performance was during those debates.”
Franken for president?
As for Cruz, Franken said he has no regrets about committing his misgivings to print.
“I don’t think I said anything that was all that unknown,” he said.
When the book came out in May, Cruz told Politico, “Al is trying to sell books and apparently he’s decided that being obnoxious and insulting me is good for causing liberals to buy his books. I wish him all the best.”
“I think he was irked and said something about, `I’m raising (campaign) money off this, you keep doing it,’” Franken said. “I said, `You’re welcome.’”
Of late, Cruz has shown a humbler, more compassionate side.
“Yeah, I think he’s trying,” Franken said. “Maybe the chapter helped him.”
Would America be better off if it had elected Cruz and not Trump president?
“It’s not worth thinking about that kind of thing,” Franken said.
“Giant of the Senate” has generated talk of Franken in 2020.
Has the election of a reality TV star as president paved the way for a presidential candidacy by someone who came to fame on “Saturday Night Live?”
“Oh, no,” Franken said. “No. No.”
Texas Tribune Festival
The annual Texas Tribune Festival takes place Friday through Sunday at the University of Texas and features more than 250 speakers at 60 sessions.
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., will be interviewed by Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith at 7 p.m. Friday at Hogg Auditorium. Smith will moderate a discussion with Republican U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz at 9 a.m. on Sunday, also at Hogg Auditorium.
On Saturday, numerous panel discussions include such topics as Texas environmental issues, including how cities are grappling with climate change; the fight over the state’s “sanctuary cities” ban; and the Trump presidency. Also, American-Statesman chief political writer Jonathan Tilove will interview U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, who is running for Cruz’s Senate seat. Smith will separately interview O’Rourke.
Registration costs $300 for nonmembers, $250 for members and $50 for students and educators.