Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Al Franken: Giant of the Senate - Al Franken (2017)

This is the second post about politics in as many months.  Perhaps it being 2017 has something to do with that.  People have their ways to speak out about various issues through social media, and this is mine.  I do not engage in prolonged persuasive argument, nor condemnations via Facebook status updates against the scores of politicians and other bad actors that commit atrocious acts every other week, or day.  While I do find many of their actions hilariously terrible, I write about them by writing about books by Democratic Senators.

I am referring, of course, to Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, and Ted Cruz.  I do not need to say that Trump is the worst president in history.  He is just hilariously terrible.  Hopefully no major damage will be done by his administration.  Many will say, "C'mon man, how can you say that?  What do you call the travel ban?"  And sure there's that, and probably a number of other things that have already been actively changed for the worse.  My point is, he wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and he can't seem to get the votes, so we can hope that his term will be mired in the same gridlock that compromised so many of the bills passed by the Obama administration.

Franken tells that story in a very effective way.  The obvious thing to do here is compare it to This Fight is Our Fight.  Giant of the Senate is a better book.  Warren specializes in financial policy, so it makes sense that she needs to make a little extra effort with the reader.  Franken supports Warren on the vast majority of issues (I would be interested to see if they voted the same way on every bill).  He does not, however, purport to be any kind of expert on financial regulation.  Like Warren, he writes about how his previous career informed, and continues to inform, his political career.  He writes saliently about many of his pet issues (minute details of the ACA, especially) and outdoes Warren in the departments of readability and creativity.  And we always have to go here too--everyone wants Elizabeth Warren to run for President, and she's made it clear she doesn't want that, but what about Franken?  No one ever talks about him running for President.  He says nothing whatsoever to suggest that he would like to run.  Nor does he say why he wouldn't.  

Considering the book on its own, it's quite good and highly recommend it.  Like the recently-reviewed NYC 200's oral history, I did not want it to end.  Okay, it wasn't quite the same--I didn't enjoy it quite as much.  However, it was much more consistent.  They're completely different books.  I don't know what I am doing.  I wanted to excerpt one thing about the ACA, because Franken explained something about the Supreme Court decision in 2012 that I never really knew or understood (how Justice Roberts struck down certain provisions of the law) even though I wrote an extensive feature on the various opinions issued by the Court for my school newspaper.  Franken's tone is less of a teacher and more of a regular guy acerbic comedian that went to Harvard who just tells you how things worked:

"But Chief Justice John Roberts, custodian of the Court's reputation, knew that killing health care reform with a third highly partisan, legally dubious, and immediately impactful 5-4 decision on the heels of Bush v. Gore and Citizens United might undermine any remaining confidence in the Court's integrity once and for all.  So Roberts voted with the liberals, agreeing that the mandate was constitutional.  But he picked a different rationale, concluding that the mandate was allowable because the penalty it imposed on people who didn't buy insurance was really a tax, which Congress is empowered by the Constitution to implement.
Roberts's reasoning was so weird that Supreme Court reporters from both CNN and Fox News initially reported the ruling wrong.
Also, critically, Roberts's decision included a drive-by shooting: It eliminated the requirement that states use federal dollars to expand their Medicaid programs, which would have helped cover millions more low-income Americans.
An expert marksman, Roberts had aimed directly at the ACA's foot, weakening the law before it could go into effect.  Republicans hadn't succeeded in getting the Court to block Obamacare, but they could take solace in the fact that Chief Justice Roberts had made it less good." (258)

On the subject of health care, there is another example early on that underscores why the Affordable Care Act makes sense.  Here I will pause briefly to say that, I do not like the ACA because I consider the premium for my exchange plan very high ($366), having known what it's like to have excellent employer-provided coverage ($30, pre-tax).  Franken describes how the U.S. health care system is analogous to the Cambodian system (for those without a job that gives them insurance), and he does it so well as to be nearly immune to criticism:

"The day after the announcement, I visited a health clinic in Minnesota where my friend Dr. Margie Hogan worked.  I spent time meeting with health care providers and patients and listening to some of the horror stories that were commonplace before the passage of the Affordable Care Act.
One of the stories Margie told me became a mainstay of my stump speech.  It involved an incredibly promising seventeen-year-old girl from a Hmong* family who was doing college-level work as a junior in high school.  But she had lupus.  And her family earned just enough money to no longer qualify for MinnesotaCare, a program that covered low-income families in the state.  The girl lost her health insurance.
Lupus is a chronic disease, and the medication that controls it is extremely expensive.  The girl told her parents to stop buying it so they could afford to take care of the other kids in the family.  It broke their hearts, but she was right: They couldn't afford the medicine, not with everything else weighing on the family budget.  So they stopped buying it.
The next time Margie saw the girl was six weeks later, back in the hospital.  But this time, she was in the emergency room, suffering from renal failure.  She had to be put on dialysis, and doctors thought she might have to be on dialysis for the rest of her life.
'Now, that's wrong,' I would tell crowds that had invariably gone quiet by this point in the story.  'But it's not just wrong--it's stupid!  How much is it going to cost our system to give her dialysis throughout her life?  And how much is this going to cost her, in terms of her potential and her quality of life?'" (80-81)

That asterisk goes on to describe the Hmong people (random aside: isn't the kid's family in Gran Torino Hmong?) and is also the major point of my criticism: the asterisks are too small!  Clearly, I can see when each page has footnotes, but I would always miss the asterisk in the body of the text itself and search for sometimes like 30 seconds to see which part Franken was joking about or explaining further.

