Stuart Smalley saves the senate

When Air America announced its intention to become the lone liberal voice in talk radio, to begin to counter the utter dominance of that medium by the Right, way back in 2003, it was music to my ears.  Working often alone, building things and tearing them down, not necessarily in that order, some aural stimulation sounded like just the ticket, while my growing horror at the frightening turn our government was taking and the absurd media cheerleading for same made me hunger for new information.  The New York Times offered no respite; it was plastered with Judith Miller’s famous lies and Tom Friedman’s delusional fantasies, and Elisabeth Bumiller wrote about “Freedom Toast” being served for breakfast on Air Force One as though it were perfectly normal for such jingoistic inanities to work their way into even the menu, and at breakfast, no less…

Then KPOJ came on the air, and I “met” Al Franken.  His show, with the honey-voiced charmer both sharp and smart from Minnesota Public Radio, Katharine Lanpher, made my mornings for as long as it lasted, and despite the coordinated and somewhat effective righty propaganda to the contrary, the show was quite successful in markets like Portland from day one.  Even as Bill O’Reilly was gloating at the unsteady rollout, KPOJ instantly became not just the #1 talk station here, but the number one radio station.  And in those days, Al Franken, along with Randi Rhodes, the Majority Report with Sam Seder and Janeane Garofalo, and MSNBC’s newest star Ed Schultz, were its heart.  Even the worst days flew by as never before.

But Al’s show, unsurprisingly, was the funniest, and that made it my favorite because laughing is about the only thing that can make hanging drywall with a hangover while your country turns fascist seem, in a weird and counterintuitive way, enjoyable.   Through the atrocious debacles of Iraq, Katrina and the Lewis Libby trials, Al played different characters at times with their predictable schticks, and yet he also had regular, serious guests that gave the show a homey personality while it persistently made the listener laugh even when crying was probably more appropriate, which was pretty often back then.  But that is certainly not to say that Franken’s show was just shallow entertainment; far from it. I would probably credit Al as one of the most significant forces behind the flipping of Scott McClellan, albeit belatedly, against Bush, because of the powerfully emotive evocations of the betrayal McClellan felt, palpable in his subsequent book, that drew almost directly from Franken’s frequent and passionate words at the time. (Once a talking points repeater, always a talking points repeater, but still….)

From Franken’s show, I fell in love with regular guest Joe Conason, whose deep, mellifluous voice could melt glaciers, and is one of the wittiest and sharpest thinkers you’ve ever heard, and thanks in part to his exposure on Al’s show, has since gained a much wider audience, quite deservedly.  (To my considerable chagrin, when I went to meet Joe at a local appearance he turned out to be kind of scrawny and disappointing, but such is the power of radio….)  I also found out that if you’re a Hollywood liberal like Al, you can get, say, Linda Rondstadt, to sing your intro ditties, beautifully, and at fairly short notice.  Let Rush Limbaugh, with all his millions, try to pull that off.  Once.  Talent, musically in particular, utterly escapes the right, which is part of what makes them what they are.

But the most audacious part of Al’s show was that, from the beginning, he was planning on kicking Norm Coleman out of the Senate, personally, and  although he remained appropriately cagey about it, this was alway a major goal of his in moving into progressive talk. His moving home to Minneapolis sealed the deal for me.  I remember one day when he was reading some absurd, false, or hateful thing Coleman had said, as he often did, and said, “Someone’s gotta take him on.”  My heart leapt, because I could tell he meant it.  And today his (and my) wish came true.  Congratulations, Senator Franken, you of the 60th vote.  I bet Bill O’Reilly has shit in his blood.  More than usual.


  1. Needed saying, and nobody could have said it better. Treat yourself to a pedicure, Hag, darlin’, and open that bottle of Veuve Cliquot you’ve been hiding from the riffraff. I salute you!

  2. cocktailhag says:

    Aw, shucks, WT (kicks dust with feet…) Thanks. (and I’ll do both, metaphorically, at once)

  3. retzilian says:

    Yay! I see his grinning mug all over and have to say, It’s About Time! I read “Lies & the Lying Liars…” on a plane trip home from California and laughed out loud through the entire book. Good thing I was in the back row. I also read Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot, and his latest offering (to try and sway the 2006 midterms), “Truth.”

    He sure kept a low profile during all this brouhaha. I can’t wait to see him in the Senate at last.

    After reading your description of his radio program, Hag, I really wish I had heard it. I never did. Maybe I can find reruns on YouTube or iTunes.

    • cocktailhag says:

      I read “Lies” on the train to Seattle back in those dark days, and laughed so often I was alternately embarrassed and worried that some righty would show up packing heat. It took courage to write that book, and when it came out, it took a bit of courage to read it on the train. To my considerable delight, a bunch of blue-collar geezers traveling together actually approached me and asked about the book (this was evening in the booze car) and all of them were supportive, and Franken fans. Like Michelle Obama, I felt suddenly proud for my country, and for the same reasons.

  4. Steven Rockford says:

    The early Al Franken/Katherine Lanpher shows were the best. Al would tend to get a little sappy at times, but Katherine would always manage to pull him back on track. I missed her counterpoint after she left the show, but still felt the Al Frankin show was the best on radio. You’re right, Air America Radio was a shining light in the darkness for a long time, and Al Franken was a major part of that.

    • cocktailhag says:

      Ah, Katharine Lanpher… I remember one Christmas Al was on vacation (remodeling knows no holidays…) and Joe Conason was subbing. Instead of Al’s sappy singing intro to Christy Harvey from the Center for American Progress, Katharine sang a gorgeous and quite professionally done intro, set to the tune of, “Santa Baby.” She said she sang it lying on a piano, and I believed her. She was a great foil for Al, and the show did suffer when she left. Thom Hartmann, who lives in Portland, incidentally, has a great show, but I miss teh funny in the morning. Can you get Stephanie Miller where you are?
      It might be the cure for Al-nostalgia… it broadcasts 6-9 am from KTLK in Los Angeles, where I spend a lot of time, and it recently popped up here on a different talk station.

