Al Franken is a walking ghost.
Though politically dead, the former Minnesota senator now haunts the Democratic Party with his claim that he was pushed out of office without due process. Franken resigned from the Senate in December 2017 after eight women accused him of an array of inappropriate behavior, mostly involving groping, unwanted touching, and coercive kissing. The resignation was triggered by pressure from Franken’s colleagues in the Senate, with minority leader Chuck Schumer giving the former comedian a deadline to quit after three dozen Democratic senators called for him to step down.
But some of those who egged on Franken’s political demise now have second thoughts, according to Jane Mayer in a major report in The New Yorker. Former North Dakota senator Heidi Heitkamp told Mayer, “If there’s one decision I’ve made that I would take back, it’s the decision to call for his resignation.” Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth agreed, saying “We needed more facts. That due process didn’t happen is not good for our democracy.” Six other onetime Franken colleagues share in this remorse.
Conversely, New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand, the first senator to publicly call for Franken’s resignation, is sticking with her position on the matter—to her cost. Her presidential bid has been hobbled, perhaps fatally, by resentment from Democratic donors and primary voters who blame her for his fate.
Democrats are not ready to move on. Franken’s case continues to be a festering wound, an unresolved family argument that still divides the party.
Whether we like it or not, the Franken case is now being relitigated. Mayer’s article is both a major piece of journalism and a brief for Franken’s rehabilitation. On Twitter, Mayer bluntly said her story is about “How @alfranken got railroaded.”
Mayer’s attempt to exonerate Franken is only partially successful. She is persuasive in casting doubt on the story of Leeann Tweeden, the first and most serious of the accusers. Mayer cogently demonstrates that Tweeden’s account of unwanted attention during a USO show in 2006 is contradicted at key points by other facts and testimony. Tweeden’s story has all the earmarks of a politically motivated smear. (It was initially aired by a right-wing radio station that didn’t ask for Franken to comment until after the story was released.)
But it is not so easy to dismiss the seven other women who made accusations against him. To be sure, all these are accounts of ambiguous misdeeds: goosing that can be dismissed, if one is favorably inclined to Franken, as mere rough play rather than assault. That’s the tack Mayer uses, writing, “Franken could be physically obtuse. Staffers had told him not to swing his arms so much when he walked, and to close his mouth when he chewed.”
But the claim that Franken was merely a social klutz unskilled at respecting others’ personal boundaries doesn’t quite wash. After all, why were all the people who complained women if it’s just a matter of Franken throwing his hands around too wildly? Obviously, there was a sexual factor involved.
Zachary Roth, who helped break the story of two of the accusations for HuffPost, notes that one of his sources “said Franken cupped her butt with his hand as they stood talking in a circle of people shortly after they were introduced—not during a photo op—at a 2008 campaign fundraiser in Minneapolis, then asked if he could accompany her to the bathroom.” Another woman told HuffPost that “Franken grabbed her butt during a photo op at a 2007 political event. Two sources corroborated the account to HuffPost.”
Franken’s defenders insist that his punishment was disproportionate. After all, he’s far from being a Bill Cosby, a Harvey Weinstein, a Donald Trump, or a Jeffrey Epstein. The accusations against him are of a less serious order. Even if we confine ourselves to the Senate, this august body, within still-green memory, was dominated by men like Strom Thurmond, who indulged in depraved nonconsensual loucheness that might make even a Roman emperor blush.
Still, neither Weinstein nor Thurmond should be the baseline. If #MeToo means anything, it means setting a minimum standard of respect, one that surely doesn’t turn a blind eye to groping and goosing.
If Franken’s punishment of losing his Senate seat was excessive, he himself was to blame. He reacted to the initial wave of accusations with self-indulgent sullenness, which made it hard to mount a case for forgiveness.
To get some guidance on this matter, I turned to New York magazine writer-at-large Rebecca Traister, who is also quoted in Mayer’s piece. Traister was skeptical of the idea that he was denied due process. “I don’t think it’s that Franken lost his job because he goosed people,” Traister wrote in an e-mail. “I think he lost his job because of his response to the accusations in the period in which they were happening. So I don’t see it as a case of anyone banging a gavel and deciding on one punishment (resignation from the Senate) fitting one crime (unwanted kissing and touching). It’s that his colleagues and caucus were left to twist in crucial days leading up to a Senate election and in the midst of a crucial social movement.” The Franken case, she reminded us, took place while Democrats were trying to deny Roy Moore a Senate seat in a special election in Alabama.
Mayer’s account makes Franken a pure victim of circumstances without inquiring as to what he could have done differently. Traister suggested that “if he’d announced he was taking a three month leave to learn more about how his behaviors might have caused harm or discomfort, and came back in March with a bang-up speech on gender, power, harassment and powerful men’s responsibility to do their own reckoning, he’d not only be a Senator now, he’d be a marker by which to evaluate good male response to the revelations of systemic misogyny and harassment. The choice to remain silent, and hang everything on an investigation that would take months while his colleagues were being questioned about their hypocrisy every day is what pushed it to the point it got pushed to.”
This argument has the advantage of moving away from the fate of one man to the question of how we can achieve just results from social movements. If we want #MeToo to be effective, we need to be careful to distinguish between major criminals and petty transgressors. We also need to figure out how to reintegrate figures like Franken into society. But you can’t have forgiveness without contrition. To this day, Franken sees himself as a victim. Until that changes, there can be no healing.