There are a ton of jokes in this book and that is one of the ways it is most refreshing.  Because Franken writes a lot about how he has not taken most of the opportunities he has gotten as a Senator to be funny, and he seems to have been holding his breath for the past 8 years, and finally this is like a big vomit pool of jokes.  I was kind of excited when Franken got elected because I thought he would bring more humor to various political events, but he hasn't done that very much.  He does in this book, however, and he also mentions every time he tried to be funny and how it backfired.

Those above quotes about health care also make me want to mention Mitt Romney. Because part of what makes this book good is Franken's willingness to point out the few redeeming qualities his Republican colleagues possess.   I have never heard anybody complain about Romneycare, and regardless of how much credit he is due for that piece of legislation, it appears to be the gold standard in the American health care system:

"What would a conservative solution to the 'Cambodian system' problem look like?  Well, actually, a lot like Obamacare.  The three-legged stool model, in fact, had originated with the very conservative Heritage Foundation, and had been enacted in Massachusetts under a Republican governor with the improbable name of Mitt.  Where, by the way, it worked extremely well: Romneycare now covers 97 percent of Bay Staters, and both Democrats and Republicans there intend to keep it intact, no matter what Trump and my Republican colleagues do to Obamacare between the time I finish this book and the time you read it." (250-251)

This is the beginning of the change I hope to see develop in this country over the next few years.  Democrats never give Republicans credit for anything, and Republicans never give Democrats credit for anything, but Franken recognizes that we need to focus on our commonalities rather than our differences.  This is most effectively established in his "64 Percent Rule" chapter.  Most of this is spent discussing No Child Left Behind and amendments thereto.  It comes across more generally throughout the rest of the book as well.  Franken is very good at "reaching across the aisle."  Even though he humiliates several Republican members of Congress, he generally has something nice to say about them to offset the opprobrium.  This is not the case for Ted Cruz.  Notwithstanding that, he still refers to Cruz as "extremely smart," a "gifted speaker" and a brilliant advocate at oral argument in the Supreme Court.  The chapter "Sophistry" details many of their encounters and is one of the true highlights of the book.  In particular, the whole joke about the Carnival cruise line incident is very memorable.


Okay, big mistake.  This is the worst mistake I have made on this blog in years.  I had written a whole other long section of this review, and I think it may have been the best part.  It touched on how this book was also notable because it could be classed in the same category as books like Bossypants.  It touched on the fact that I saw Ted Cruz on CNN yesterday, doing an interview segment from Houston, and expressing that Texas did not have enough disaster relief funding, and how that is one issue that is non-partisan.  Still, NPR could not help bringing up climate change and asking if the storm was caused by it.  Their scientist said it couldn't be directly attributed to it, but more moisture will generally form as the air gets warmer.  I compared it to Katrina and basically forgot about the more recent underfunded disaster Sandy, maybe because I was in a part of Brooklyn largely shielded from it.  I think we can all agree that Katrina was more devastating.  Yet the point was made that Sandy was more devastating, and many Texas congressmen (35 out of 36) voted against additional funding for Sandy relief effort.  So yes, we could think that disaster relief will become a partisan issue too, depending on the state that is being affected.

And I excerpted the second half of a section about a joke Franken made about the Supreme Leader of Iran.  During a hearing, when his turn came, he said something like, "I'd like to question the Supreme Leader, whom I like to refer to as Supreme Being, a few questions..." Everybody thought this was hilarious, and it is funny, but the story of how Chuck Schumer botched the joke with President Obama is funnier.  I regret that the book was due at the library today and I finished up yesterday, thinking it was close to complete--or at least complete with excerpts, because I needed to include one that was actually funny.  On the subjects of botched jokes and Ted Cruz again, the line where he suggests changing "difficult" to "challenging" (as an adjective for "cruise") was probably the funniest moment of the book for me.

I didn't hit "save" last night, maybe because I was interrupted by a door-to-door canvasser for an alternative energy supplier (Constellation) that led me down a 30 minute rabbit hole and no small bit of consternation.  I am not going to write about that but it was one of the most bizarre experiences of my life.  So that is my excuse.

I ended on a very "book review ending" note.  I assessed the work as a whole, and I mentioned that Franken was unique because he was the one politician that was actually funny.  Somehow, I linked to reviews of both of Warren's books for some proposition that I forget.  I believe I mentioned that he did not have as specific ideas as Warren when it came to re-allocating government funds.  For the life of me I cannot recall what idea led to that statement.  Like, I wasn't saying Warren wasn't funny, but acknowledging that her career as a law professor did not prepare her as well as Franken's for writing funny books.  There is a little bit of Kurt Vonnegut in Franken's literary style, and it is refreshing to witness a lawmaker write about serious issues and still maintain a certain ironic distance to capture the absurdity of the situation.  This quality makes Franken an effective writer, speaker, inquisitor, leader, and whatever other nouns might be relevant.  Most importantly though, he hates lying politicians.  People hate politics because they hate all the lying.  Franken calls out a ton of it in this book, and it's always infuriating and ridiculous.  So that's ultimately why Franken is such a likable political figure.  It never feels like he's feeding you any B-S line.  If he did, he would self-consciously admit that it was a B-S line.

Except the line about Mitch McConnell snorting milk out of his nose from laughing so hard with him.  I think I only know he meant that satirically by hearing him mention that on a podcast.

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