JEFFREY FELDMAN'S FRAMESHOP
Since I am a graduate from Carleton College back in the days when Paul Wellstone was still teaching, I am a softy when it comes to "Minnersoter" politics -- albeit not a soft spot for those monstrous winters.
Franken's video message, in which he discusses why he will make a great Senator, sent me back to my memories of Northfield and the Twin Cities. Citing Wellstone's famous line, "The future belongs to those who are passionate and work hard," Franken makes a disarmingly honest and clear pitch for why a comedian can do the serious work of Senator.
I have no doubt that he is full of passion and tireless energy, but Franken's speech revealed another quality that will likely be the key to his success in his bed for election -- a quality often associated with Ronald Reagan of all people: the ability to weave a big story out of small details, and to set the stage for us to understand the promise of America.
Small Details, Big Meaning
The small story that Franken tells in his video message is not small in terms of significance, but in terms of detail. He talks about how his family and his wife's family tried and failed and tried again to make it:
My family moved to Albert Lea from New Jersey when I was four years old. My dad never graduated high school and never had a career as such, but my mom's father, my grandpa, owned a quilting factory out East and gave my dad a chance to start up a new factory in Albert Lea. After about two years, the factory failed, and we moved up to the Twin Cities....
That was my dad - great guy, terrible businessman. He got a job as a printing salesman, and my mom worked as a real estate agent. The four of us - I have an older brother, Owen - lived in a two-bedroom, one-bath house in St. Louis Park.
That was my childhood. I grew up in a hard-working middle class family just like many of yours. And as a middle-class kid growing up in Minnesota back then, I felt like the luckiest kid in the world. And I was.
My wife, Franni, whom I met our freshman year of college, wasn't quite as lucky. When she was seventeen months old, her dad - a decorated veteran of World War II - died in a car accident, leaving her mother, my mother-in-law, widowed with five kids.
My mother-in-law worked in the produce department of a grocery store, but that family made it because of Social Security survivor benefits. Sometimes there wasn't enough food on the table, sometimes they turned off the heat in the winter - this was in Portland, Maine, almost as cold as Minnesota - but they made it.
Every single one of the four girls in Franni's family went to college, thanks to Pell Grants and other scholarships. My brother-in-law, Neil, went into the Coast Guard, where he became an electrical engineer.
And my mother-in-law got herself a $300 GI loan to fix her roof, and used the money instead to go to the University of Maine. She became a grade school teacher, teaching Title One kids - poor kids - and so her loan was forgiven.
My mother-in-law and every single one of those five kids became a productive member of society.
The small details are the stories of everyday life in the Midwest where American families did their best to build meaningful lives, grow their families and contribute to a healthy society. No individual detail of Franken's story is particularly heroic or monumental. But the larger meaning comes through as clear as a bell in the night [emphasis mine]:
Conservatives like to say that people need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps - and that's a great idea. But first, you've got to have the boots. And the government gave my wife's family the boots.
That's what progressives like me believe the government is there for. To provide security for middle-class families like the one I grew up in, and opportunity for working poor families like the one Franni grew up in.
If we rework Franken's basic statement into a more formulaic progressive understanding of government -- we get something that looks like this:
Progressives believe in government that provides security and opportunity for America's families.
The power of Franken's video message, however, resides in the story he tells, filled with humor and the gravitas of a candidate who sees his personal experiences -- insights gleaned from the successes and failures of his own family -- as a source of principles for American government itself.
The Power of Setting the Stage
Franken's video exemplifies a core aspect of framing and a crucial skill present in almost all of today's top Democratic candidates for office: the ability to set the stage for a broader discussion of political principles and meaning.
For Franken, that stage is the working environment of his and his wife's families as they were growing up in Minnesota.
For Barack Obama, that stage is his childhood in Hawaii and his early training as an organizer in Chicago.
For John Edwards, that stage is a mills or factory worked tirelessly by America's working poor in the rural south.
For Bill Richardson, that stage is a foreign consulate abroad where a diplomatic crisis is being resolved.
For Wesley Clark, that stage is a multi-sided foreign civil war where a team of American generals is working to bring about peace.
For Hillary Clinton, that stage is a fiercely divided United States Senate where creative legislators try to overcome differences to pass legislation.
For Dennis Kucinich, that stage is a trip through Lebanon with his wife where he reflects on the suffering of individual families in the global crisis.
For Tom Vilsack, that stage is an orphanage where he as a young man began his life as an outsider who then struggled to succeed.
In each of these cases, the candidates set the stage to allow us to understand the promise of the American way of life, the American system of government, and the Democratic vision for a better future.
As much as their policy statements and their voting records, the way a candidate sets the stage goes a long way to determining whether or not we will agree with their vision, connect with their ideas, and vote for them.
The current season of campaign launches offers a perfect opportunity to observe how well a candidate builds big meaning out of small details -- to watch how well he or she sets the stage for the political vision to come -- and to ask ourselves if we feel at home in that setting.
JEFFREY FELDMAN'S FRAMESHOP
Jeffrey Feldman's new book on framing and progressive politics is available for pre-order: Framing the Debate (in stores April 1, 2007). Support progressive publishing: reserve your copy right now online.
© 2007 Jeffrey Feldman, Frameshop.