By Oscar Wolfe
What are we supposed to do? Our government is being completely reversed. Republicans have taken the Executive Branch; the Legislative Branch; and in the near future, the Judicial Branch. What am I supposed to do if I don’t agree with the people in power? What if I don’t respect them? To find the answers, I decided to go to someone who is directly involved: U.S. Senator Al Franken from Minnesota. Unlike many of my other interviews, this one is not so much about Senator Franken’s rise to greatness, but it’s more about current issues. Also, I would just like to point out how great it is that a senator—a United States senator! —agreed to do an interview (on the phone) with a 12 year old kid.
I know I’m not the only one who’s confused and upset by what’s happening to our government. If you share my feelings, or even if you don’t, what Senator Franken said is definitely worth reading.
It seems like Betsy DeVos might not be our best Secretary of Education. I go to public school. Should I be worried?
The education secretary has a big job and we had a few concerns during the confirmation process. One, she wants to take money out of the public school system, and use it to give vouchers to kids where they can go to private or religious school with the money. Couple things wrong with that: in Indiana, for more than half the kids who went to religious school, the voucher didn’t pay for the whole thing, so it didn’t do much for kids who are really poor, and more than half the kids [using vouchers] had never gone to public school. So all the money was really doing was paying for religious school for kids who were already going to religious school.
During the hearings, we put her on notice that it’s going to be harder for her to do that nationally. We’re going to keep an eye on that. If she were to try to do it in a big way, it would have to be legislated, and they need 60 votes to pass anything major like that.
The other part of this is: there are all kinds of decisions the cabinet secretary makes on the programs to fund. It’s usually on smaller amounts of money, but nevertheless, important programs. And she doesn’t seem to know a lot about public education.
The last thing: right now, we’re working on a higher education bill, and that is something she seems to know even less about. So I’d be concerned that we need someone who is competent and knowledgeable and we don’t have that. But I think there is enough control by the states. Where do you go to school?
Hopkins School District.
Well, you’re in a really good school district. You’ll be going to the high school soon. I’ve been there; it’s really a beautiful school.
So what can I do? What can a kid do?
What you’re doing with That is Great. I think we need to point out things that are great in this country. We already have a great country and it’s helpful to point those things out. People need some perspective. There was a story today on the Sunday morning news about what Canada is doing with bringing in Syrian refugees. It’s a wonderful story, really, about having the right attitude toward refugees—that they are trying to escape terror; families trying to escape a situation where they may get killed, looking to start a new life. Canada is sponsoring these people. What you got out of the story, is that these people are already contributing to the country and are already assets to the country. To the extent that That is Great becomes a well read blog, then you’ll be contributing by pointing out what is great.
I’ve grown up with President Obama. I always respected President Obama. I know you’re always supposed to respect the president, but I just can’t bring myself to respect President Trump. How should I cope with the disrespect?
I think a lot of people are having that same kind of problem. We share respect for the office of the presidency. And I think we have to have respect for our system. There are some people who are having problems with the president because he seems to not respect some of the fundamental parts of our democracy, including the judiciary and freedom of the press. Some of the things he’s been saying are troubling, even from the standpoint of our institutions. There are people who didn’t have respect for Obama — I had enormous respect for President Obama, and part of that was the way he conducted himself. He seemed very thoughtful, very dignified. He seemed to value the intellectual process. And he seemed to honor procedure. All these are things a lot of people who respected Obama find lacking in the new president. I think that giving respect to the office and to our system is important, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t be a critical American looking at the presidency and the occupant of the presidency and make your own decisions about what to think.
“I think that giving respect to the office and to our system is important, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t be a critical American looking at the presidency and the occupant of the presidency and make your own decisions about what to think.” — Sen. Al Franken
I know you used to be on Saturday Night Live. Do you think what they’re doing right now is making a difference?
I watched a repeat of the show they did immediately after the election, Dave Chappelle hosted, and it was a really, really good show. Really funny. His monologue was important. The job of a comedy show is really to make people laugh, and I was laughing. That’s a very important role in our society. The show reminded me of what I was proud of when I did the show: it was thoughtful, smart, respected people’s intellects, and also appealed to emotional strings that were helpful and healthy. I think that’s what the arts does. It’s serving a very good purpose this year.
