The Indefatigable Al Franken

I have no idea how this when-will-it-ever-end Minnesota Senate Race is going to turn out, but I guarantee you one thing. If Al Franken believes in his heart of hearts that the job is rightfully his, he will fight to the bitter end to get it. At least from my experience, anyway.

It was 10 years ago last month and the political world had just been rocked by the House impeachment of President Clinton and the expected high-drama Senate trial that was about to follow.

Although Clinton's dalliance with a White House intern became a 24/7 “all-media-all-the-time” preoccupation, both on and off Capitol Hill, as chairman of the Radio/Television Correspondents' Association that year I was preoccupied with my own personal presidential “gotcha” project — trying to get President Clinton to attend the organization's annual black-tie dinner scheduled for a few weeks after the Senate trial.

One year earlier, in 1998, just a few weeks after the Monica Lewinsky pot was starting to come to a full boil, Clinton did what a lot of presidents do when they are facing big-time trouble back home — he whipped up an essentia overseas trip and got the heck out of Dodge.

So, in the spring of 1998, while 2,500 of the nation’s radio and television elite were chowing down on sea bass, sipping white wine and regaling one another with presidential girlfriend jokes, Clinton was across the ocean staying out of harm’s way in Africa.

Because of that year's disappointment of not having the president attend our big dinner, I was doubly eager to have him RSVP for the 1999 event — my dinner.

But there was one problem. Who to book as the comedian during such precarious and perilous times?

Since I really wanted the president not to blow us off two years in a row, I decided to play it safe and dangle some administration-friendly entertainer bait in hopes of landing the big fish.

So, instead of going the edgy route with folks like Keith Olbermann (then a recently retired talk-show host whom I was seriously considering) or Jon Stewart (a then up-and-coming satirist who was beginning to make waves), I whittled my list down to two people I thought might not scare the ever-living-daylights out of the White House: “A Prairie Home Companion's” Garrison Keillor and left-leaning comedian Al Franken.

I sent both Keillor and Franken effusive letters of praise in my attempt to get them to consider handling the tricky impeachment-year chore of entertaining the nation’s media elite while at the same time standing two feet from a scandalized and recently impeached American president.

Letters sent, I immediately got a call from Franken's agent informing me that Al would do it — but that it would cost us double what the legendarily tightwad journalists had budgeted for the event — $5,000. I immediately told the agent that $10,000 was totally out of the question with our limited budget and quickly crossed Franken off the list.

In the meantime, Keillor, understanding the financial limitations involved (journalistic tightwads), graciously agreed to do the gig for our originally budgeted number, which was much less than he normally receives.

Mission Accomplished.

We had our entertainment. And President and Mrs. Clinton both took the bait and agreed to attend, as did Vice President Gore and the new Speaker of the House, Denny Hastert (R-Ill.). All was well with the world. I had POTUS, FLOTUS, VPOTUS and the brand-new Speaker of the House.

I was breathing normally again — and then the Al Franken phone calls began.

Calling me at home, Franken proceeded to inform me that I should have been dealing with him directly all along, and not his agent. He intimated to me that the original letter I sent him was much more than a simple, glowing “please consider” request; it looked a lot to him like a “contract.”

At one point, during one of the multiple phone calls between Franken and myself, I informed him that we had actually settled on Keillor, which I hoped might end the matter.

After one particular phone call I got the sinking feeling that Franken believed he had been double-crossed by me personally.

After reciting the "your-agent-said-$10,000-and-I-said ‘no-can-do’ ” defense for what seemed like the hundredth time, not being a lawyer, I was sufficiently worried that I might have unintentionally put the association in some kind of legal jeopardy. So I consulted with an attorney friend who often did pro bono work for the group.

The attorney bucked me up and backed me up when he told me the original letter was, clearly, not a contract and that I had nothing to worry about.

The dinner night came and actually made a little news when the association gave an award to ABC’s Jackie Judd for her reporting on Monica Lewinsky and her presidential memento and keepsake blue dress. When Jackie approached the dais to receive the award, President Clinton reached out and graciously congratulated her for winning the award. A real Washington “moment,” as they say.

After that, Keillor went on to set the exact proper tone with his poetic remarks themed around redemption. And after a year’s worth of Ken Starr, the House impeachment managers, the House floor vote, the fall elections, the downfall of Newt Gingrich, the rise and fall of Bob Livingston and the emergence of “Accidental Speaker” Denny Hastert, the dinner in general, and Keillor’s remarks in particular, indeed, brought in a much-needed breath of fresh air and, as much as American politics ever allows, a bit of redemption.

For me, the dinner brought something else. The end of those haranguing phone calls from Al Franken.

Like I said, I have no idea how the Minnesota vote is going to turn out, but if Franken ultimately prevails, I can promise the people of Minnesota they will have put in office someone who simply will not quit when he feels like an injustice, real or perceived, has been visited upon him.

A few years later the association did, indeed, book Franken as the entertainer for the spring dinner. No report on how many phone calls took place.