As concerns the intersection of politics and the #MeToo movement, perhaps no figure encapsulates its potential divisiveness and difficult contemplations like Al Franken.
It’s been over a year-and-a-half since Franken resigned from his post as U.S. Senator from the state of Minnesota, but his case is one that media figures and political junkies alike feel the need to relitigate. Jane Mayer’s recent essay for The New Yorker is the latest high-profile entry in people’s meditations on whether he should’ve resigned.
Mayer considers a lot of angles in her examination of this subject matter: the precipitousness of his fall from grace after once being considered a possible challenger to Donald Trump in 2020, the regret he and numerous former colleagues feel, contrasts with Joe Biden’s and Donald Trump’s records, the evolution of accuser Leeann Tweeden’s account of sexual misconduct, the nature of U.S.O. shows like the one Franken did with Tweeden and the content of the skit prompting her accusations, character witness accounts on his behalf, proposed logical faults taken with Tweeden’s characterizations of the incident and ruminations on her credibility, FOX News personalities’ personal ax to grind with Franken, that allegations against Roy Moore were fresh in the minds of many, Franken’s physical awkwardness, allegations from other accusers, concerns about lack of due process, the role Kirsten Gillibrand and other Democratic colleagues played in calling for his resignation, the notion that not all accounts of abuse are made equal. In this regard, Mayer’s piece seems reasonably well considered.
This effort to reclaim Franken’s image is arguably not without its problems, however. On one hand, Tweeden’s failure or refusal to acknowledge the context in which the U.S.O. skit was performed and its content (there is a scene of a breast exam in the skit, to which the infamous photo of Franken and Tweeden presumably refers) are curious omissions. Acknowledging this wouldn’t make her accusations any less valid.
On the other hand, we might rightly object at various points in Mayer’s analysis. For one, comparisons to Biden and Trump are whataboutism, pure and simple. We’re talking about Franken here. Their supposed misdeeds are irrelevant to the deliberation at hand. Certain aspects of Tweeden’s life which apparently go to her believability are also of questionable application. Tweeden may have fabricated or embellished whether or not she could’ve gotten into Harvard in the past. She is a noted conservative who has professed admiration for Trump and has appeared on Sean Hannity’s show to talk about birtherism, and she may have a personal animus against the liberal Franken, whose political star was on the rise prior to the events which led to his resignation.
None of this means she is necessarily lying about being assaulted or interpreting Franken’s actions in this way, though, nor do the motivations of any of his accusers or the people who called for his resignation. Gillibrand, who continues to be lambasted for being among the first to publicly call for Franken’s resignation, points out that she didn’t end his Senate career—he did. He could’ve opted to soldier on despite the allegations against him and regardless of the strain it put on Gillibrand and Co.
Jeet Heer, national-affairs correspondent at The Nation, addresses Mayer’s article and notions that Franken was “railroaded” or otherwise was a victim of circumstances, as she might make it seem. Like Mayer, Heer alludes to Franken as a sort of “ghost” haunting the Democratic Party with claims he was all but forced out without consideration of due process.
Heer concedes that Tweeden’s account of unwanted touching and kissing “has all the earmarks of a politically motivated smear.” The problem: there are still seven other accusers. Mayer’s juxtaposition of this alongside Franken’s physical “obtuseness” makes for a strange defense. All his accusers are women and their allegations are of a sexual nature. It’s more than just his being a “hugger.”
There’s also the matter of Franken’s defenders weighing his actions against the Harvey Weinsteins and Strom Thurmonds of the world. Again, in contrast to partisan relativism, Heer speaks to “setting a minimum standard of respect,” regardless of political affiliation or likability. For that matter, all the people jumping at the chance to exonerate Franken or come to his defense because of what they “know” about him is not a guarantee. What they think they know may be dependent on their limited interactions with him or what he allows others to see. I’m not saying the reverse can’t be true, mind you, but human beings are, well, complicated.
As Heer cites Rebecca Traister, New York magazine writer-at-large, if Franken took a leave of absence to re-examine the effect his conduct might have had on women in his life and later came back to speak to women’s rights and the responsibility of men in the #MeToo era, he might still be serving the people of Minnesota in an official capacity today. It was his silence and the conviction he’d be given ample time and a thorough investigation into his affairs that was his undoing—fair or unfair.
