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Could Al Franken stage a comeback?

Since this week’s New Yorker article by Jane Mayer, Al Franken seems to be getting the “hearing” he never got before he resigned from the Senate in 2017.

Former Sen. Al Franken shown in a MinnPost file photo from 2016.
MinnPost file photo by Jana Freiband

Al Franken seems to be getting the “hearing” he never got before he resigned from the Senate in 2017. In a recent New Yorker article Jane Mayer goes through the original allegations against Franken by Leeann Tweeden and cites several problems with them. Tweeden accused Franken of writing a kiss into a USO script and then sticking his tongue in her mouth during a contrived rehearsal. According to Tweeden, Franken wrote the skit in order to get his tongue into her mouth.

I won’t litigate the accusation here; I’ll simply note that Mayer appears to do a pretty good job of exploring Tweeden’s claim and discovering that it’s not strongly supported by facts or anyone else’s experience with Franken. The kiss had been in the skit for years, and other women had performed it on stage with Franken without complaints. Even the famous photo of Franken reaching out to Tweeden’s breasts appears to have been a reference to the skit, although it was certainly inappropriate.

Now regrets having resigned

Franken now says he regrets having resigned, and describes himself as having been  #MeToo’d out of office. I’m not in a position to critique the #MeToo “movement” and its role in the Franken matter, but I can say that Franken was not a vulnerable man of limited means or inadequate support when these allegations emerged. On the contrary he was a popular, powerful, and relatively wealthy man who was considered a possible Trump challenger. I understand his current situation and appreciate his position, but it’s difficult to see Franken as a victim of much more than his own decisions; his resignation was not inevitable.

I don’t want to kick someone while they’re down, but I have to say I would never vote for Franken again. My problem with him isn’t just the accusations themselves, but his response to them and his handling of the “crisis.” Franken now says that Tweeden’s version isn’t the truth, but at the time he couldn’t bring himself to say that. Why? Most of the people I know (absent chemical dependency or mental health issues) can tell you with little hesitancy or reflection whether they’ve ever stuck their tongue in someone else’s mouth, with or without consent. I know I can. When Franken responded to Tweeden’s kiss allegation at the time, all he said was: “I certainly don’t remember the rehearsal for the skit in the same way, but I send my sincerest apologies to Leeann.” That’s essentially saying: “I don’t necessarily remember what kind of person I am.”

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Contrast this with Keith Ellison’s response to accusations by his former girlfriend that he’d assaulted her. Ellison said: “I never behaved in this way, and any characterization otherwise is false.” Given the nature and prevalence of male-on-female sexual assault and coercion, and the history of putting accusers on “trial,” we can certainly understand the reluctance toward answering charges with countercharges. However it’s not difficult to deny accusations without attacking accusers. People in Ellison and Franken’s position don’t have to explain the accuser’s motives, or even attack their credibility, but if the accusation isn’t true, they must say so. The fact that Franken didn’t or couldn’t just say: “No, that didn’t happen, that’s not who I am” destroys his credibility in my mind.

Silence lent credibility to mounting accusations

Refusing to actually deny Tweeden’s version at the time wasn’t the only problem with Franken’s response. He remained silent for days as if he were hiding from the media and his constituents; that didn’t look good, even if it was some adviser’s recommendation. His silence essentially lent credibility to the mounting accusations. Essentially his refusal to outright deny the accusations constrained his response. How do you demand an ethics investigation if an accusation isn’t really in dispute? If you deny the accusation you can say: “No, this didn’t happen, I demand an investigation!”

Paul Udstrand
Paul Udstrand
It makes sense for people who weren’t involved to say: “Well we need to investigate to find out if this actually happened,” but it doesn’t make sense for Franken to say that. Sure, some people demanded his resignation, but he didn’t have to resign. He and Mayer can claim now that he would have survived the investigation, but we’ll never know — because he resigned.

At the end of the day this was the first and only major crisis Franken faced as a politician, and it looks like he blew it. What if this had happened after he got on the ballot opposite Donald Trump? What kind of mess would that have been?

I like Al Franken. I voted for Al Franken, and I suspect he’s a decent human being by and large. I wish him well and hope he and his family recover from this debacle. But I wouldn’t vote him again because having seen him deal with this crisis, I don’t think I can trust him to handle a different crisis.

On a final note, I understand the audience Franken was playing to, I get it, and it’s clear that the women he was working with voluntarily participated in these USO skits in order to entertain the “troops.” However, it’s also obvious that these skits (that Franken wrote) were clearly sexist in nature. While not pornographic, the skits obviously cast women as objects of sexual desire and even targets of unwanted advances. Maybe there’s such a thing as harmless sexism, but I’m not going make that argument. If Franken wants to rehabilitate himself he should acknowledge his role in sexist portrayals of women, regardless of the motivation; I don’t see him doing that in the New Yorker article. He can’t be a “good ol boy” and not be a “good ol boy” at the same time.

Paul Udstrand is a photographer and blogger in Minneapolis.

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