If you’ve recently tuned in to CNN or MSNBC you may have noticed a familiar face has returned to political punditry: Al Franken.
Over the past several months, the former Minnesota senator—whose legislative career ended in 2018 over multiple allegations of sexual misconduct—has been quietly growing his media presence, becoming a more common sight on cable news, in op-ed pages, and on the radio.
Earlier this month, for example, the former Minnesota senator appeared three times in a single week on MSNBC, weighing in on the Senate confirmation hearings for now Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett. At other times he’s joined host Joy Reid to react to news or, since Election Day, has appeared regularly on Brian Williams’ show to discuss Donald Trump’s current futile attempts to overturn Joe Biden’s electoral wins in several states via recounts, noting his own experience with a much narrower recount in 2008.
In September, he spoke with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour about political satire and Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, and wrote an op-ed for the network’s website over the summer about how Biden could win the election. He wrote about Biden’s incoming administration for the Los Angeles Times, and launched a podcast/radio show on SiriusXM dedicated to covering the election, booking interviews with high-profile guests and personal friends like musician John Mayer, former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, upstart 2020 Democratic candidate Andrew Yang, and comedians like Sarah Silverman, Jimmy Kimmel, and Chris Rock.
In a brief telephone interview several days after the election, Franken said his goal in returning to the public eye—despite his unceremonious exit from politics—is to raise awareness about the issues he felt passionately about as a legislator, including health care, climate change, right-wing media, and an increasingly conservative tilt in the judiciary system. He seemed more focused on the future than reflecting upon his past.
“I want to have my voice heard so I can keep fighting for the things that I care about and the people I care about,” Franken told The Daily Beast.
It’s a striking third act for the ex-SNL star whose Senate exit in January 2018 came after, over the course of three weeks, eight women accused him of inappropriate touching, kissing, and remarks across several decades. While Franken called for an official investigation into his own conduct, the misconduct allegations—which came at the height of the #MeToo movement—prompted three dozen Democratic senators, including Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, to denounce him and call for his resignation.
Initially, in the months following his ouster, Franken largely disappeared, limiting his media appearances to friendlier outlets and reporters. Several political news outlets reported on remorse among legislators who believe they may have acted too hastily to push him out the door without an ethics hearing. And a year-and-a-half after he left Congress, The New Yorker ran an exhaustive profile raising questions about some of the allegations, reporting that one particularly damning photo was taken out of context, and that one of his accusers made demonstrably false claims about him. Various Democratic senators were quoted as regretting calling for his resignation at the time, saying they rushed to judgement. The piece was lauded by some Franken defenders, but criticized by others who claimed its author, Jane Mayer, swept other credible allegations under the rug.
Nevertheless, it was an opening salvo in the former senator’s image rehabilitation. He subsequently embarked on a carefully managed media tour, appearing on late-night shows with Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Kimmel.
In some ways, mounting a comeback as a commentator is a return to form for Franken, who spent years as a political pundit, author, and host of the Al Franken Show on Air America, the short-lived progressive radio network, before winning a historically close 2008 Senate race against Republican incumbent Norm Coleman.
On his satellite radio show, Franken has focused on right-wing media, a topic that animated much of his pre-Senate writing and broadcasting career—see: Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, his best-selling 2003 book skewering Fox News in particular—and has mixed his penchant for satirical comedy with discussions of electoral politics.
But Franken believes he now has new insights that he didn’t possess the first time he was in the hosting chair, and that such expertise allows him to inject more serious policy discussions into his interviews. He noted that during one recent episode of his radio show, he discussed agricultural policy at length, a topic he became intimately familiar with thanks to his time running for Senate and serving in the chamber. Other recent episodes have focused on the courts, a subject area he feels confident in due to his time on the judiciary committee.
“I try to use my podcast to educate my listeners and to elevate the conversation and focus a lot on issues,” he said.
He’s used his podcast to re-enact committee hearings, and rebut claims made by Republican senators on those committees of days gone by. In one recent episode, he recalled sending potential lines of questions to Democratic senators to raise during now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, saying he was “frustrated he couldn’t be there.”
Still, Franken’s media appearances since his ouster haven’t sat well with some who feel the ex-senator has yet to completely reckon with or apologize for his alleged misconduct.
Tina Dupuy, a former congressional staffer who claimed Franken made her uncomfortable by groping her during a photo-op, told The Washington Post last year that he was “not the victim here. And now we’re talking about a comeback without him even being fully honest about what he’s done.” New York magazine panned his initial interview with Conan, saying their jovial chat “minimizes the complaints of the women who say he mistreated them.”
“It’s as though he’s a victim of circumstance rather than someone who took actions, of his own volition, that made women feel uncomfortable and demeaned,” wrote New York’s Bridget Read. When Franken recently appeared on HBO’s Real Time, critics blasted host Bill Maher for glossing over the allegations that ended the senator’s career.
But Franken seemed undeterred. “I’m getting almost no pushback,” he told The Daily Beast. “I feel very welcome in the public debate.”
Franken’s ultimate, long-term plans are fairly opaque. The Daily Beast spoke with several Minnesota Democrats who keep in touch with Franken. Some said they’ve come away from conversations with the impression that he seems open to some sort of political future for himself; others said his latest re-emergence reflects a desire to remain in the political fold, but that he has no interest in elected office; others said he mostly just seems a little bored.
But the 2020 election cycle has seemingly given the ex-senator plenty to do.
Franken told The Daily Beast he has been using his political action committee to boost candidates and political groups in local and down-ballot races, saying he helped fund the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party’s data operation for state Senate candidates. Additionally, he said, his PAC has helped support culinary workers’ political priorities in his old pal Harry Reid’s home state of Nevada.
Throughout his quiet career rehab, Franken has remained represented by United Talent Agency, and has kept a schedule of regular and recent virtual events. He sat down for a Zoom interview with the University of Minnesota in September. Before the pandemic began, he had begun speaking at in-person events and theaters—one such event occurred the day before COVID lockdowns swept the nation in March.
But for now, Franken is mostly living the life of a standard political pundit.
He spent most of the days after the election glued to cable news, watching and waiting for state results to trickle in. When he is not publishing on other sites, he maintains a newsletter with regular updates and blog posts, and keeps his YouTube page updated with regular media hits. He is thinking about writing a book, but has no concrete plans to do so, and focuses largely on his radio show where, during commercial breaks, he hawks services like streaming service Sling TV and a sanitizing product called “phone soap.”
Still, at moments, it’s occasionally impossible for Franken to ignore the elephant in the room.
The podcast is peppered with the former senator’s sometimes self-deprecating remarks about his experience abruptly resigning following the allegations. In one recent episode he joked that his book was “now ironically” considered a giant of the Senate. And when Sen. Jon Tester appeared on the show earlier this month, the Montana Democrat personally apologized at length to Franken for asking him to resign, saying it was one of the worst mistakes of his political career.
“I’ve had now 10 former colleagues apologize, and I believe in forgiving people,” he said. “Except you.”