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Send in the Clown By: Kathy Shaidle
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, January 09, 2009

It sounds like the plot of a 1990s straight-to-video Hollywood flick, but barring any dramatic developments – such as a successful court challenge by Republican opponent Norm Coleman – former “Saturday Night Live” cast member and comedian Al Franken will become the next U.S. Senator from Minnesota, likely on the strength of fraudulent votes.

Franken’s fitness for office has been a matter of debate ever since he announced his candidacy in February 2007. Having made a career of “debunking” provocative statements made by famous conservatives in books like Rush Limbaugh Is a Big, Fat Idiot, The Truth (with Jokes), and Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, Franken suddenly found himself on the receiving end of such scrutiny. The picture that emerged was not flattering.

Republicans had a field day with Franken’s colorful past. To cite just one Republican TV ad of many, Franken was criticized for “his history of pornography, degrading women and minorities and his questionable financial transactions.” This was no overstatement. For instance, critics reminded voters that one of Franken’s books included a short story gleefully describing the fictional murder of conservative author Bill Bennett. Another story by Franken, in a 2000 issue of Playboy, was entitled “Porn-O-Rama” and featured his own young son as a character. Former colleagues came forward with recollections of “rape jokes” Franken purportedly made during a 1995 Saturday Night Live staff meeting.

Reinforcing Franken’s vulgar image were videos that cropped on YouTube.com depicting Al Franken losing his temper; pounding desks; performing a spastic, scantily clad imitation of Mick Jagger; blaming Ann Coulter for 9/11; and swearing onstage at a Democratic fundraiser.

Despite styling himself as the watchdog of “lying” conservatives, Franken himself was caught in a number of embarrassing equivocations, the most scandalous of which occurred in April 2003. While serving as a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Franken wrote fake letters on Harvard stationary to high-profile advocates of abstinence-only sex education, such as Attorney General John Ashcroft, asking them to share their own personal “abstinence experiences” for an inspirational book for teens to be called Savin’ It! Franken’s targets saw through the unfunny ruse, and some complained to Harvard, leading Franken to apologize. Even then, Franken seemed most apologetic that he had been caught in the act, and his apologies to Ashcroft and other targets of his hoax were less-than-gracious.

The trouble with Franken’s résumé went beyond his unfunny, off-color jokes, his leaden pranks, and his ill-controlled temper. Franken’s problematic relationship with the truth has long been a matter of public record. For example, he once suggested that National Review’s Rich Lowry had dedicated his new book to his male lover, when, in fact, the “Robert” in question was Lowry’s brother. Confronted by Lowry over his ad hominem remarks, implicit homophobia, and shabby research, Franken challenged Lowry to a fistfight.

Franken’s long string of exaggerations, distortions, and outright fictions tend to be just that trivial. Some, however, are serious. After months spent dodging questions from critics and opponents about the state of his personal finances, Franken finally admitted in April that he owed approximately $70,000 in unpaid taxes in 17 states. Shortly thereafter, the Minnesota Workers' Compensation Board fined Franken’s corporation $25,000 for failing to pay three years' worth of workers compensation dues.

This litany of misbehavior has been duly chronicled in easily obtainable magazines, newspaper articles, and booksy some authored by the candidate himself. Nor was it a secret that Franken brought no serious political experience to the esteemed office. Even Franken’s most famous political slogan – “Vote for me, Al Franken. You’ll be glad you did.” – was a spoof, coined during a Weekend Update segment on “Saturday Night Live” back in the 1970s. Yet, none of this seemed to matter when many Minnesotans cast their vote for the U.S. Senate.

That astounds observers like Chad Doughty, a native Minnesotan who writes for the conservative Fraters Libertas blog. Doughty acknowledges that Minnesota has been politically idiosyncratic in the past, as when it shocked the nation by electing former pro wrestler Jesse “The Body” Ventura as governor in 1998. “But that was a non-serious time,” Doughty told FrontPage by e-mail. “The big issues of the day really weren't that big.” By contrast, he notes, 2008 was “a very serious time,” and he never seriously considered the possibility that Franken would be elected to the Senate.

To be sure, the election was hardly a clean sweep for Franken. There are still lingering questions about the result, with some commentators accusing the comedian-turned-candidate of voter fraud. Moreover, because Minnesota state law prevents the certification of an election until all legal challenges are settled, it could be weeks or longer before Senator Al Franken becomes the newest member of Congress.

As it stands, however, the election looks all but certain to go Franken’s way. Though it may be tempting to say that Minnesotans have been the butt of a bad political joke, it looks as if the state's voters have spoken. And they’ve decided to send in the clown.

Kathy Shaidle blogs at FiveFeetOfFury.com. Her new book exposing abuses by Canada’s Human Rights Commissions, The Tyranny of Nice, includes an introduction by Mark Steyn.

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