Al Franken’s long-delayed arrival at the U.S. Senate is a milestone for the current Democratic caucus in the Senate – bringing the Democrats to an unfilibusterable 60 senators – but it is an even more important milestone in American political satire. The satirist’s role has traditionally been to comment upon, react to, and indirectly influence the direction of politics. Satire is a privileged rhetorical form: the gifted satirist can cut to the center of political issues through the use of indirect speech, saying the opposite of what he or she actually means, exposing essential truths that could not have been stated as effectively if spoken plainly.
Perhaps the best example is Stephen Colbert’s epic performance at the 2006 White House Correspondent’s Dinner, which was an extraordinary confrontation of the satirist and the satirized. As the ridicule-worthy President Bush sat at his side, Colbert proceeded to cut the sitting President of the United States to shreds, while consistently saying the opposite of what he actually meant. For an agonizing 30 minutes, Colbert delivered an ironic speech, pretending to praise President Bush for his many accomplishments (which, of course, served instead to highlight the president’s endless failures). The presence of the White House press corps as the audience for the performance heightened the significance of the speech: in the psychological aftermath of September 11, the press corps had notoriously failed to hold the president accountable for his lying, misinformation, and incompetence. It took a comedian, of all things, to actually speak truth to power. For this one night, at least, comedy was the Fourth Estate and journalists had to look on in envy of the satirist’s power.
But Al Franken’s ascendancy to actual political office does Stephen Colbert one better: Colbert may have one-upped the White House journalists, but Franken has actually unseated a U.S. Senator, the un-Midwestern-named Norm Coleman. Al Franken used to professionally mock politicians as a writer and occasional performer on Saturday Night Live and, later, as a radio talk show host on the left-leaning Air America network. But now he has joined the ranks of the political class that he once made a career of satirizing and berating.
Franken’s unprecedented situation as a comedian-turned-senator suggests that American life has reached a level of irony sufficient to allow for satirical rhetoric in the realm of political dialogue. Franken will certainly be an unusual (and worthy) guest on Sunday morning political talk shows like Meet the Press or, even better, Fox and Friends. But political media is already deeply infused with satirical tones and Franken’s comic gifts will probably not be very distinguishable from the rhetoric of a national news media under the influence of The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Countdown with Keith Olbermann, The Rush Limbaugh Show, The Ed Show, Lou Dobbs Tonight, and countless other news programs that are infused with ironic tones, wordplay, and sarcasm.
Though irony and satire have become standard to the rhetoric of the news media, Franken has an opportunity to expand the reach of satire into the halls of Congress and the legislative process. In his first few days as a lawmaker, Franken – a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee – has already had the chance to question incoming Judge Sonia Sotomayor as a part of her senate confirmation hearings. During the questioning, Franken came across as generally knowledgeable and well-spoken, if perhaps a bit mild. But there was a discernible tension in the room that arose from the novelty of having a former comedian there amidst the ranks of the powerful; everyone seemed to be hanging on his words, hoping that he would break the anticipatory tension by cracking a joke. When he showed some candor and light humor at the end of his questioning session, the room burst into appreciative laughter, like a theatre full of people waiting for Larry the Cable Guy to say, “Git ‘er done!” Franken’s colleagues and the reporters who cover them are primed for laughter, ready to be entertained.
Maybe Franken will play it straight and leave the satirist behind. But he’d be wise to remember Stephen Colbert’s roasting of W. Irony is a unique speech act that can be a dismantling confrontation with power and few politicians are bold or talented enough to use it effectively. (Congressman Barney Frank is one important exception.) Sometimes, it may be more appropriate to lampoon someone like Tom Coburn, say, than to debate him. This editorial board believes that Franken ought to use his comic gifts as a political weapon to secure crucial legislative initiatives and disarm opponents.