  5. Steven Rockford says:

    I can’t get Stephanie Miller here, but have listened to her in SoCal on occasion. She is a great Katherine Lanpher replacement.

  6. timothy3 says:

    Another fine piece, CH, (and I never tire of writing that). Just wanted to add one thing: according to something HuffPost picked up from Tulsa World (I’m guessing a newspaper), Sen. Inhofe remarked, about Franken’s imminent seating, “it looks like things are going to be over and we are going to get the clown from Minnesota ….”
    Now, let me absolutely beat to death the obvious here by noting that such a comment comes from “the clown from Oklahoma” who, shockingly!, is the clowniest of the clowns in that clown-infested world known as the Senate.
    And for dessert: “‘for a living he is a clown. That’s what he does for a living.’ [said Inhofe] Inhofe has previously compared people who believe in global warming to Hitler’s Third Reich and called “An Inconvenient Truth” a “science fiction” movie.”

    • rmp says:

      You’re so right about the number of clowns residing in Oklahoma. I have a neighborhood friend from Oklahoma who says many evangelicals are moving to Oklahoma so the nuttery is worsening. Catch this legislative action:

      Oklahoma Republican Ready To Blame The Recession On ‘Debauchery’
      Dave Weigel at the Washington Independent catches a bizarre resolution introduced by Oklahoma State Rep. Sally Kern (R) in Oklahoma, whose state legislature he describes as a “petri dish for wingnuttery.”

      The proposed “Oklahoma Citizen’s Proclamation for Morality” would blame the economic crisis on moral collapse.
      The resolution specifically cites President Obama’s policies as well as his celebration of LGBT Pride month and his decision to end the National Prayer Day service at the White House as key causes of the current recession.

  7. cocktailhag says:

    Unintentional facetiousness like Inhofe’s is about the only way you ever get a laugh out of a righty…. I think Inhofe is just jealous because Al makes people laugh when he intends to.

  8. rmp says:

    Minnesota is not nuts for electing a pro wrestler as governor and now an SNL alumni as senator. It reflects the fact that a sufficient number of Minnesotans recognize integrity and politicians who can’t be bought. Since the RWAs are so much in love with their radio stars, it is more than fitting that one of the first major radio stars on the left now represents all Minnesotans. The Limbaugh lovers will probably not rush to their radios when Al is on. I’ll certainly listen/watch when he speaks.

    • cocktailhag says:

      You won’t be disappointed, RMP. He’s likable, direct, and honest, whether being funny or not. Personally, I hope now that he’s in, he’d let the funny out a little more; it’ll just drive O’Reilly that much more crazy. And the Senate could use a little of Al’s brand of righty-skewering humor. Al is also strongly pro-EFCA and strong on Veteran’s issues, and the improvement over Coleman? Well, night and day.

  9. Karen M says:

    If he gets to make a speech when he’s finally sworn it, I’ll bet Al pays a tribute to Paul Wellstone. You just know that he’s why Al wanted to wrest it away from Coleman. Who know… maybe Wellstone gave him a little help from the Other Side.

    Nice piece, ‘Hag!

    I never got to hear Franken’s radio program, either. Surely, it will be archived somewhere online… some time.

    • cocktailhag says:

      The one to listen to, Karen, would be election day 2004. When it ended, at Noon Pacific time, it looked like Kerry was going to win; the Ohio shenanigans were starting, but had not taken effect.
      Al and Katharine were over the moon. The next day, not so much. Paul Krugman was on, and the mood made a funeral seem cheery. Al knew the Wellstones, of course, and always saw his goal as restoring that legacy in Minnesota. Now he can.
      I couldn’t be more delighted.

  10. Joe Conason says:

    Scrawny and disappointing? Let me buy you a drink, cocktail hag .I’m sure I can change your mind. Katherine once called me “an intellectual dreamboat” on the air — she sat next to me every Friday for an hour…

    • cocktailhag says:

      If I can really believe that it’s you, I’m dreadfully embarrassed, but I’ve also fallen in love with you all over again for responding. I never missed your hour, so there’s no need to inform me of your obvious rapport with Katharine, and that week you two went solo was a delight. When I tried to bring that up with you, curious as I was whether she really sang that song lying on your piano as you signed my book at the Unitarian Church just a few blocks away, though, you were a bit disconnected and not as warm as I imagined you to be. Not very dreamboat-y.
      I’ll take that drink any time you’re in Portland, Joe. I’m a liberal, and thus prone to changing my mind now and then.

  11. I share your feelings about the old Franken show. Plenty of wonk, but good and even corny humor too. He ain’t no Wellstone, but I hope he’ll be a great senator.

    I still catch Air America, or parts of it, through XM radio. It is, sadly, a shadow of it’s former self, and needlessly so.

    Consason always did sound a little scrawny to me, on the radio…

    • cocktailhag says:

      Shhhh. He might still be lurking. Ix-nay on the awny-scray. KPOJ has only a few Air America shows left, but stellar ratings with the local morning show, Thom Hartmann, Ed Schultz, Randi Rhodes, Mike Malloy, and Ron Reagan.

  12. backlash says:

    My favorite part of Al’s show was when he would play Rush’s talking point for the day and then blow it out of the water with undeniable facts like playing the rest of an audio clip that Rush had played showing that was not what was said at all as it was so out of context and misleading it was rediculous. Then playing (SNL Character ?) saying Liiiarrr !!!