Would you host SNL now? And who would you want to portray?
I don’t think it’s going to happen. Yeah, I would do it—during a week off, certainly. You know, first of all, it’s a live show, written that week, so you play whoever you play. That’s part of the process of the show. I have a few old ideas I never got to do on the show that I might want to do, but the real joy is that you get in Monday, and you have a show on Saturday. And what happens between Monday and Saturday is essentially the show.
You’re willing to argue with Trump. How are you winning on his turf?
I don’t know if that’s necessarily the case. I don’t know if he’s particularly noticed me. Maybe a few of his nominees have, and I haven’t really won in those cases either, so I’m not sure I buy the premise of your question. There are different ways to oppose some of the policies of the president, and that’s absolutely something we have to do. You brought up Betsy DeVos earlier in this interview. During her confirmation hearings, which I thought were embarrassing, and I made that point very strongly—I’m not breaking big news with that on your blog, sorry.
But, during her hearing, she did talk about workforce development and that’s something I’m very interested in. That, and career pathways that start in high school. So I told her at the end of the hearing: well, I probably am not going to vote for you, but if you’re confirmed, which you probably will be, I’d like to work with you on workforce. So, no one led a harder charge against her being confirmed than I did, but now that she got confirmed, I’m going to try to find areas where I can work with her and do something good for Minnesotans, our economy, America. Make us more competitive globally, economically. Make sure people have the opportunity to get good jobs. I’m going to be opposing this president on a lot of things, I’m sure, and I hope I’m more successful than I have been. We shall see.
What do you think is the biggest issue facing America right now?
That’s a good question. There are a number of issues facing America, which are also facing the entire globe. Climate change. It’s hard to convince some people of the immediacy of that. But if we don’t do something about this, we’re really on a track that’s going to affect you and your peers in a big way. By the time you’re my age, they’ll be significant changes in our globe in terms of climate change that will be very, very destabilizing.
It’s 60 degrees today in Minnesota. In February!
It’s hard to point to one weather event and say, that was caused by climate change. But we do know climate scientists are saying climate change is leading to extreme weather events, more of them. We saw the incredible cost of Superstorm Sandy. We’re going to see more and more of that and it’s going to cost us a tremendous amount. That ties into a lot of things: making ourselves more economically competitive in the world.
We seem to have a crisis right now just in the way the White House is operating and who we are as a country in terms of the judiciary and the press and we’re in a sort of danger of a president with authoritarian tendencies. That’s on a lot of people’s minds now in Washington and across the country. Senator McCain just talked about how these attacks by the president on the free press are something that leads to a bad place. That’s a new threat that we have.
And then we have all kinds of real problems in terms of making sure we have an economy that works for everybody. Making sure people have a pathway to the middle class
We have real problems in economic disparity, and that is very much fraying the fabric of the country
Somebody is going to have to step up. Have you thought about running for president?
No, I haven’t. I’ve been really busy in the last seven weeks. We’ve had confirmation hearings, we have this travel ban, we’ve had this stuff with Russia in terms of interference with our election, which is a very serious thing. So I’ve been really focused on now. That’s my focus.
If you could give a piece of advice to someone who wants to do something great, what would that advice be?
To do something great usually means being able to take a bet on yourself. And what your passion is. When I was growing up in St. Louis Park, my dad hadn’t graduated high school and my mom didn’t go to college. Dad was a salesman. I grew up in a small rambler, me and my brother, and parents, but I felt like I could do anything. I think that’s because at the time, I was living in America, in Minnesota, in St. Louis Park, at the height of the middle class. I just felt that I could take a chance. That I could bet on myself. I think kids growing up these days very often feel some anxiety about the world and about their place in it and about their future. I want kids to be able to bet on themselves. I want you to do that. You sound like a really smart kid.
Just keep doing it. You asked the question for your readers, but as I talk to you, you sound really smart and really thoughtful. I just want you to continue to bet on yourself. You’re 12 years old, you have this blog. So, I’m not worried about you is basically what I’m saying.
I’m hoping to be president.
Well, you know, you may change that. You’re not going to be old enough for 23 years. You might rethink that.
What about advice for becoming a politician?
Let’s leave that for another time.
Okay, thank you.
Alright, Oscar. Grow up.