Giant of the Senate by Al Franken: A review

I was reading a column by James Fallows in The Atlantic yesterday in which he referenced this book. He said that this is the kind of book that Will Rogers would have written if Will Rogers had been in the Senate. High praise indeed!

And probably true.

My husband and I had been listening to the audible version of the book over the last couple of months whenever we had some free time or were spending more than just a few minutes in the car. It began to seem as though we were never going to finish it. But perseverance had its reward and we finally did hear it right up to its end this week.

I don't mean to make it sound like listening to it was a chore. It wasn't. Al Franken is a very funny fellow, even though he says that, being in the Senate, he's had to learn to tone down the funny or jettison it altogether. It seems that constituents don't want a funny man as their representative; they want someone who takes them and their problems seriously and who shows that through his actions.

After a career of more than thirty years in comedy, though, it wasn't easy for Al to make that transition. His first instinct is always to see the humor in any circumstance and to handle tense situations by diffusing them with a joke. That being the case, it would seem like politics would be a very uncomfortable fit for him.

And the way he describes it, it was definitely uncomfortable at first. He ran for senator in Minnesota in 2008 after the death of his friend Paul Wellstone whom he had admired as a senator and revered as a human being. He ran against an incumbent senator who waged a pretty nasty campaign against him. When the votes were finally counted, the two were in a virtual tie and it would take eight months, the longest recount in history, to sort it out.

But, in the end, Al Franken was the new senator from Minnesota.

He applied himself to learning the ropes, learning how to be an effective senator, how to be "a workhorse, not a showhorse". To that end, he steered clear of the national press, whose main concern seemed to be leading him into saying something funny.

He made the effort to connect with his fellow senators, Republicans as well as Democrats. His portraits of some of these senators and his tales of his interactions with them are some of the most interesting and the funniest parts of the book.

He is very gentle with his fellow senators, with one exception. That one exception gets a chapter all of his own. It is, of course, Texas' very own Ted Cruz. Franken writes:
The problem with Ted isn’t that he’s humorless. It isn’t even his truly reprehensible far-right politics. No, the problem with Ted—and the reason so many senators have a problem with Ted—is simply that he is an absolutely toxic coworker. He’s the guy in your office who snitches to corporate about your March Madness pool and microwaves fish in the office kitchen. He is the Dwight Schrute of the Senate. 

And elsewhere:
I like Ted Cruz more than most of my other colleagues like Ted Cruz. And I hate Ted Cruz.  
It's an emotion that many of us Texans completely share. 

Al's efforts to become a serious and effective senator were evidently successful in the eyes of his fellow Minnesotans. The freshman senator who had barely squeaked by in his first election won reelection in a landslide in 2014.

Al Franken is passionate about the issues that are important to him. Most importantly, he is passionate about making the lives of people better. Since I am in agreement with him on most of these issues, I found his autobiographical narrative (he narrated his own book) often uplifting and optimistic but sometimes thoroughly depressing and totally disheartening, as for example when he wrote about the presidential campaign of 2016.

Moreover, the nuts and bolts of just how government works and what it takes to get something accomplished in Congress can be mind-numbingly dull and tedious. But Al approaches it all with his sense of humor still intact. He's going to have to work a lot harder if he wants - as his staff has directed him - to eradicate it altogether. Here's hoping he never succeeds. 

My rating: 4 of 5 stars  


  1. A good read and you did it justice. I laughed out loud with his portrayal of Ted Cruz.

    1. I laughed out loud and chuckled a lot throughout the book. Al Franken really is a very funny fellow.

  2. Interesting. Learning more and more about politics and government lately, because honestly what else can one do, sometimes comes with cringe inducing moments. Ever since I read Advise and Consent a few years ago and began to learn how our Congress works in the day to day, I have been amazed how mind-numbingly dull and tedious it can be. Franken seems like quite a character.

    1. He is certainly that. He is also very persistent and determined to make politics work for the good of his constituents and I consider myself one of his constituents. He certainly represents my interests better than my own senators. That gives me some hope.

  3. I have to get this for my husband and our next vacation. He would so love this. I saw Al Franken on Trevor Noah (I think) plugging this book but, after reading your review, I think hubbie (a political junkie) will absolutely love this. He loved(s) Al Franken on SNL and in the Senate both.

    1. If he is a Franken fan or even - as you say - a political junkie, he will definitely love it!


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