By Brett Yates
If you had asked me in 2015 to name three people from Minnesota, I probably would have thought for a moment and then come up with iconic pop star Prince, Senator Al Franken, and the public radio raconteur Garrison Keillor.
In 2016, Prince died of a fentanyl overdose. Now, two concurrent sexual misconduct scandals have abruptly banished Franken and Keillor from public life, as a long, cold winter sets in across the Land of 10,000 Lakes. What do Minnesotans have left? Let’s not forget that Mary Tyler Moore – TV’s most famous Minneapolitan of the 20th century – also died last year, and that Disney hasn’t produced a “Mighty Ducks” sequel in more than two decades.
A few months before finding out that Franken had a habit of fondling unsuspecting women, I read his 2017 book, “Al Franken, Giant of the Senate,” whose jocularly grandiose title makes it sound like it’s going to be a parody of the political memoir genre, though it actually just straightforwardly is one, with some jokes interspersed. If you want to know what it’s like to run for political office or work on Capitol Hill, it’s pretty informative. But if you’re hoping for a clear-eyed, darkly comic journey into the horrifying moral abyss that more recently inflicted Donald Trump’s egregious tax reform bill upon the nation, you may find Franken’s work less barbed than expected. The only Republican whom he addresses with any venom is Ted Cruz; otherwise, the author admits that, on a personal level, he actually likes many of his opponents.
Of course, Franken insists in the book that his across-the-aisle affection for his colleagues doesn’t prevent him from seeing the Republican agenda for what it is or from firmly opposing it. Instead, he argues that maintaining cordial relations with the Republicans helps him pass legislation that requires bipartisan support: “For example,” he writes, “there’s a history of flooding in the Red River Valley between Minnesota and North Dakota, so it’s really important that North Dakota Republican John Hoeven and I be able to work together to fight for flood mitigation funding.”
I can’t argue that this doesn’t make sense. However, I also can’t help but feel that anyone capable of writing the sentence “Jeff Sessions is my friend” while knowing that Jeff Sessions spent the 1980s terrorizing black people in Alabama for trying to vote is morally deficient. When Franken was accused of sexual misconduct, I was still surprised, but my estimation of his character had already sunk a bit.
Minnesota residents may be more acutely disappointed. During his Senate career, Franken’s admirers and his critics could both acknowledge his strong “constituency work” – he tried hard to stay in touch with the particular concerns of Minnesotans and to advocate on their behalf in Washington.
Meanwhile, outside of Franken’s home state, liberals are now in a furor over the unfairness that their feminist crusade against the abusive behavior of powerful men seems capable, in Washington, of destroying only the men on their own side of the political spectrum. Franken, who as a senator successfully fought for the rights of sexual assault victims, has (with obvious resentment) resigned, but Trump, whose disrespect for women is beyond obvious, stays in office, and as of this writing, the widely accused child molester Roy Moore has a very good chance of winning the Senate seat in Alabama.
Understandably, some Democrats are miffed that the Republicans get to play by a different set of rules than they do – in other words, they’re very annoyed that, in order to maintain their image as the party that supports women, they have to submit to the inconvenience of actually supporting women. (These people have no real principles.)
One “liberal” who doesn’t believe that Al Franken should have resigned is, unsurprisingly, the aforementioned humorist Garrison Keillor, who, shortly before reports emerged of similar allegations against him, wrote a rambling Washington Post editorial ostensibly in support of Franken, though most of it was given over to complaining about Minnesota’s efforts to restore the Native American names of certain lakes that European settlers had rebranded to honor slaveowners and Indian killers. Keillor, in his prairie wisdom, makes his points in such a charmingly folksy way, with such sophisticated attention to the small ironies and absurdities of life, that surely readers hardly noticed that he was making the same argument that the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville had used in defense of Virginia’s Confederate monuments.
Eventually, in Keillor’s roundabout way, the piece makes its way to Franken. Keillor observes that, on the USO tours where Franken met his first accuser, Leeann Tweeden, Franken’s shows consisted of “broad comedy of a sort that goes back to the Middle Ages” and Shakespeare; in Keillor’s view, the now infamous photo in which Franken appears to grope a sleeping Tweeden was an extension of the same honorable “spirit of low comedy.” Like an English literature professor who’s been caught sleeping with students, Keillor casts the feminist pushback against callous male entitlement as an assault upon Western culture itself.
I once mostly liked Al Franken, but Keillor always irritated me. His popular radio show “A Prairie Home Companion” – which he hosted, with unbroken tranquility, between 1974 and 2016 for an audience that must believe boredom is good for the soul – has forever been astoundingly unfunny in its fetishized plainness and understatement. Keillor has the air of a man who decided all on his own that he is a “national treasure,” and somehow the rest of us have gone along with it. The details of his sexual misconduct remain largely unknown thus far, but Minnesota Public Radio has cut ties. Openly indignant, Keillor has not made even a pretense of contrition.
So, do Minnesotans have any remaining heroes? Well, Joel and Ethan Coen are still making movies. Bob Dylan is still alive. The Vikings, the Timberwolves, and the Wild all have winning records this year. And pretty soon, the Gopher State will have a new senator – how exciting! Godspeed, Minnesota.