Opinion

The Time I Stole Al Franken’s Car

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Torie Clarke
Senior Vice President, SAP
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      Torie Clarke

      Torie Clarke is Senior Vice President for Global Corporate Affairs for SAP, a leading multinational software company. Clarke has served in three Administrations, most recently as Assistant Secretary of Defense, and is recognized in the private and public sectors as an effective expert on communications in the age of transparency.

      Prior to SAP, Clarke was a Senior Adviser to Comcast NBC Universal, ran the Washington office of Hill & Knowlton, was Vice President of the National Cable Television Association and Press Secretary to Senator John McCain. She is the author of Lipstick on a Pig: Winning in the No-Spin Era by Someone Who Knows the Game and A Survivior’s Guide to Washington: How to Succeed Without Losing Your Soul.

Choose your fights carefully. Washington is a small town, and if you stick around long enough you’ll bump into the same people, again and again. Why burn bridges unless absolutely necessary? In the city that invented dogs as pets (because if you want a friend in this town…), it’s always tempting to whack those who have wronged you, but save your bullets.

I work hard to keep my occasionally short temper in check, and my eagerness to apologize quickly for a burst of temper has saved me many times. At the National Cable and Television Association I would deliver apologies along with a nice bottle of wine. Dan Brenner, the general counsel there, once begged me to argue with him because he loved the wine.

On the other hand, the perfect bit of revenge can be exhilarating… When you hang around D.C. as long as I have, you get to know many of the network producers and bookers. If you’re humane, you have sympathy for them. They work for demanding, often unreasonable bosses, and have to deal with rapidly changing events, last-minute cancellations by guests and a general ambiance of chaos. Katherine O’Hearn is a pro’s pro in that business, and I have dealt with her for years. When I was at the Pentagon, she often asked me to appear on Tina Brown’s short-lived CNBC show Topic [A] with Tina Brown, which taped in New York. Fortunately, I was able to answer that my busy schedule kept me from flying up. I had no interest in doing the show and was always glad I had an excuse. I never asked, but my gut told me that Katherine and Tina probably felt a little pressure to occasionally have a Republican on the show.)

When I left the Pentagon, it got harder to turn her down. “Please, please come to New York,” Katherine begged me one day. “Tina loves you and is dying to talk about the embedded media.” Despite serious doubts that Tina loved me, I agreed.

A few days before the taping, Katherine told me Tina wanted to add a journalist to our conversation. “To get their view of embedding,” she said. Fine, I thought, knowing they would probably pick a journalist who A) was not embedded during the Iraq War; and B) was cranky about embedding. Bingo! They asked Christiane Amanpour. She’s a first-rate journalist, and I really didn’t mind, but since the original pitch of the show was changing, I was getting a little cranky.

The night before I was to fly to New York, Katherine called again. “Hey, I know you won’t mind, but we’re adding Al Franken to the show tomorrow—it’ll be great!” As everyone well knows, whether you agree or disagree with Al Franken, when he wants something

he usually gets it. Be a successful comedian? Check. Write a best- selling book? Check. Get elected to the U.S. Senate? Check. His take-no-prisoners attitude clearly played a large part in his success, even if it aggravates many of the people trapped in his orbit.

Now I was officially cranky. What went through my mind was,“He’s a nut. He’s a media hog. He’s really funny! He knows the more outrageous he is, the more attention he’s going to get. This will be awful.” But all I said to Katherine was, “He’s got a new book out, so that’s all we’ll talk about!”

“No, no, no,” Katherine said. “Tina will not let him monopolize the taping!”

The next morning I flew to New York. Christiane and I got to the studio at the same time and headed to makeup. Franken was not there. “He’s running a little late,” squeaked the 12-year-old intern Katherine sent to give us the update, “but he’s on his way.”

We waited 10, 15, 30 minutes and no Franken. About 45 minutes late, he strolls in, high-fiving staff and crew, 10 copies of his new book under his arm.

When we finally sat down on the set with Tina, things went south fast. Franken knows how to steer an audience, even if it was just the three of us. Any topic Tina tried to raise — Iraq, the media or the President—he tied it to something in his book. He even gave page numbers as he connected every world event to something he had written. I found myself alternating between, “I’m gonna kill him!” and “Damn, he’s good at this!”