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US Senator Al Franken (D-MN) prior to announcing his resignation while addressing allegations of sexual misconduct on December 7, 2017.
US Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) prior to announcing his resignation while addressing allegations of sexual misconduct on December 7, 2017.
Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images

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The still-raging controversy over Al Franken’s resignation, explained

Progressive men won’t stop emailing me about it.

Many progressive men didn’t see the fall of Al Franken over sexual misconduct allegations as the loss of a Democratic senator. It was the loss of a progressive icon. And they haven’t moved on.

I know this because they still email me about it.

“As a leaning progressive, I don’t see the rationale for lumping together these two men,” a man wrote to me this weekend, referring to a sentence where I put Harvey Weinstein’s name near Franken’s in a short item on Eric Schneiderman. “Ultimately, the risk is an excess of political correctness and perceived rigidity. Are you getting pushback? I’m open to future articles on this point of view.”

US Senator Al Franken (D-MN) speaks outside his office on Capitol Hill as he faced pressure to step down amid charges of sexual harassment on November 27, 2017.
US Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) speaks outside his office on Capitol Hill as he faced pressure to step down amid charges of sexual harassment on November 27, 2017.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

In recent months, I’ve written about the intersection of gender and power, sporadically mentioning Franken. Passing lines have inspired men to email me since December when Franken announced his resignation. Some of the emails are angry rockets, attacking me personally. But most are more like the one from this weekend, written politely by genuinely confused and frustrated readers. They don’t get why Franken is out of a job when, say, Donald Trump isn’t, or why I include Franken in stories about powerful men who’ve been accused of monstrous behavior.

The reason liberals are stuck on Franken is because there’s a big unanswered question in the #MeToo era: What should happen to powerful men who are publicly and credibly accused of misconduct?

On a meta level, liberals have embraced #MeToo as an extension of their own commitment to women’s equality. But practically, when the accused is one of their own, many liberals feel turning on him unfairly holds Democrats to a higher standard than Republicans. Democrats will need to resolve this dilemma to move forward on Franken and cases like his.

Franken’s fall was a psychic blow to liberals

The former SNL comic wrote best-sellers during the George W. Bush years, like Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them — the kind of red meat (arugula?) the progressive base was eager to devour in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq and the conservative “war on science.” When Franken arrived in the Senate in 2009, he became an instant Hill celebrity, drawing attention in hearings for his sharp questioning and for his prowess on TV, a liberal answer to the right’s dominance on cable news.

Then last fall, a radio personality, Leeann Tweeden, released an 11-year-old photo of Franken smiling with his hands over her breasts as she slept wearing a flak jacket on a flight home from a USO tour in Afghanistan. Seven more women accused Franken of strikingly similar, and disturbing, conduct. They described specific, detailed incidents in which he put his hands on their behinds or breasts during photos. Others recalled him trying to forcibly kiss them.

Franken apologized repeatedly but said he wasn’t sure if he’d done the things he was sorry might have happened. “I take thousands and thousands of pictures, sometimes in chaotic and crowded situations,” he said. “I can’t say I haven’t done that. I’m very sorry if these women experienced that.”

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand called on him to resign from the Senate, and a stream of other senators joined her; he soon agreed to bow out.

For most of America, the story ended there. The news cycle moved on to a million other things. But for a set of liberals — including former Franken aides and backers, big liberal donors, remorseful senators, and some befuddled progressives who still email me about it — the case is still a live issue.

Booting Franken was good politics for Democrats

At the exact moment the Franken story broke, a Democrat in an Alabama Senate special election, Doug Jones, looked like he might win. The Republican candidate in the race, Roy Moore, was accused of sexually abusing, assaulting, or attempting to pick up teens when he was an adult. Moore was even banned from the local mall at one point.

President Trump endorsed Moore, and Hill Republicans were reluctant to denounce him. It was the perfect moment for Democrats — particularly Gillibrand — to strike.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) depart a news conference where members of congress introduced legislation to curb sexual harassment in the workplace on Dec. 6, 2017.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) depart a news conference where members of Congress introduced legislation to curb sexual harassment in the workplace on December 6, 2017. Gillibrand and fellow female Democratic senators have united in calling for Sen. Al Franken to resign amid sexual misconduct allegations.
Andrew Harnik/AP

Franken, a beloved Democrat and popular media figure, was accused of behavior arguably less bad than Moore’s. (There’s not much worse than accusations of child molestation.) If Democrats booted Franken, it would draw a clear distinction between Democrats, who said it was bad that Moore preyed on teen girls, and Republicans, who wouldn’t denounce him.

