Austin-bound, Al Franken talks Trump, Schumer, LBJ, Perry, Cornyn and, of course, Ted Cruz

Ted Cruz, sketched by Al Franken

 

Good day Austin:

On Tuesday evening I interviewed Minnesota Sen. Al Franken in advance of his coming to Austin to deliver the keynoter at the Texas Tribune Festival Friday night.

Franken will be talking about his book, Al Franken: Giant of the Senate, which devotes a long chapter to his loathing of Ted Cruz, which I have written about before.

I wrote in today’s Statesman about how:

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.”

While I recounted some of my interview with Franken in today’s story, here is a fuller account of the interview.

I asked, amid all his attention to Cruz, what about our senior senator, John Cornyn.

There is one Cornyn anecdote in the book.

It begins with Franken, a member, like Cornyn, of the Judiciary Committee, asking Sonia Sotomayor, at her Supreme Court confirmation hearing about Perry Mason, and her assertion that, in fact, Perry had actually lost one case to the hapless prosecutor Hamilton Burger.

At that point, the hearing broke so the senators could go into another room to receive a members-only briefing on Sotomayor’s FBI background check.

AF: (Oklahoma Sen. Tom) Coburn comes in and says, “Actually Perry Mason lost two cases,” and then (Alabama Sen. Jeff) Sessions says, “I like Dragnet,” and then Cornyn says, “I liked Highway Patrol.”

As he recounts in his book:

So, looking for a chance to bond, I said, “I worked with Broderick Crawford.” Crawford had been the star of Highway Patrol, but was also an iconic tough-guy movie star who won an Oscar for Best Actor in All the King’s Men.

AF: And they look at me and I go, “Yeah, he hosted the show (Saturday Night Live)  in the first year and actually I was kind of assigned to watch him because he was kind of a drinker and it was St. Patrick’s day and it was a Thursday and I was assigned to kind of trail him. So I had written a promo for him and Gilda (Radner_ where he had five lines and Gild had one, and he was so drunk that I started taking a line from him and giving it to Gilda, so it was four and then two, and then it was three and three and finally, when we got it done, he had one line.”

I said it sounded just like one of my favorite movies, My Favorite Year.

From TCM:

My Favorite Year was inspired by Mel Brooks’ real-life experience with Errol Flynn when he appeared on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows. Mel Brooks (the producer of My Favorite Year) was a junior writer at the time and was assigned the role of chaperon for the former swashbuckler, who was hitting the bottle hard.

AF: It was very very much My Favorite Year.

Franken’s Republican colleagues were impressed.

From the book:

So this was my first big breakthrough with my Republican colleagues.

My point is, the Senate is filled not just with lawyers, but with old white men.

I noted that if Cruz is as hard to deal with as he contends, just imagine being his Texas colleague, John Cornyn.

AF: I think that’s very true.

John and I get along really well. Sometimes we’re at odds because he’s in their leadership, but mainly we get along. He certainly has been my lead cosponsors 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. 

I said that Cruz of late has exhibited a more humble, compassionate persona

From Todd Gillman of the Dallas Morning News: Hometown flooding brings out gentler side of Ted Cruz

DICKINSON — Ted Cruz leaned into a refrigerator and, with an aide and three other volunteers, wrestled it the curb. They dumped a waterlogged buffet, too, and a dining room table.

It was a bit symbolic. But the gesture was meaningful to Timothy Moss, 61, as he cleared debris from his dad’s house. From a driveway strewn with broken glass and warped vinyl records, Moss picked up a photo of his grandparents and showed it to the senator.

“Texas took a hard, hard hit,” Cruz said, but “we’re going to come back even stronger than we were before.”

The floodwaters that swept away lives and homes also exposed some unexpected layers of the state’s most polarizing political figure.

Known in Washington for his ambition, for rankling his own party’s leaders and alienating lots of others, for crusading against Obamacare and big government and bringing the federal machinery to a screeching halt, Cruz is now channeling his considerable energy into storm recovery — tending to raw emotions and pushing for federal largesse on an unprecedented scale.

If you thought he was cold and aloof, you haven’t spent a day watching him comfort Texans coping with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. If you thought he hates government, you haven’t heard him promising homeowners that help is on the way and will be for years to come.

The fact that he’s up for re-election next year is coincidental. But the vigor Cruz has trained on this crisis probably won’t hurt when voters decide whether to grant him a second term.

