Norm Coleman called me last night. After a few days of taking hits for some controversial remarks, Coleman told me he had decided to respond in more detail about the comments he made in Roll Call.
Specifically, people had been offended by this passage in the Capitol Hill daily: " 'To be very blunt, and God watch over Paul's soul, I am a 99 percent improvement over Paul Wellstone,' Coleman said . . . When pressed about the remaining 1 percent, Coleman sidestepped the issue . . . ."
On the phone, Coleman sounded anguished. "I believe I owe it to the people of Minnesota and to Paul's soul to explain that other 1 percent where Paul was definitely better than me."
"Yes, I was curious about that," I told him.
"Well, for one thing, I guess you'd have to say passion. Paul was definitely more passionate than I am. Which I think came from his deep conviction," Coleman explained.
"So passion and conviction?" I asked.
"Yes. And probably authenticity. That was an area where I'd have to say he was head and shoulders above me. I mean, let's face it, Paul Wellstone was the real deal."
"So authenticity too?"
"Yeah. Paul was genuine. As I say, that's something I could use some work on," Coleman admitted.
"So we have passion, conviction and authenticity, right?"
"Yeah. You know, now that I hear it coming from another person, I'd have to say that's more than 1 percent. I'd give those 3 percent," Coleman conceded magnanimously. "So, come to think of it, I'm probably just a 97 percent improvement over Paul."
"How about humility?" I asked. "That was one quality I really liked about Paul."
"Oh, sure, I'd have to give you that one. You know, let me revise these numbers. Because Paul was also just a lot nicer than me. That's why people loved him so much."
"Yes, they did," I agreed.
"So, I think we're looking at me being just, oh . . . let's say an 88 percent improvement. Give or take."
"You know, Norm," I said, "I think one of the reasons people loved him so much is that they knew he cared about them."
"True. Cannot argue there. I think we're down to about 83, 84 percent."
"Caring about people is pretty important, Norm."
"OK. But high 70s, and that's it."
"How about independence? If Paul was anything, he was independent."
"OK. But is that really better? I mean, having a senator the president can depend on is good not just for Minnesota, but for me. The White House is sending me all over the country, doing fundraisers and such," Norm said excitedly. "I'm hot! And that's good for Minnesota."
"Norm, I'm going to put another one on the table, but I'm afraid you might get offended."
"Oh, don't worry. I don't get offended easily. See, that's an area where I'm so superior to Paul. He'd get offended at the drop of a hat. Injustice, poverty, you name it. So, go ahead, shoot."
"Well, it's just that I think Paul had more integrity than you."
There was a pause at the other end of the phone. Maybe I had gone over the line. It must have been 30 seconds before I heard his voice again.
"Sorry, Al. I just got a message on my BlackBerry from Karl Rove. Guess which Minnesota senator is going to Camp David this weekend?"
"I'll bet it's not Mark Dayton."
Coleman laughed. "Good one, Al. You know, I don't think Paul was ever invited to Camp David."
"You're probably right."
"See? That's an improvement right there!" Norm said. "Now, what was that thing you thought I might be offended about?"
I paused. Then, gingerly, said, "Integrity."
"Right." he said without hesitation. "You know, that one had totally skipped my mind. So, in summary, what do we have?"
I rattled them off. "Passion, conviction, authenticity, humility, caring and integrity -- since we're not counting independence."
"Yeah. But I think we're missing one."
I racked my brain. "Compassion?"
"Well, isn't compassion really just a combination of caring and passion?" Norm said.
I had to give him that. "OK. How about honesty?"
"No. I think integrity covers that. I swear we're missing one."
"It's like that. C'mon, we said it. It's on the tip of my tongue."
I was stumped.
"This is killing me," Norm said. "It had something to do with humility."
It hit me. "Niceness?"
"Bingo! That's it. Paul Wellstone was a nice guy."
"Yeah. He sure was."
"So, I'm going with 68. I'm a 68 percent improvement over Wellstone. That's still a big improvement."
"Yes. Yes, it is. Norm, can I ask you a question?"
"Besides lack of independence and ability not to be offended, can you tell me another area where you're an improvement over Paul Wellstone?"
"Oh, that's easy," Coleman said. "I'm very smart."
Al Franken is a satirist and native of St. Louis Park. His next book, "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them," which he describes as "a fair and balanced look at the right," will be out in the fall.
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