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Al Franken sworn in, with a straight face

No wisecracks from Minnesota's new junior senator as he begins his first day of work, complete with first weekly Senate Democrats lunch and first vote.

July 08, 2009|Faye Fiore

WASHINGTON — Al Franken, the funnyman who wrote the best-seller "Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot," was sworn in as the junior senator from Minnesota on Tuesday, without doing one single funny thing.

Once he was known on the "Saturday Night Live" stage as the lisping, sweater-wearing bundle of insecurities Stuart Smalley ("I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me"). But Franken stepped into the ornate Senate chamber to take his oath of office in a charcoal gray suit from Men's Wearhouse, Bible in hand, surrounded by political allies eager to cast him as a serious addition to Congress.

Franken seemed genuinely in awe of his place in the political process. He hugged his new colleagues with abandon. He waved enthusiastically to his wife, Franni, in the gallery. He acknowledged constituents who came halfway across the country to witness his hard-earned moment. He cast his first vote.

But he didn't crack wise once. In fact, he hardly said anything.

Apparently, after irreverently skewering the political world, it's rather humbling to enter it.

It was clear the day would be auspicious when Franni brought him coffee in bed. (He had to get his own Cheerios.)

Franken slipped in through a side door of his new office around 11. Workmen were still installing wall brackets for the flat-screen TV in the suite, which once belonged to Norm Coleman, the Republican whom Franken vanquished by 312 votes after an eight-month recount and dispute.

The nameplate had already been screwed into the wall. The notoriously slow-moving Senate, it turns out, works lickety-split when it comes to signage.

Around noon, Franken headed to a mostly empty Senate chamber, where Minnesota's senior senator, Democrat Amy Klobuchar, introduced her new colleague with a nod to his comedic roots and an assurance that he "takes his job seriously."

Former Vice President Walter Mondale, a fellow Minnesotan and advisor, stood by Franken's side as he took the oath, with Vice President Joe Biden doing the honors.

"He'll be a serious senator, and he'll do what he thinks is right," Mondale said afterward.

There was that word "serious" again. Is there no place for a comedian in the most exclusive, and arguably stuffiest, club in America?

No, says Charlie Cook, an independent analyst in Washington.

"A comedian would not be an effective senator -- but then again, a comedian wouldn't have won. That phase of Franken's life has to be over."

Republicans, Cook noted, are embarrassed to lose such an important seat to a political neophyte such as Franken, his Harvard degree in political science notwithstanding.

"They are going to be watching him very closely, aggressively attacking him at any sign that the Original Al Franken is coming back, even baiting him to do something," Cook said. "He just has to resist temptation."

On Tuesday, he resisted just fine. After the swearing-in, Franken attended his first weekly lunch of Democratic senators, where his colleagues gave him several standing ovations. Franken spoke to the group about "making people's lives better," Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York recounted.

Anything funny? Any jokes?

"No," said Schumer. "He was serious."

The new senator ended his first day with his first vote, on a transportation amendment brought by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), about whom Franken recently wrote a scathing political skit for "Saturday Night Live."

He shook McCain's hand, and they exchanged hearty slaps on the back. Then Franken voted against his amendment.

"Sorry, man," Franken was heard to say, referring to the vote, not the skit.

OK, sort of funny.

--

faye.fiore@latimes.com

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