Back in May, I read Senator Al Franken’s smart and hilarious book, Giant of the Senate. I loved it, I concluded he should run for president, and I told him so when I interviewed him.
“No,” he said decisively.
He laughed. “It’s a really, really hard job!”
I asked if there were any circumstances under which he would change his mind.
“No. None,” he answered.
Now I’m wondering whether Franken knew he had something disqualifying in his past: something like the allegation that surfaced Thursday, when Los Angeles radio host Leeann Tweeden charged that Franken forced her to kiss him, mistreated her when she rebuffed him, and took a photo with his hands grabbing her breasts when she was asleep—all when they were both touring Iraq and Afghanistan with the USO, entertaining American military personnel, back in 2006.
I have no evidence that that incident drove Franken’s answer to me. But with this new allegation, it seems like good judgment on his part, anyway. I was disappointed when Franken ruled out a presidential run. But I’m much more disappointed now.
Against the backdrop of the sexual-abuse scandal that threatens to drive Alabama GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore—accused of kissing or groping nine teenage girls—out of the race, I have to recognize a huge double standard in my reactions. I believed Moore’s accusers right away—especially given all the detail in their accounts, and all the corroborating witnesses. I confess: I spent at least 30 minutes looking for proof that Franken didn’t do what he’s accused of. (Then he essentially admitted he did.)
I reached out to women who are close to Franken, and at least two say they don’t know enough to confirm or deny it, but they’re devastated. I don’t know him well enough to be devastated, but I’m enormously sad. Women have spent the last 13 months, in the wake of the 16 or so sexual abuse allegations against Donald Trump, which weren’t enough to keep him from being president, obsessing over and reevaluating their mistreatment by men, from their childhood well into adulthood, and telling those painful, awful stories. Publicly and privately. Now we have one about a man who’s a self-described feminist, a champion of Planned Parenthood and Emily’s List, accused of the same thing. This one really hurts.
It’s worth noting that Franken had already gotten in some political trouble for his sexual hijinks back when he was part of the undeniably bro-y, often sexist world of comedy. On the eve of Minnesota’s Democratic nominating convention back in the summer of 2008, a magazine reported that in 1994 Franken made a joke about rape in late-night brainstorming for a Saturday Night Live sketch that never aired. At the convention, he made a speech that saved his candidacy.
“It kills me that things I said and wrote sent a message to some of my friends in this room and people in this state that they can’t count on me to be a champion for women, a champion for all Minnesotans, in this campaign and in the Senate,” he told the crowd. “I’m sorry for that.” Minnesotans forgave him and made him their senator. But now Franken is admitting he went beyond words, to degrading deeds.
Republicans are rushing to equate Franken and Moore, which is ridiculous. Franken is accused by one woman—at this point—not nine, like Moore (or 16, by the way, like the president). His accuser was well into adulthood, not a teenager, like Moore’s victims. Franken quickly apologized after the charge was made on Thursday; Moore denies all of it.
I should note that Franken’s first apology was a little bit desultory, a bit like Louis CK’s. But he followed it with a multi-paragraph, seemingly agonizing apology:
The first thing I want to do is apologize: to Leeann, to everyone else who was part of that tour, to everyone who has worked for me, to everyone I represent, and to everyone who counts on me to be an ally and supporter and champion of women. There’s more I want to say, but the first and most important thing—and if it’s the only thing you care to hear, that’s fine—is: I’m sorry.
I respect women. I don’t respect men who don’t. And the fact that my own actions have given people a good reason to doubt that makes me feel ashamed.
But I want to say something else, too. Over the last few months, all of us—including and especially men who respect women—have been forced to take a good, hard look at our own actions and think (perhaps, shamefully, for the first time) about how those actions have affected women.
For instance, that picture. I don’t know what was in my head when I took that picture, and it doesn’t matter. There’s no excuse. I look at it now and I feel disgusted with myself. It isn’t funny. It’s completely inappropriate. It’s obvious how Leeann would feel violated by that picture. And, what’s more, I can see how millions of other women would feel violated by it—women who have had similar experiences in their own lives, women who fear having those experiences, women who look up to me, women who have counted on me.
Coming from the world of comedy, I’ve told and written a lot of jokes that I once thought were funny but later came to realize were just plain offensive. But the intentions behind my actions aren’t the point at all. It’s the impact these jokes had on others that matters. And I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to come to terms with that.
While I don’t remember the rehearsal for the skit as Leeann does, I understand why we need to listen to and believe women’s experiences.
I am asking that an ethics investigation be undertaken, and I will gladly cooperate.
And the truth is, what people think of me in light of this is far less important than what people think of women who continue to come forward to tell their stories. They deserve to be heard, and believed. And they deserve to know that I am their ally and supporter. I have let them down and am committed to making it up to them.”
That’s an excellent apology. And an ethics-committee investigation into his actions is an excellent idea. For what it’s worth, news anchor Leeann Tweeden says she accepts his apology and doesn’t think he should have to resign.
I’m hearing some Democrats, trying to be proactive, suggest that Franken resign—since Minnesota’s Democratic Governor Mark Dayton can appoint a Democratic replacement—so he doesn’t distract from the debate over Moore as well as the predator in chief. That’s a terrible idea. Franken has been an excellent senator; you can’t just trade him for a player to be named later. It’s one allegation, albeit an ugly one, and he’s apologized for it. If more come out, we can reexamine this question. But Republicans have persevered through much worse than this. Democrats should not expect that Franken’s resigning will curry favor or fairness from the party that excuses David Vitter or Donald Trump.
Again, though, if more allegations emerge, my answer will change. I admit that I hope they don’t. Franken has been an excellent senator, a committed feminist, a brilliant Trump foil, and the rare Democrat with a sense for the dramatic and the entertaining. We shouldn’t disown him just because Republicans want a scapegoat. We will have to, though, if these stories multiply, as they have with Trump and Moore. My fingers are crossed that they will not.