Franken tries the switch from comic to Congress

Published 8:51 pm Friday, July 4, 2008

WASHINGTON (AP) — Moving from celebrity to senator isn’t exactly an untraveled path. But that doesn’t mean comedian Al Franken, who is vying for a Senate seat in Minnesota, will coast to Capitol Hill on a wide, smooth road.

Franken, a Democrat, best-selling author and former “Saturday Night Live” cast member, once penned a racy piece for Playboy that has offended the Midwestern sensibilities of some Minnesotans. It is that history as a satirist and comedian, Franken says, that puts him “in a little uncharted territory” as he tries to woo voters.

At his nomination speech a few weeks ago, Franken acknowledged that some of his past writings and comments were “downright offensive.”

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“There were some things that I said that gave some people reason to believe I wouldn’t fight for all Minnesotans, specifically for women,” Franken said in a telephone interview. “I said I was sorry for that, ’cause that’s not who I am.”

If he can overcome his past, colorful commentary, Franken would join a long list of entertainers who have found a second or third career in elected office, most notably former President Reagan. They include:

—Helen Gahagan Douglas, a 1930s actress and opera singer who was a Democratic congresswoman before losing the 1950 California Senate race to Richard Nixon in a landslide. In that race, the future president called her “pink right down to her underwear” and earned the nickname “Tricky Dick.”

—Tough-guy actor and director Clint Eastwood, who became mayor of Carmel, Calif.

—Fred Grandy, Gopher on the TV show “The Love Boat,” who became a Republican congressman from Iowa.

—Sonny Bono, of “Sonny and Cher” fame, a Republican who became mayor of Palm Springs, Calif., and then a California congressman.

—Ben Jones, who played the mechanic Cooter on the TV show “The Dukes of Hazzard” before winning a congressional seat from Georgia as a Democrat.

—Jesse Ventura, a professional wrestler and actor who served one term as Reform Party governor of Minnesota.

—Movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger, now Republican governor of California.

—Song-and-dance actor George Murphy, a Republican senator from California in the 1960s.

—Fred Thompson, a congressional staffer who became an actor and then a Republican senator from Tennessee and presidential candidate.

Also, actor Sonny Landham, who appeared in “48 Hours” and “Predator,” is mounting a Libertarian challenge to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Not all entertainers have been able to make the switch. In 1967, former child actress Shirley Temple Black, a California Republican, stressed to voters, “Little Shirley Temple is not running,” but lost the congressional election anyway. The little curly haired girl went on to serve as U.S. ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia.

Entertainment is good preparation for politics, said Rep. John Hall, a New York Democrat who had been frontman for the band Orleans (big hit “Still the One”).

“The advantage to being a performer is that I’ve always been the product — I’m used to getting up in front of people and selling myself and my ideas,” he said. “They may be musical or lyrical ideas, but they’re ideas nonetheless.”

But some of Franken’s writings are a little stronger than, say, “You’re still the one I want to talk to in bed,” and Franken’s Republican opponent, Sen. Norm Coleman, has highlighted the “Porn-O-Rama!” column Franken wrote for Playboy in 2000.

“Eight years ago I was making the streets of St. Paul safer,” said Coleman, the city’s former mayor, “and he was writing porn.”

When Reagan ran for governor of California in 1966, his Democratic opponent, Gov. Pat Brown, also ridiculed Reagan’s past career.

“While we’ve been building a dynamic working society in California, he was off making such film epics as ‘Bedtime for Bonzo’ and ‘Tugboat Annie Sails Again,'” Brown said. But the strategy didn’t work; Reagan won in a landslide.

By the time Reagan mounted his first successful presidential bid in 1980, he was invoking “Bedtime for Bonzo” — which featured Reagan and a chimpanzee. Responding to hecklers at a campaign event, he said, “A little while ago they were calling out ‘Bonzo.’ They’d better be careful. Bonzo grew up to be King Kong.”

Reagan biographer Lou Cannon said Franken has a bigger credibility hurdle to clear than Reagan did.

“Franken is a comedian, who writes these outrageous lines and books,” he said. “Reagan had most recently been host of the very dignified GE Theater. I also think that Minnesota is a different political culture than California, which was welcoming to stars.”

Still, Franken wouldn’t be the first entertainer to win in Minnesota; the state elected Ventura governor in 1998.

Ventura said he was on a flight with Franken a couple of years ago and warned him: “If you have any ghosts in your closet, get ready, because they’re going to be splattered all over the front page of the world.”

“It’s a shame,” added Ventura, who says he’s considering running against Franken and Coleman as an independent. “Take my opinion on his Playboy article — it’s irrelevant. He was asked to do a job, he’s a writer, whatever it is he does. I more worry about how he will govern.”

Ventura said his own celebrity status had been a boon in the ’98 campaign — “you’re already a household word, so you don’t have to purchase that.”

Grandy had a similar take. He said his previous career on “The Love Boat” was a “secret weapon,” because people thought it would be a disadvantage. In fact, it provided instant name recognition.

“It’s better to start with a negative impression than none at all, because you can always turn that around,” Grandy said.

He said he didn’t have much show business baggage, having been on a “fairly white bread show. There was really not much there that you could call salacious or controversial.”