At first glance, it looked like Democrats were taking a brave stance. They were turning on a popular figure in their own party and losing an effective media surrogate. But in reality, even if Franken stuck around, he’d never be the same. He’d been tainted by scandal and wouldn’t be a commanding liberal voice for the party on TV. If he resigned, he was sure to be replaced by a Democrat in Minnesota who’d vote exactly the same. The cost to the party would be minimal.

It worked. Franken left. Jones won.

For one faction, this was a big victory: Democrats picked up a Senate seat, got rid of a potentially damaging figure, and paid little for it. But for another, this was a case where politics trumped basic fairness. To them, Franken was a sacrificial lamb.

Franken didn’t get his day in front of the Ethics Committee

When Franken admitted the Tweeden photo was real, he apologized and called for an ethics investigation into his own behavior. When other women came forward with similar accounts of being groped during a photo, he apologized repeatedly but couldn’t seem to remember whether he did the thing the woman claimed.

Since the matter wasn’t settled, progressives argue, Franken deserved a full investigation before Democrats determined his fate. The Ethics Committee started an initial inquiry, but they never completed their work because Franken agreed to leave before they could.

In hindsight, a set of Democrats felt hustled. Gillibrand, who led the charge against Franken, is widely assumed to be setting up a run for the presidency in 2020. She forced her colleagues’ hands in a deft public maneuver that made it hard for them not to go along with her. Some Democrats have since name-checked her with a tinge of resentment. Other liberals openly called her the type of names aggressive women who want to run for president get called. Michael Tomasky at the Daily Beast compared her to the Queen of Hearts, Lewis Carroll’s unhinged monarch who screams, “Off with their heads!”

Even a number of senators who pressured Franken to leave have regrets. Maybe they were too hasty. “I think we acted prematurely, before we had all the facts,” an anonymous senator told Politico. “In retrospect, I think we acted too fast.”

Senator Al Franken leaves the Senate floor after  he resigned from the US Senate on December 7, 2017.
Al Franken after he resigned from the US Senate on December 7, 2017.
Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Sen. Joe Manchin went further: “What they did to Al was atrocious, the Democrats,” the West Virginia Democrat said on a Politico podcast.

This argument is widespread across progressive politics.

Ruby Cramer of BuzzFeed reported that a major Democratic donor, Susie Tompkins Buell, said she was rethinking whether to donate to senators who supported outing Franken for the same reason:

In two interviews this week, Buell described the push for Franken’s departure as “unfair,” “cavalier,” and somewhat politically motivated — “a stampede,” “like a rampage,” she said, speaking in stark terms about senators she has backed for years, naming Gillibrand in particular.

”They need to know that some of their biggest supporters are questioning why they did that,” Buell said. “We have to do things conscientiously and fairly. He didn’t have the chance to defend himself.”

In one of the many supportive postings on Franken’s Facebook page, one commenter wrote: “I hope you don’t retire from politics, Al Franken. There was no due process when you left. I thought it was premature.”

Other prominent supporters made the same point, including Franken’s longtime friend Norm Ornstein, an establishment figure in Washington at the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank.

Franken gave an indignant farewell speech on the floor of the Senate in December.

“I have earned a reputation as someone who respects the women I work alongside every day,” he said, soon after a former Democratic Senate aide accused him of trying to kiss her after his radio show in 2006. “I know there has been a very different picture of me painted over the last few weeks, but I know who I really am.”

A Facebook commenter agreed: “I am still incredibly bitter that you were forced to resign. You were/are one of the good guys.”

The “right-wing” conspiracy theory

There’s also a conspiracy theory lurking in the background that doesn’t add up to much, but nonetheless adds fuel to the Franken fire. Franken was set up, the believers say, starting with the flak jacket photo, which was a hoax orchestrated by a Trump supporter.

A tweet went viral claiming that a photographer said Tweeden had asked him to take a staged photo while she pretended to be asleep and Franken posed. But when the Twitter user was pushed for the source, he came up with nothing.