“The people who are hurting are the people I am fighting for every day,” he said in nearby League City after unloading bananas and toilet paper in a cavernous warehouse, an old Kroger repurposed to provide supplies to the area’s many storm victims. “The grassroots activists who elected me are the people working in these relief centers, are the people I fight for every day — the working men and women of Texas.”

 There are lots of ways to be a senator. There are grandstanders and workhorses, dealmakers and wonks and firebrands. Those in their first term usually keep a low profile as they learn the ropes, build relationships and tend to the tangible needs of constituents.

Cruz was always a man in a hurry, with a penchant for big fights.

Eight months on the job, he staged a 21-hour overnight talkathon and engineered a government shutdown in a bid to derail Obamacare. It wasn’t long before he was angling for a shot at the White House. That pursuit consumed another 15 months, and Iowans saw a lot more of him than Texans for much of that time

.He’s often packed his August recess with travel across Texas. But in four years and eight months as a senator, he had not devoted such direct, prolonged attention back home, until now.

AF: Yeah I think he’s trying. Maybe the chapter helped him.

What has his relationship with Cruz been like since the book was released?

AF: I mean he kind of I think was irked and said something about, “I’m raising money off this, you keep doing it,” and I said, “You’re welcome.”

AF: But then we’ve talked since.

I don’t think I said anything that was all that  unknown..

He’s the exception that proves the rule, the rule being that in order to get something done, you’ve got to work with other people , and have other people like you.

I noted how much of an appetite out there in America there seems to be for insulting Cruz.

AF: Yeah, I think he’s captured people’s imagination.

I wondered, though, whether, in retrospect, he thought America might be better off if it had elected Cruz and not Trump president.

AF: It’s not worth thinking about that kind of thing.

What’s his take on President Trump?

AF: I can’t figure him out. I know that everybody spends a lot of time trying to figure him out, and anytime I start thinking, oh, he’s changed a little bit, or something good is happening here, and then something happens and I go, “Acch, I’m an idiot, why was I thinking that?” and  I’ve don’t hat maybe 20 times, so I am just sort of beyond trying to figure him out.

I know, basically, what most people know, which is that he is very narcissistic and craves attention and is a bully and doesn’t have the interest or discipline to understand policy. Those are things I know about him.

I have not had any one-on-one experience since he’s become president. That hasn’t happened yet

Had Trump been on his radar as a political figure before he ran for president?

AF: No. He was a surprise I had not followed him at all. He had always sort of threatened to run for office or something, and I dind’t take him seriously.

There was a moment fairly early on, not that late in 2015, and I heard him answer something and I said to Franni (Franken’s wife), I said, “I think he could win the nomination.” I just said it. He answered a question in a very smart way and in a way that was very different from the way most politicians do, and I just realized, huh, OK, I can see people responding to that type of thing. and then I tucked that away I didn’t really think that for a while, and I was shocked (by his election.)

I thought the election was going to be close toward the end there and I started to get very concerned. I was on Morning Joe like the day of the election, and (former Michigan Gov.) Jennifer Granholm was on before me and she was kind of celebrating, and I came on and I was like, “No, don’t be like this. Everybody vote.  I’m the poster child for close elections. Get out there.”

I recalled this. It was Election Day 2016, I was watching that morning and I recalled Granholm’s giddy performance and Franken’s grim demeanor.

“I don’t know what Granholm was on,” Franken said that morning.

AF: So I was concerned at that point, and things just broke in so many ways, and we’re finding out some of the things that happened. We know that Comey happened obviously, but we’re also learning what the Russians did, putting ads on Facebook, using whatever analytics they had to do it in a smart way, and having a thousand trolls and all these bots to affect the algorithms and all that stuff, some very sophisticated things that we just didn’t anticipate.

Had he read any of Hillary Clinton’s book or watched any of her recent interviews?

AF: I saw the  Rachel Maddow interview and I was pretty impressed actually.

I had sort of approached the whole thing, I don’t know if this is a good idea right now, and I was very impressed by her interview and I think maybe she’ll be a good influence.

In his book, Franken refers to Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer as “the Jewish LBJ.”

From the book:

I love Chuck Schumer. He’s one of the smartest, most strategic, most passionate Democrats in Washington, which is why he’s the leader of our caucus in the Senate – I call him the Jewish LBJ. But he’s also kind of a character. Running around with his archaic flip phone, barging into conversations, talking too loud, screwing up jokes – no matter what kind of relatives you have, Chuck will remind you of one of them. In fact, my daughter, Thomasin, likes to say that the mere fact that he exists, let alone serves in the United States Senate, is hilarious.

