Sunday, September 13, 2009

Harkin Steak Fry with Al Franken

Harkin Steak Fry with Al Franken

It shouldn't surprise anyone anymore that Al Franken is a serious minded senator, but still, you keep waiting for the punchline.

Instead, Tom Harkin cracked more actual “jokes” than his guest speaker at the 32nd Harkin Steak Fry. Franken's humor was restrained to a few witty turns of phrase as he laser-focused on the theme of the fall for Democrats, health care.

The steak fry is one of Franken's first political events since taking office, but he's been on the Iowa political scene before. He was keynote speaker at the 2004 Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, and had been scheduled to appear at the 2001 steak fry. That event was canceled after 9/11, the only cancellation in the event's history.

Franken, like every speaker, focused on Harkin's new chairmanship of the Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee. Harkin took over the chair last week from the late Ted Kennedy.

“Its not that big a deal,” said Franken in one of his few jokes. “It's only health... education... labor... and pensions. Who really would care about those things? People who work? People who expect to get a pension someday?”

Harkin was somber about the shoes he has to fill. “We lost a great friend, a great leader on so many issues that go to the heart of what kind of nation we are.”

“It now falls to me to pick up the torch and chair the Kennedy committee,” said Harkin. “And Senator Franken will be with us on that committee. No one can take Ted Kennedy's place, but I'm ready for this fight to carry on his fight and get a health care bill to President Obama before Christmas . And mark my word, I'm the chairman, it's going to have a strong public option.”

More than one speaker took care to mention that Harkin was not giving up his seat on the Agriculture Committee. Harkin has relinquished the gavel to Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln, since rules prohibit chairing more than one committee, but remains second in seniority.

The food line: Not a bad crowd, but smaller than 06 and 07...

“We had a short mixed feeling when he moved to the new committee, but he'll still be on Agriculture,” said Rep. Leonard Boswell. Boswell got shout-outs from both his House colleagues, Bruce Braley and Dave Loebsack, for backing the public option.

Franken was deferential during a brief press availability with Harkin and Governor Chet Culver. “He's already proven to be a great colleague,” Harkin said of Franken, who said he'd been honored to be invited as a guest in 2001 and was “humbled” to be on hand this time as a senator.

“Out of 150 people at my town hall, I had maybe three or four yelling, but that's who seems to get on the evening news,” Harkin told the assembled press corps by way of mild admonishment. (Painful: one TV reporter tried to catch the Minnesota senator's eye with a Vikings number 4 jersey. I'll admit it, I wore a Packer jersey to cover Tommy Thompson during his brief presidential campaign.)

“I think the president is doing a terrific job of explaining his plan,” Franken said of Obama's Saturday speech in Minneapolis. “It's easy to say 'death panel' but it ain't true.”

By the time the press avail was done the opening act of the House members and statewide officials was underway. Attorney General Tom Miller and Treasurer Fitzgerald both mentioned Obama's visit three years ago (they were key early backers) mention their own bids for term number... we've lost count. As for Secretary of State Mike Mauro, he was on hand but if he spoke I completely missed it (Update: he did).

“We're Democrats, we're proud to be Democrats and we're not going to put up with this crap any longer,” Braley said of the Republican attacks of the summer. (A handful o tea partiers were on hand at the gates, but I guess maybe 20 tops.)

“The tough part is governing every day. We assumed our opponents got the message and would just give up and be quite. But we have put up with a campaign of lies and fear to keep the American people from knowing what is really going on,” said Braley, launching into a Speak Truth To Fear theme. “I want you to yell so loud that Joe Wilson and Michelle Bachman and Sarah Palin can hear you.” (Those names are always good for laughs and applause in a highly partisan crowd like the steak fry.

Last time the steak fry was at the Warren County Fairgrounds, Dave Loebsack was largely ignored amidst the Obama crush and the hot prospect of the moment, 4th District candidate Selden Spencer. Three years later, Braley ribbed his colleague Loebsack for having “the cushiest congressional seat in Iowa.” As opposed to Braley's motivational pitch Loebsack stuck mostly to policy. The trial lawyer and the professor, each playing to his strengths. “Tom Harkin gets it. He understands what needs to get done to get health care for everyone in America. That committee is going to be our committee, folks.”

Boswell was mostly folksy and cracked a joke about his own age: “Back in 1935 – I wasn't there –when they were passing So'Security...” (That's how he pronounced it, like Regular Folks do, “So'Security” like one word) He also praised Obama for taking on the health care battle rather than “kicking the can down the road.”

“We can do this, let's git-r-done,” he said in another colloquialism.

Many crowd members, and more than one member of the press corps, toted copies of Franken's books, with “Rush Limbaugh Is A Big Fat Idiot” the most common. This fanboy brought “Why Not Me,” the fictional saga of a Franken Presidency (my now-autographed copy is a gift for my Minnesotan brother). Hey, he's in Iowa, and Harkin introduced him as “the new kid from the neighboring state who needs some exposure,” which is the exact same thing he said about his 2006 speaker. (The professional comedian, though, must have cringed at Harkin's convoluted introductory joke that tried to work in Sarah Palin and Mark Sanford for the partisan crowd...)

Culver also noted Harkin's staying on Agriculture despite the HELP chairmanship, and reminded the crowd, packed with county chairs and precinct captains, that it's only 414 days to his own re-election. “We're going to run on that record of getting things accomplished,” said the governor, who also gave a shout-out to special election winner Rep. Curt Hanson (strategically seated near the front.)

