Franken's Senate tenure no laughing matter

All joking aside, Al Franken is about to face his toughest crowd yet.

As the Minnesota Democrat and former comedian takes his seat in the Senate this week after an eight-month election battle, he follows a long line of celebrities who have had to put their fame in check to serve as humble, freshman members of Congress.

In a town full of strong egos and intense media scrutiny, the transition for entertainers, athletes and other stars can be a bit dicey, experts say.

"You can have any mistakes or non-mistakes magnified," said Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a friend of Franken's. On the plus side: "In the cacophony that we have out there ... getting positive attention is always difficult, and any leverage that you have helps."

Before he came into politics, Franken gained fame as a performer and writer on Saturday Night Live and a best-selling author. His best-known character on the show was Stuart Smalley, a mock self-help talk show host who coined the phrase, "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me."

Plenty of celebrities have preceded Franken through the Capitol's ornate halls, including Fred Grandy, also known as Gopher on The Love Boat, a Republican who served four terms in the House from Iowa and Bill Bradley, the three-term New Jersey Senate Democrat who in the 1970s helped carry the Knicks to two NBA championships.

Rep. John Hall, D-N.Y., was previously a front man for the band Orleans, whose 1976 hit Still the One has played on the air 5 million times, according to music licensing group BMI.Hall said his stage life has helped him to communicate his policy ideas, but he warned Franken against relying too heavily on skills learned in a past job.

"I was told early on, when I was tempted to sing a line or two of a song when I got on the floor, that the last guy that did that ... lost his election," Hall said, adding that "it's a jinx to sing on the floor of the House."

Hall was referring to Mike Pappas, a former Republican congressman from New Jersey. Pappas sang "Twinkle, Twinkle Kenneth Starr," in honor of the independent prosecutor who investigated President Clinton, and lost his re-election bid in 1998 after his opponent used the musical tribute against him.

That he shouldn't try to be the Senate's funnyman appears not to be lost on Franken, who was noticeably joke-free during last year's contest with Norm Coleman, the Republican incumbent, and the legal battle that followed. If the process wasn't sobering enough, the final result might have been: Franken won with 312 votes out of 2.9 million cast.

Franken told the Associated Press that he will try to emulate Bradley and former New York Democratic senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. "Both came to the Senate with some celebrity and some skepticism from people on the Hill," he said. "They both put their heads down and did the work and won over their colleagues by not running to the camera."

Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., said his time as a quarterback for the Washington Redskins and the New Orleans Saints helped ease his transition into Congress if for no other reason than it gave him and his colleagues a starting point for conversation. In fact, he said, it still does.

"It's an icebreaker," Shuler said. "I take it as an advantage."

Steve Largent, a pro-football Hall of Famer and Republican who served in the House from late 1994 to 2002 agreed with that assessment. He said he does not remember being treated any differently, except for once every summer when his office would set aside a day to sign autographs for all the interns in Congress.

"There would be a line going down the hallway," Largent said, laughing. "I just had a stack of photographs to sign."

His advice: "He's got work to do as a legislator, but he doesn't need to hide from his former career. I think he needs to view it as an asset, not a liability."