I had a chance to sit down with Minnesota’s junior Sen. Al Franken a week ago. It turned out to be one hour of quality face time.
You learn a lot about people when you meet face to face that you don’t get from the 30-second sound bites on TV. (It may just be possible that President Obama is something besides “incompetent” and Mitt Romney is something other than “greedy.”)
Franken spent an hour with the ECM Publishers Editorial Board, and we went through the usual public policy issues, some of which make your eyes glaze over. Franken will always be known as a comedian, but since he got into this political gig, he’s tried to become sort of a policy wonk.
So we talked about something called the “Medical Loss Ratio” which he spearheaded to make sure that 80 percent of health insurance premiums are spent on health care instead of administrative overhead, marketing and executive bonuses.
We talked about reforming No Child Left Behind, the federal education law that Franken dubbed, “A perverse race to the middle.”
And we talked about retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency, the importance of early childhood education, the fate of the U.S. Postal Service and Assad of Syria and of how tennis star Billie Jean King could not get an athletic scholarship to USC in the early 1970s — even though she had already won at Wimbledon.
We talked about the “fiscal cliff” which the nation is said to be heading for come January, but which Franken said “is more like a fiscal slope,” and added for reassurance that in Congress, “Things tend to get done when they have to get done.”
He said that the debt ceiling fight a year ago was the “one time that I was feeling kind of miserable” about having chosen to go into politics. He said, “People who aren’t Keynesian (economics believers) are selectively Keynesian.”
But then, we got to the end, and, as a throw away question, I asked him to comment on the recent death of his comedy-writing partner, Tom Davis.
Franken and Davis were friends for 40 years, ever since high school in St. Louis Park. Three years ago, Davis was diagnosed with head and neck cancer and given six months to a year to live. He lived until July 19.
Franken said Davis’ death really affected him. He said Davis “faced death with an unbelievable grace and humor.”
About 10 days before he passed away, Franken visited him for the last time. Franken said, “He always had a sardonic sense of humor, but he was a little more sardonic (this time.)”
After Davis died, Franken eulogized him on the floor of the Senate. You can see the eulogy on the Internet. It lasts 21 minutes, and I laughed more than once watching it.
Franken and Davis were two of the original writers for “Saturday Night Live.” Franken’s favorite memories of those times were “rolling on the floor” laughing at something somebody wrote. “That was just pure joy,” Franken eulogized.
Franken credited Davis with creating the Coneheads, and for a memorable skit in which French cuisine chef Julia Child accidentally cuts herself and bleeds to death.
He remembered the time they were mistakenly booked into Huron University in South Dakota during spring break and six people showed up — five members of the basketball team who couldn’t afford to go home and another student restricted to campus until summer.
And he recalled going camping with Davis on an island in the BWCA in October, snagging a fishing line, getting into the canoe by himself to go free it, getting swept away by the current and having Davis, who was much more competent than Franken at canoeing, shouting him instructions on how to get out of the current, thus saving their lives.
At the end of the eulogy, Franken read an essay that only a comedy writer like Davis could create. Entitled “The Dark Side of Death,” here are some of Davis’ more meaningful thoughts on his “de-animation”:
“I’ve lost about 50 pounds. (I needed to lose 49.) It’s great to wear jeans from the ‘70s, although I remember making a few people laugh when I said I would save them in case I got cancer.”
“My grocer at the Claverack Market, Ted the Elder, recently asked if I had heard that there are two stages in life: ‘youth,’ and ‘you look great.’ Wish I’d thought of that.”
“False hope is my enemy, also self pity, which went out the window when I saw children with cancer.”
“I wake up in the morning, delighted to be waking up, read, write, feed the birds, watch sports on TV, accepting the fact that in the foreseeable future I will be a dead person. I want to remind you that dead people are people, too. There are good dead people and bad dead people. Some of my best friends are dead people. Dead people have fought in every war. We’re all going to try it sometime. Fortunately for me, I have always enjoyed mystery and solitude.”
“Many people in my situation say, ‘It’s been my worst and best year.’ If that sounds like a cliche, you don’t have cancer.”
“As an old-school Malthusian liberal, I’ve always believed that the source of all mankind’s problems is overpopulation. I’m finally going to do something about it.”
Franken said in conclusion, “He was just a beautiful guy.”
Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Record. He may be reached at (320) 632-2345 or by e-mail at [email protected].