(Trivia: Harkin and Culver both referenced Franken as “the newest Senator,” apparently missing Thursday's swearing in of Florida appointee George LeMeiux. Hey, Franken's up to #98 on seniority...)

“This event is an important platform to promote progressive policies and celebrate what it mean to be an Iowa Democrat,” said Ruth Harkin, the only female speaker of the day and, as is often noted at the steak fry, “the first Harkin to win an election.” (In 1972, she ran for county attorney and he ran for Congress. She won, he lost.)

“Give em hell, Harkin,” yelled an audience member as Tom Harkin started to speak, as he muttered, “I will, always do...”

“Not all of the nuttiness has been funny,” Harkin said of the town halls of August. “It was Sarah Palin that came up with those death panels, and shame on anyone who repeats it.” (I'd have to do some Googling to see who said 'death panel' first, but we had no wifi at the event so I'm a few hours later than I wanted to post and the Packers have already kicked off.) “Some of these folks just want to bring down President Obama. Some just hate what we stand for as progressives.,” said Harkin, referencing FDR's 1936 remark “I welcome their hatred.”

“Yesterday (in Minneapolis) the President said two times we'll have a string public option, and we've got to stand behind him.” Harkin listed all the social programs that warm Democrat's hearts: “The powers that be didn't give us (Social Security fully pronounced and insert several more in the cadence)… we had to fight for every single one of them.”

“He is as serious as they come as a policy expert,” Harkin said of Franken by way of introduction, citing the Harvard credentials and radio hosting and skipping over Stuart Smalley. Franken's only reference to his prior career was when he discussed John Culver's moving and funny tribute to Ted Kennedy.

“If you have even half the sense of humor your dad has,” Franken said to the governor as random crowd members rushed forward to take pictures, “don't let them see it till you retire. It'll just get you in trouble. I should know.”

(Packers just intercepted!!!)

Franken referenced the barely remembered Harkin presidential campaign that won “76 % in Iowa and 76 votes in New Hampshire” and suggested that in the spirit of health care and the oft-mentioned dangers of red meat, 2010 should be the “first annual Tom Harkin Tofu Steam.” (Not sure if Culver, wearing a BEEF: IT'S WHAT'S FOR DINNER shirt, laughed at that one.)

But most of Franken's humor was muted and on-point, as when the non-lawyer discussed his assignment to the Judiciary Committee “I did some deep digging and discovered most Americans aren't lawyers.”

“The challenge is not to get caught up in the questions asked in Washington, but to ask the questions the American people want answered,” Franken said of the health care fight. “Republicans are busy asking Washington questions: how do we make sure President Obama fails. Well, I don't think this debate should be about President Obama. It should be about the people who are going bankrupt because they don't have health care.”

(Field goal, Pack leads 3-0. Trying to channel Hunter Thompson with this politics-football combo.)

And Franken said that even rank and file non-Congressional Republicans share the same concerns, citing a conversation with several tea partiers at the Minnesota State Fair that's gone viral on YouTube. “When you look your opponent in the eye it's a lot easier to reason with them They realized I was a real person, not a caricature of a left wing demon.”

“These people weren't nuts at all. We really had a great conversation. I told them the issue was too complex for people to spread misinformation that that engenders fear,” and said the conservatives had acknowledged that the death panel rhetoric was wrong.

“What they wanted to know is how are we going to pay for this. And that's a great question. It's a question Tom Harkin and I are asking every day. We did agree that doing nothing is just not an option.”

But as for the elected leaders of the GOP, Franken said, “President Obama could propose just about anything and some of these people would oppose it. They don't even think the president should be allowed to tell kids to stay in school. Their goal isn't to see how much we can do but to see how much THEY can Undo.”

“They run for office telling people the government can't run things, they get elected, and then they prove it.” A funny line, but not unusually or uniquely so.

“When we talk about reforming the health care system, we're really talking about two different things. We have great health care in this country,” said Franken, often citing his own state's Mayo Clinic. “We just have a terrible SYSTEM. And if we don't fix the system, most of us are going to lose the health care,” he said, citing atrocities like a Minnesotan with diabetes who splits her insulin with her uninsured son.

“We have great doctors” – thank you! shouted a crowd member; “Not necessarily you,” deadpanned Franken.

Franken cited the accomplishments thus far of the Democratic DC trifecta of House Senate and White House, with little reference to his absence from the early votes. After noting that his campaign seemed “so long ago,” without elaboration on the months-long court battle to take his seat, Franken said “I may have arrived late to the Senate, but I didn't arrive TOO late.”

(Pack intercepts again)

After a long series of examples of how government had helped his wife's family through hard times, Franken said people should indeed pull themselves up by their bootstraps, “but first you gotta have the boots – and that's what we're about.”

Retured Americans rate the Iowa delegation, with a special F minus for Steve King

Urging progressives to stay on task, Franken said “This year we have a chance to confront the single biggest threat to our future. We don't want to have to say we voted for change and then got scared of actual change.”

(Safety?!? 3-2 Bears after two innings.)

Part two: Senate sidebar as Tom Fiegen and Bob Krause work the crowd.

(TD Packers! for a bizarre 10-2 score. I remember a Packers-Bears game tied at 11-11 once...)

(10-2 at halftime and channeling football and politics seems to work for NBC halftime analyst Keith Olbermann as well. Knows more about both FB AND Politics than the aforementioned Big Fat Idiot.)

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