With his hand on the late Senator Paul Wellstone’s bible, Al Franken took the oath of office today as Minnesota’s junior senator. In doing so, he paid tribute to the man who not only inspired him to run, but who modeled the humane values without which politics is nothing but − as Clausewitz warned − war by other means.
For nearly eight months, Franken’s Republican opponent, Norm Coleman, waged a rear-guard legal challenge to the election results. With each successive Franken victory − before the State Canvassing Board, then a specially constituted trial court, and finally the Minnesota Supreme Court − Coleman’s chances of overturning the outcome became increasingly remote. As the legal fees mounted into the millions, it seemed as if his real purpose was not to win, but only to block Franken from being seated for as long as possible.
Happily, Coleman’s dubious endgame is now over. He belatedly conceded the race last week, after the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled, and we now have two senators again, for the first time since Coleman’s term ended in January.
To mark the occasion, I took Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them down from my bookshelf. My parents had given it to me as a birthday present in 2003, and this provenance to the book adds an extra layer of meaning to it for me. Looking at the note my mom wrote inside the front cover, I was touched by her words. Then I realized that she had written on behalf of my dad as well. Reading between the lines, this spoke to me of my dad’s Parkinson’s disease, which he had been diagnosed with in September 2003 and lived with until his death four years later.
In the book itself, Franken writes candidly of losing a parent. He recalls how his dad was part of a theatrical group composed of senior citizens that performed skits in nursing homes during Wellstone’s first campaign for the Senate in 1990. After the senior Mr. Franken died in 1993, Al’s mom began to struggle and was hospitalized for a time due to severe depression.
The last time Al Franken talked with Paul Wellstone, about six weeks before Wellstone’s untimely death in a plane crash on October 25, 2002, the talk was not about Wellstone’s heated race for the Senate against Norm Coleman. It was about Al Franken’s mom. Wellstone asked how Al’s mom was doing. Franken lamented that it was difficult to have a conversation with her, because of the toll that age, illness, and her husband’s death had taken on her faculties.
Wellstone’s response was deeply human: “You know, touch means so much.”
It does indeed. As our world gets more and more wired, there’s still no substitute for face-to-face connection. “Reach out and touch someone,” went the flower company ad. Sometimes, in a far-flung country, that’s all we can do. But even better is to be there.
The talk will soon turn to Franken’s position on issues like the nomination of Sonja Sotomajor to the Supreme Court. For now, let’s pause a moment and recognize the importance of holding on to one’s humanity amid the hurly burly demands of politics. Nearly seven years after his death, Paul Wellstone remains a powerful exemplar of how to do that well.