Heer takes this a step further in closing by saying that Franken’s playing the victim betrays his lack of understanding of the whole situation and creates a barrier to any real sense of redemption in the future. He writes:
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.
In his resignation speech back in 2018, Franken was anything but contrite. Instead, he insisted that he knows who he really is and considered it an irony that he was leaving office while Trump, who once bragged about groping women, is president and Moore, who has preyed on young women, has political aspirations. His parting remarks, draped in comparisons to the worst the GOP has to offer, offered sentiments of “no regrets.” It bears wondering whether his accusers could or would say the same, even assuming the small magnitude of his purported offenses.
A big question I have in relation to Jane Mayer’s essay and why The New Yorker felt the need to publish it is: why now? Why are we reconsidering Al Franken’s fall with everything going on with the 2020 presidential race looming, the Trump administration, and any number of crises facing the country and the world today?
Part of the answer would seem to lie with the notion we need someone like Franken in American political discourse. Last year, Bill Maher, in a brave act of defending another white male like himself, expressed the belief that we need a comedian like Franken to ridicule Donald Trump and take down other “rightwing blowhards.” In doing so, he assailed the credibility of Leeann Tweeden, minimized the charges of Franken’s other accusers, and shot back at “purists” who overreact only to suffer from buyer’s remorse later on.
More recently, Pete Buttigieg, when asked during a town hall whether he would’ve called for Franken’s ouster, replied that he “would not have applied that pressure at that time before we knew more.” It probably helps that Buttigieg has raised funds alongside big-bucks Democratic donor Susie Tompkins Buell, who previously endorsed Kamala Harris despite the fact she was one of the first Senate Democrats to advocate for Franken’s resignation and who has made public positions on the end of Franken’s tenure somewhat of a sticking point. Evidently, the goal is to beat Trump by any means necessary—even it means compromising our moral standards.
To the extent that Franken could add to the discussion on resisting Trump, his absence is regrettable. Are his talents so unique that a void like his in American politics can’t be filled, however? This much seems dubious. To say that Franken was one of the more interesting members of the Senate isn’t saying much. For the integral role Congress plays in shaping the American experience, it is filled with boring people and uninspired ideas. This reality doesn’t obviate the public’s responsibility to hold these public servants accountable and to actively participate in issue advocacy, mind you. Then again, even if this doesn’t excuse voters tuning out, you can sort of understand why they do.
If the Democrats are that desperate to have Franken back because he is the only one who can stand up to Trump or the only one who possesses the requisite skill to ridicule him to the point it rattles him, however, it would seem there are bigger problems within the Democratic Party. It’s along the lines of needing Jon Stewart back as a voice of empathy, reason, and wit in late-night television. Do I miss him? Of course. But if we can’t find others who can approach his level of thoughtful criticism and oddball humor, we might be in more trouble than we know.
One of the lessons of the #MeToo era with which people still appear to be grappling is that men who abuse their fame or position of influence are infinitely replaceable. (The label of “abuser” does not apply to Stewart, to be clear; I invoked him simply as an illustration of my earlier point.) Louis C.K., while clearly talented, is not the be-all-and-end-all when it comes to stand-up comedy. Nor is Kevin Spacey God’s gift to acting. Without wanting to seem cruel, life goes on. If we can’t meet the need for artists, politicians, producers, writers, and other professionals without sanctioning their alleged violations of boundaries, we’ve clearly failed as a society. No amount of good deeds, intelligence, leadership skills, or talent should supersede another’s right to his or her bodily autonomy and physical safety.
Will Al Franken ever return to the limelight, and with that, U.S. politics? Who knows? In the event he doesn’t, it may be ultimately be unfair to him, though the number of credible accusations against him suggests otherwise. Maybe it’s that he doesn’t feel he needs to apologize because he did nothing wrong. Regardless, though some of us may want him back, that doesn’t signify a need. Yes, we should talk about how and whether to weigh the offenses in each case. Yes, we should discuss how to handle less-than-perfect accusers. But we can do so looking forward rather than back.