But why the Jewish LBJ?

AF: He is someone who lives and breathes this stuff. I think he’s maybe less complicated than LBJ, and I’m  not sure what I mean by complicated. LBJ seemed to have some demons or something, from what I have read.

But Chuck loves doing this. He loves what he’s doing and he’s good at it. He’s constantly checking in with everybody and he lives and  breathes the stuff and he’s just very good at it. I think he’s a really good leader. I think he’s the right guy for leader. There are some people who questioned when he was chosen as leader, when Harry (Reid) announced he was going to retire, and pretty much everybody – I love Dick Durbin, but Chuck is sort of made for this kind of role.

Especially with Trump as president?

(President Donald Trump speaks with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Sept. 6, 2017. Trump struck a deal with Democratic leaders on Wednesday to increase the debt limit and finance the government until mid-December. Al Drago/The New York Times)

AF: Yeah, that’s probably true. They’ve known each other for a long time and they probably have a pretty good relationship. He seems to be able  to somehow get along with Trump in a good way, so I think it’s good for Democrats, I think it’s good for the country.

Franken said he is a frequent visitor to Texas and to Austin.

He recalls bringing his daughter to Austin to see the Indigo Girls when she was young after they missed seeing them in New York a few times.

AF: I‘ve been in Austin quite a few times and I really like the city.

Every time I’ve been in Austin, I’ve had a good time.

Franken said he’s been to Dallas, El Paso, Houston, and San Antonio, including the Alamo.

“It’s small,” he said.

AF: I know the state a little bit and I know that it used to be Mexican. Then we attacked Mexico and we got Texas, but it always strikes me as funny because, of course, the Mexicans were there first.

Has he met U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, the Democrat running to unseat Cruz?

AF: I’ve not yet met him. I look forward to meeting him.

He will be doing a fundraiser for the Texas Democratic Party while he is in Austin.

I asked how he is getting along with Energy Secretary Rick Perry, whose confirmation he opposed as a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

AF: We did talk about having dinner and I’d still like to do that. We did have a little bit of a disagreement on climate the next time he testified and our office called up and said, “Lets get that dinner,” and somehow it didn’t happen, and I think it was more his choice.

I actually enjoyed him more than I thought I would. 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 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 of did him in because I think he’s better than his performance was during those debates.

I liked him, and then he said that weird thing in the hearing.

What did Hurricanes Harvey and Irma signify in terms of climate change?

AF: I don’t think you can tie any one weather event to climate change, but I think you can easily argue that the water in the Gulf is warmer than it otherwise would be and that puts more water into the atmosphere and is partly to blame for how much rain there was. And I think in Florida, when you have sea levels higher, you have storm surges that are more damaging and there’s no question that sea level is high because of warming because things expand when they get warm and also ice caps have been melting. No question to me, and I don’t think there should be any question to anybody that the climate is changing and mankind is largely responsible for it.

I asked for his take on the Chuck Schumer of Texas – LBJ.

AF: Oh God, the Great Society and Civil Rights and the Voting Rights Act, housing, Medicaid, Medicare. Jesus, unbelievable accomplishments and all undercut by the terrible tragedy of Vietnam, which he, after all, he was trying extricate us when he withdrew (from the 1968 presidential race) and I think was undermined by Nixon in the ’68 campaign, who worked with (South Vietnamese president, Nguyen Van) Thieu to not join the peace talks, and that’s all tragic.

LBJ is a fascinating figure. I think (Robert) Caro sort of really – that was a good idea – “I think I’ll write about LBJ.”

I noted that in Austin, Franken was coming to the home turf of Alex Jones. I asked him, as the author of Rush Limbaugh is a Big, Fat Idiot: And Other Observations, and Lies and the Lying Liar Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, if he had paid much attention to Jones and InfoWars.

AF: Not really, no. Every once in a while he’ll pop up.

I’m being told I have to wrap up so if you have some other questions you want to ask that are more important than that.

I explained that, no, I’m pretty much obsessed with Alex Jones, so I don’t really have any more important questions.

AF: Everything I’ve  heard about him is not good.

I mentioned that Roger Stone was now part of the InfoWars team.

AF: Oh my God. Oy. Oy.

But Franken may be unaware of what he and Stone have in common.

I did get in one more obligatory question.

Has the election of a reality TV star as president opened the door to an Al Franken presidential candidacy?

 

 

 

AF:  Oh, no. No. No.

 

 

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