I was happy to see the front page of the Style section in today’s Washington Post, featuring a story on Senator Al Franken. I first met Al Franken at an annual dinner of the American Enterprise Institute in the mid-to-late 1990s. I was walking down the staircase from the reception to the dinner, and suddenly I noticed he was walking right next to me. I touched his arm (or maybe I slapped it), and said “I know you! You’re, you’re… Al Franken!” And he said “why, yes, I am–and who are you?” And then I told him I was just a lowly tax policy analyst at CBO who had written something that went into an AEI book the prior year, but what was he doing there, and all he told me was that the only reason he was there was because Norm Ornstein of AEI was (and still is?) his good friend. I have to admit, I can’t remember exactly what year that dinner was–but it turned out that at that time Al was working on or just finished his “Rush Limbaugh Is a Big, Fat Idiot” book which included some spot-on discussions about the distribution of the tax burden, which happened to be the issue I was working on for CBO at the same time. (It was the focus of my Ph.D. dissertation as well; here’s the book I eventually wrote with my dissertation supervisor.) I didn’t know about Al’s command of fiscal policy until after the encounter, when I read his book and then over the years another and another, and I was impressed. Not just about how funny he was in these books, but how substantive and insightful and correct he could be in his policy analysis, and his rare talent in disguising the otherwise dry policy analytics as something engaging enough for normal people (not just policy geeks) to read and learn about. That ability to “translate” like that was inspiring to me.
In fact, I was so taken by Al Franken’s books that I had my budding social-activist child, my second daughter, Emily, read his books starting at age 12–as a early middle-schooler. (Emily is the kid who would later be the one accompanying me to the anti-war march in DC and who would eventually become an officer at her high school’s Amnesty International group.) So the second time I met Al was in late 2005, when I took Emily to a book signing (in McLean, VA) for his new “The Truth (with jokes)” book. That’s the two of them in the photo above. We had arrived at the very start, heard Al talk to the group of people mostly way older than me, let alone Emily (who was certainly his youngest fan there), but then I had to take Emily to her basketball game. By the time the game was over and we rushed back to the bookstore fearing we were too late to catch him, it turned out that there were only a few people left in line waiting for their books to be signed, and Emily and I were going to be the last ones to have our book signed and talk with him–so we got some high-quality, individual time with him! I loved how warmly Al greeted and talked with us. (This, even though Emily was sweaty from the bball game!) I explained how I had met him years before, and having heard him talk about possible interest in running for the Senate in 2008 (fans at the book signing had asked him about that), I told him I worked on the Hill on fiscal policy issues and gave him my business card, telling him “if you ever need an economist…” (He never called or emailed me, but I don’t hold that against him and like to think he just couldn’t find me when he needed me, as I’ve moved on since then.)
I’ve been trying to keep up with now-Senator Franken; my ears always perk up when I hear him on the TV that’s normally just background noise for me at home and in my office. I always like what I hear, because Senator Franken shows that mixture of conviction, honesty, intelligence and good humor in how he explains things. So in today’s Washington Post, I was happy to see Post writer Jason Horowitz suggest that not only is Al Franken funny and getting more comfortable about showing that funny side even as Senator Franken, but he’s using his unique talents to show more political courage than your average politician as well. For example:
In early February, Franken rose during a private panel discussion with the Democratic caucus and Axelrod and theatrically declared, “I’ve been in a slow burn” about the administration’s handling of health care, according to several attendees who asked to remain anonymous to discuss the details of a private meeting. He then launched into an extended critique and demanded to know from Axelrod when the president would take a leading role in pushing the issue. According to multiple sources familiar with the proceedings, Axelrod countered that the president had constantly championed health-care reform.
Franken, according to several sources, urged Axelrod to answer his question and aggressively suggested that the administration push the House to pass the Senate’s health-care reform bill. Axelrod replied that if Franken had the names of 218 supportive members of Congress in his pocket, he’d gladly pass them along to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Axelrod added that he doubted Franken did.
Franken then, according to multiple sources, directed his ire toward President Obama.
“When will he apologize for his stupid idea to put these discussions on C-SPAN,” Franken said, according to two sources.
So, Senator Franken: if by chance you feel like speaking up more on fiscal responsibility (which I know you understand and care about), and if you could use some help from an economist on the substance of the issue, I happen to know an economist who could use your help in making the fiscal responsibility messages more compelling to real people–or even just to those people who are your colleagues now. I’m at the Concord Coalition now. Give me a call!