Al Franken regrets. According to a piece written by Jane Mayer in the New Yorker, the former Senator from Minnesota regrets his behavior with fellow performer Leann Tweeden during a U.S.O. comedy tour. He regrets assuming that his Senate colleagues would allow him due process to defend himself against allegations of sexual harassment by that same performer (among others). And he really, really regrets caving to pressure to resign from the Senate in 2018.
What he should regret is believing that, by sacrificing himself for the well-being of the Democratic party, his colleagues would think he was doing something noble rather than merely politically expedient.
Recall the context at the time Franken was accused in 2017: In Alabama, Republican Roy Moore, who had been credibly accused of inappropriate advances toward teenage girls, was running in a special election for Senate. The Republican president in the White House had also been accused of sexual assault by numerous women and boasted about assaulting women in a tape released during his campaign.
Democrats, whose memories evidently did not stretch as far back as the Bill Clinton era, were suddenly high on their own sanctimony when it came to anything related to allegations of sexual harassment.
So when Tweeden accused Franken of inappropriate behavior, Democratic senators (led by Kirsten Gillibrand) moved swiftly to limit the damage by pressuring Franken to resign. By ousting Franken, they reasoned, they could continue to claim the moral high ground during the height of the #MeToo movement (while suffering no political consequences in the Senate, since they knew the Democratic governor of Minnesota would appoint another Democrat to fill his seat).
Alas, the moral high ground in Washington is often built on quicksand. Roy Moore was defeated (although he has vowed to run again in 2020, over the objections of Trump and Senate Republicans). And other Democratic politicians like Virginia lieutenant governor Justin Fairfax have since been accused of far worse than Franken, including rape and sexual assault, and yet remain in office after refusing to resign (in Fairfax’s case, with the full support of Virginia Democrats who continue to block efforts to hold hearings about the allegations).
Is it any wonder Franken is befuddled and more than a little angry?
In her piece, Mayer slips seamlessly into the role of the amanuensis, sympathetically narrating Franken’s shock when he was confronted with Tweeden’s account and the swift and harsh reaction of many of his peers. Mayer accepts Franken’s version of events at face value while challenging the credibility and partisan leanings of his accuser at every opportunity (including catty asides involving Tweeden’s ignorance about performing, her friendship with conservative media personalities, and the fact that she had once been a “Frederick’s of Hollywood” model.)
Mayer doles out praise from Franken’s friends, who talk about his devotion to his wife and say that the photo of Franken pretending to grope Tweeden was just harmless “goofing around.”
In other words, unlike her reporting on Brett Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court nomination proceedings, which trafficked in uncorroborated claims of assault by a former Yale classmate of Kavanaugh’s and baseless innuendo, Mayer’s take on Franken assumes his innocence. If Franken wanted the public to give him a fair hearing, he should have selected a journalist more interested in truth-seeking than ideological pandering (there are many to choose from).
At least Mayer’s piece has made MeToo overreach an issue again–and at a crucial time, given how many 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls called on Franken to resign at the time: Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Michael Bennet.
Gillibrand said this week that she has no regrets about demanding Franken’s resignation. The senator added that there is a “double standard” at work because she was being asked about it while her male colleagues were not.
According to Mayer, the tipping point for senators like Gillibrand came when a Senate staffer made allegations about Franken. Mayer writes, “The woman said that, in 2006, when Franken was still a comedian, he had made her uneasy by looking as if he planned to kiss her.” Mayer asked the woman (who remains anonymous) if she now thinks Franken might have just been trying to make a “clumsy thank-you gesture” rather than a sexual advance. “Is there a difference?” she replied. “If someone tries to do something to you unwanted?”
This is the standard Gillibrand embraced at the time, and she defends it still, telling Mayer, “The women who came forward felt it was sexual harassment,” she said. “So it was.”
And yet, this same standard evidently didn’t apply to Gillibrand’s own staffers accused of harassment. So much for her often-touted claims that she has zero-tolerance for allegations of untoward behavior.
As Gillibrand herself has shown by her actions, the right thing to do is not always the politically expedient thing to do.
Now that some time has passed (and there are few political repercussions for them for doing so), some of Franken’s former colleagues are expressing regret for so eagerly joining the witch hunt. Heidi Heitkamp, Patrick Leahy, Tammy Duckworth, Angus King, and others all wished they had done things differently, with many lamenting the lack of due process for Franken.
Not everyone on the left is sympathetic: Writer Roxane Gay, predictably and inanely, tried to make it all about race, tweeting, “Whew. White women were not going to rest until they could exonerate Franken in their minds. The devil stays busy.” And Slate writer Christina Cauterucci complained that Mayer’s piece was a “jarring, reductive framing of a powerful push for social change.”
Democrats might express “regret” for how Franken was treated, but until they can feel the same moral concern for young men on college campuses who are denied due process when accused, or famous men ostracized after going on bad dates, their regrets sound hollow.
Mayer writes that after “being on the losing side of the #MeToo movement, which he fervently supports,” Franken has had to “spend time thinking about such matters as due process, proportionality of punishment, and the consequences of Internet-fuelled outrage.” As he tells Mayer, “The idea that anybody who accuses someone of something is always right—that’s not the case. That isn’t reality.”
Unfortunately for Franken, it’s still the ideological reality embraced by many in his party (just as downplaying Trump’s behavior towards women remains a reality among too many of Trump’s Republican supporters). There is great irony in the fact that it took his career imploding for Franken to understand what many critics of the #MeToo movement have warned about since its inception: Revolutions often eat their own. Perhaps Franken’s next chapter will include persuading others on his side of the aisle that praising due process and the presumption of innocence in theory while setting them aside for political expedience in practice causes real harm.