Others claimed Republican trickster Roger Stone coached Tweeden. There was no basis for this, either.

Franken hasn’t endorsed any of this. He actually apologized to Tweeden: “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.”

Even more important, this theory doesn’t address the claims of the seven other women.

Yes, what Franken is accused of is “that bad”

Most of the emails I receive about Franken are written earnestly, but they’ve got a sort of creepy quality nonetheless. The premise is basically that Franken’s behavior wasn’t that bad.

Let me make this clear: It is that bad. The same impulse that drives the men outed in the #MeToo era drives the kind of behavior women described in their Franken accounts. These stories are about a man using his power to belittle, humiliate, or take advantage of a woman who can’t do much about it. It’s cruel. And it’s damaging.

A swath of liberals tried (and still try) to downplay the incidents to defend their guy. The word “boorish” comes up, a word that’s surfaced in other defenses of men accused of misconduct. It’s the #MeToo era version of “boys will be boys,” the age-old line condoning men treating women badly.

Jonathan Alter, a liberal author and commentator, relied on it in his defense of Franken:

Journalists also picked up the description, including Sacramento Bee editorial writer Ginger Rutland, who wrote:

At most Franken, who announced Thursday he is resigning, is guilty of boorish behavior — not assault, not pedophilia, not even sexual harassment. But with today’s fast-changing, contradictory and confusing reversal of sexual norms, he’s being burned at the stake, walked down the plank, buried alive. It’s unfair.

This isn’t behavior we should accept. For example, a former Democratic aide told Politico a story (that she had told others over the years): She met Franken in 2006 when her boss appeared on his Air America radio show. Afterward, he attempted to kiss her. When she rebuffed his advance, she says, he claimed “it’s my right as an entertainer.” She got the message: He was important. She was not.

“He was between me and the door, and he was coming at me to kiss me. It was very quick, and I think my brain had to work really hard to be like ‘Wait, what is happening?’ But I knew whatever was happening was not right, and I ducked,” the former aide said in an interview. “I was really startled by it, and I just sort of booked it towards the door, and he said, ‘It’s my right as an entertainer.’”

An Army veteran serving in the Middle East during the Iraq War recounted her experience to CNN. When she was a 27-year-old military police officer and Franken was on a USO tour, she says that Franken put his arm around her for a photo and then cupped her breast in his hand. She was stunned. He was there to lift her spirits; instead, she describes being pushed down, made to feel helpless.

“I was in a war zone. ... You were on a USO tour — are you trying to boost the morale of the troops or are you trying to boost your own?” she said. “I just feel so sorry for that young girl in that picture.”

[Stephanie] Kemplin said she did not say anything to Franken at the time.

”You’re immediately put on the spot. What are you going to do? What are you going to do? Your mind goes a mile a minute,” she said. “Who was I going to tell?”

Many women have experienced this kind of behavior again and again — the small caresses on the arm or shoulder, a hand that slides a little too low followed by a startling squeeze, the hand in the wrong place during a photo, a lunge for an unwanted kiss. Women pay a tax for participating in public life. Maybe the tax isn’t always crippling, but it is also extreme to say it is meaningless. As one of Franken’s supporters put it after she says he tried to kiss her on a campaign stage, “I was stunned and incredulous. I felt demeaned. I felt put in my place.”

There is a difference between the actions of Harvey Weinstein (accused of rape) and Franken (accused of forced kissing and groping women). But that doesn’t mean women should have to choose between the two. The ideal is none of the above.

Democrats need their own moment of reckoning

Liberals stuck on Franken think Democrats are holding the party to a higher standard than Republicans, who get to deny, to lie, and to tolerate abusive behavior in their ranks. Or so the thinking goes.

But to take a moral stand against Donald Trump or decry Roy Moore while tolerating rot in their own ranks is hypocrisy. History will notice.

The goal of #MeToo is to change our culture, even our world. Its success won’t be measured moment by moment, in who won the day’s headlines or even who won the 2018 midterm elections. It will be in whether politicians enshrine the cause, changing policy and making life better for women.

Democrats have to make a choice. They can see this as a transformational moment, one that presents an opportunity to make good on their own foundational values. They can accept that it’s okay, even necessary, to bury one of their own if the cause is just. Or they can think small, protect their own, and accept the status quo.


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