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Al Franken's Swiftian dilemma

We've lately witnessed the breaking of many barriers: the first major female presidential candidate, the first major Hispanic candidate, the first black presumptive nominee, the first septuagenarian presumptive nominee. Ten years ago,

We've lately witnessed the breaking of many barriers: the first major female presidential candidate, the first major Hispanic candidate, the first black presumptive nominee, the first septuagenarian presumptive nominee. Ten years ago, we even saw an ex-wrestler win the job of Minnesota governor, and, five years ago, we saw an ex-body builder/action hero take on the role of California governor.

But is it really possible that a political satirist can ascend to the U.S. Senate?

That question is troubling a lot of Democrats this week, now that Al Franken has nailed down the party nomination (on the first ballot, at a state convention) for the autumn Senate race in Minnesota. Over the course of his 35-year comedic career, starting with his stint as a writer on the original Saturday Night Live, Franken has left a long trail of irreverent remarks, any number of which are potential grist for the Republicans - who, in their desperate straits, are only too grateful for any kind of ammo.

The Democrats are anxious to expand their thin Senate majority - right now, they have 49 senators, plus two independent operators (Bernie Sanders and Joe Lieberman) who caucus with them - and they do have a realistic shot at picking up four or five seats currently held by embattled Republicans. One essential pickup would be Minnesota, where freshman Sen. Norm Coleman, who was personally recruited by President Bush in 2002, is thought to be imperiled because of his lockstep fealty to Bush in the early years of the Iraq war. Antiwar fervor is strong in Minnesota. Coleman has been drawing roughly 50 percent support, or less, in recent polls, and that is generally deemed to be dangerous statistical territory for a Senate incumbent.

Yet even though this key Senate contest would appear to be a referendum on the incumbent, it may well wind up being a referendum on the challenger. And that's precisely where the Democrats do not want to be.

Start with the fact that not too many show-biz figures have made the successful transition to statewide elective office. George Murphy, a song-and-dance man, served as a U.S. senator; Ronald Reagan, of course, served as a governor; Arnold Schwarzenegger, of course, sits where Reagan once sat. But those are all Californians. Just as importantly, those are all Republicans.

Al Franken, by contrast, is a center-left Democrat with a gift for provocative satire, and he's seeking a Senate seat in a midwestern state. The kind of state known in New York and Hollywood as "flyover country." A state where, on election day 2006, only 25 percent of the voters identified themselves in the exit polls as liberals.

Actually, Franken earned the party nod the old-fashioned way, by working for it. A native Minnesotan, he and his wife moved back a few years ago, so that he could network with the locals. He convinced grassroots Democrats - most, but certainly not all - that there was a serious guy (and a Harvard cum laude graduate) beneath the prankster veneer. And his celebrity creds have enabled him to raise serious money, more than enough to compete with Coleman.

But most Senate races are waged in 30-second increments, and that's potentially deadly for a guy who has churned out thousands of jokes and skits, and written millions of words. The most controversial stuff - and of course there will be controversial stuff - can be easily cherry-picked by the opposition for maximum political mileage. Indeed, it's happening already.

The Republicans in Minnesota have been circulating a fictional spoof that Franken wrote eight years ago for Playboy magazine, about a visit to a virtual reality sex laboratory, where researchers had intimate relations with sex robots. He named the facility MIT, the acronym for the Minnesota Institute of Titology.

The Republicans are also circulating passages from a 1995 magazine article which depicts Franken on the job as a Saturday Night Live writer, swapping ideas with his colleagues for a proposed spoof of CBS essayist Andy Rooney. According to the article (which Franken did not challenge at the time), Franken riffed on the notion of having Rooney confess that he'd raped colleague Lesley Stahl after slipping her some sedatives. The skit never made it to air, probably because, by definition, it wasn't funny. But the Minnesota GOP is using the incident as a wedge to separate female voters from the Democratic candidate; as one Republican female state legislator remarked the other day, "Rape is not a punchline and it certainly is not funny."

One can certainly argue that it's not fair for Republicans to focus on such incidents, since satirists tend to provoke and exaggerate by nature, they try out all kinds of things, and, after all, the artistic process is no more neat and clean than the making of sausages. But this is precisely why a satirist may not be the best kind of candidate.

Consider what would have happened, three centuries ago, if Jonathan Swift had gone into politics. Swift, the Irish scribe best known for writing Gulliver's Travels, was the preeminent satirist of his era (and most since). In 1729, he wrote a classic Swiftian essay entitled "A Modest Proposal," satirizing the yawning gap between rich and poor. His modest proposal was that the poor breed their babies so that the rich could eat them as food ("a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled"). If Swift had gone into politics, no doubt his opponents would have circulated handbills warning that the candidate was in favor of cannibalism.

Franken at first tried to ignore the GOP attacks. But he trails Coleman in the two most recent statewide polls, and last weekend, at the state convention, he changed his strategy and took the apologia route: "For 35 years as a writer, I wrote a lot of jokes. Some of them weren't funny. Some of them weren't appropriate. Some of them were downright offensive. I understand that. And I understand that the people of Minnesota deserve a senator who won't say things that will make you feel uncomfortable." Now he hopes to pivot and make the race a referendum on Coleman, in the hopes that Minnesotans will buy his argument that, in his words, "Bush's enablers" should be ousted from the Senate in November.

So, the questions: Is it fair for the Republicans to pluck the choicest provocations from the ample Franken ouvre? Is it fair for them to cite the (unaired) rape joke as proof that Franken is hostile to women, when, in fact, he has been married for 32 years to his college sweetheart, someone who literally wipes the tears from his eyes when he gets emotional?

The answer: Politics is not about fairness. Never has been. Politics is about what the competition deems to be fair game.

And Franken potentially expands that Republican gameboard, which means that the Democrats may have to scramble, more than should be necessary, to snatch the eminently winnable Senate seat in Minnesota.