Al Franken is trending on Twitter this morning because of a lengthy profile on him written by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker. It’s a thoroughly researched piece, and as some have suggested, it’s in some ways the ethics hearing that Al Franken asked for but never received from the Senate.
The piece chiefly takes up the accusations made by Leeann Tweeden, the conservative radio talk show host who made the first MeToo allegations against Al Franken. She was the woman who claimed that Franken forcibly kissed her during a rehearsal during a USO Tour and released the picture of Franken miming grabbing her breasts while she was asleep. Mayer endeavors to dismantle Tweeden’s accusations, casting them as politically motivated — Fox News, Sean Hannity, Roger Stone, Breitbart, and The Drudge Report all seemed to have a hand in it — and surfacing believable explanations for all of Franken’s behavior where it concerns Tweeden. Whether you ultimately believe it or not, Mayer makes a convincing argument that it was a right-wing smear job. She has a lot of receipts to back up her arguments.
There were, however, several other allegations, which — on top of the Tweeden allegations — eventually did Franken’s career in as a Senator. They were largely minor, Biden-esque allegations of uncomfortable interactions and personal-space invasions that Mayer suggests were largely the acts of a gregarious, clumsy, awkwardly affectionate and bumbling man and not the acts of a lascivious perv. Mayer — and Franken, for that matter — try and draw a line between what Franken’s accusers construed and what Franken intended by those interactions.
You can read the piece yourself and draw your own conclusions. I think that Mayer deftly provides plausible explanations — backed by a lot of witness testimony — to exculpate Franken on the Tweeden accusations, but Mayer did not need to do her own character assassination of Tweeden in the piece (there’s some needless slut-shaming that really diminishes the power of Mayer’s other arguments). As to the other accusations? I’m less comfortable with the way Mayer seems to use her effective impeachment of Tweeden to gloss over the other allegations and sweep them under, as though their importance is inextricably linked to Tweeden’s allegations.
Regardless, I do take issue with the suggestion that the unraveling of Franken’s career is the fault of Kirsten Gillibrand and the other mostly female Democratic Senators, who called upon Franken to resign. Several of those Democratic Senators who called upon Franken to resign now regret that decision, but Franken seems to hold a lot of resentment toward a select few, including Gillibrand, for not supporting him. Would this have blown over after a week or two? Perhaps. If Gillibrand and others had not called upon Franken to resign, would he still be an effective member of the Senate? Probably.
But, consider what else was going on at the time. Harvey Weinstein allegations were surfacing almost daily. Roy Moore, a Republican Senatorial candidate in Alabama, had been accused of child molestation. There were also numerous sexual assault allegations leveled at Trump. The Democrats could not credibly go after Roy Moore, Trump, and other Republicans without being seen as hypocritical if they did not also condemn Franken’s behavior.
But more than that: Who had to carry the water for Franken? Who was being grilled on a daily basis about whether they still supported Franken? It wasn’t the male Senators. It was the female Democratic Senators, who were being hounded by the press to answer for Franken’s behavior. Maybe Franken’s deeds were the acts of a bumbling, awkwardly affectionate man, but it wasn’t on Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Claire McCaskill, Mazie Hirono, Patty Murray, Maggie Hassan, and Catherine Cortez Masto to account for it. Why should their political careers suffer because Franken’s bad at hugs? Franken had a number of opportunities to put out the fire, and when he failed to do so by delivering apologies that were not seen as sufficiently contrite, that fire spread to the rest of the Senate Democrats, and his mess became their mess. And why the hell should they be responsible for a disaster of his making.
In the piece, Al Franken says that he absolutely regrets resigning, but I still think it was the right move, if only because he spared his colleagues months of political headaches. It spared Gillibrand from having to answer for his behavior, and for Franken to turn this back around on Gillibrand now effectively takes away the power of the one altruistic sacrifice he made in this entire ordeal. MeToo allegations aside, I thought Franken was a great Senator, but blaming others for a mess of his own making is not the act of a great Senator.
(p.s. Not for nothing, but Senator Susan Collins also called upon Al Franken to resign, which looks real bad in light of the fact that she still voted for Brett Kavanaugh to serve on the Supreme Court. Gillibrand, Harris, et. al, likewise, would have had less of a leg to stand on during the Kavanaugh hearings had they not called upon Franken to resign.)