Oh no, not Al Franken, too.
Before Thursday, I’d hoped Franken would run for president in 2020. A hugely gifted communicator with entertainment chops, he seemed well suited to take on Donald Trump, assuming the demagogic showman seeks re-election. A decade ago, when Franken first considered running for Senate, I spent a few days trailing him around Minnesota and found him serious, earnest and decent.
As a lawmaker he’s been – in what now seems an awful irony – great on issues of sexual assault. He was behind one measure that made it easier for people who are sexually victimized while working for defense contractors to find justice and another ensuring that survivors don’t have to pay for their own rape kits. He hired feminist women, including Stephanie Schriock, who managed his 2008 campaign and is now president of Emily’s List.
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Sure, Franken made plenty of sexist jokes when he was with “Saturday Night Live,” but I thought he was one of the good guys. (I thought there were good guys.)
Then I saw the photo. On Thursday morning, Leeann Tweeden, a former model and radio news anchor in Los Angeles, accused Franken of harassing her during a 2006 USO tour to entertain U.S. troops abroad. She wrote that he talked her into doing a sketch in which he kissed her, and that he insisting on a rehearsal, during which he “mashed his lips against mine and aggressively stuck his tongue in my mouth.”
This story alone might not have gotten Franken in much trouble – even if Tweeden had been able to get people to believe her, Franken could have explained it away as acting. But there’s a disgusting, indelible photograph from the cargo plane that took them home from Afghanistan. In it, Tweeden has fallen asleep in her flak jacket, and Franken, grinning at the camera, appears to grope her breasts. The picture was included on a commemorative CD sent to participants by the trip photographer. Tweeden wrote that when she saw it: “I felt violated all over again. Embarrassed. Belittled. Humiliated.” No wonder; the picture is utterly dehumanizing.
Soon after the news broke, Franken issued a terse apology, saying the photo “was clearly intended to be funny but wasn’t. I shouldn’t have done it.” I read that and thought: You have to resign now. But then Franken put out another, better statement, saying he felt disgusted by his former self: “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.” He asked for an ethics investigation into his conduct and for the opportunity to make things up to his female supporters. I found this persuasive and would like to see Franken redeem himself, but I still don’t think he can.
There’s a strong argument against Franken’s resignation, one not entirely motivated by partisanship, since a Democratic governor would appoint his successor. When that photo was taken, Franken was a comedian, and at the time comedians enjoyed wide cultural license to behave offensively. Tweeden told Fox News that, horrified as she was by the picture, she doesn’t think he needs to resign over it. “People make mistakes,” she said. The more we learn about how grotesquely prevalent sexual harassment is, the more I wonder if we can really toss aside every man who has ever crossed a line, and if we do, how many will remain.
The feminist Jacobin in me thinks: Who cares? Replace them all with women! But I doubt this frenzied moment ends with the collapse of patriarchy. Like Rebecca Traister, a New York magazine writer, I worry that there will be overreach and then a fierce and ugly backlash, as men – but not only men – decide we can’t just go around ruining people’s lives and careers by retroactively imposing today’s sexual standards on past actions. Besides, as more and more men get swept up in this moment of reckoning, we’re going to have to figure out some mechanism by which those accused of offenses that fall short of assault can make amends and get their lives back.
So my first instinct is to say that Franken deserves a chance to go through an ethics investigation but remain in the Senate, where he should redouble his efforts on behalf of abuse and harassment victims. But if that happens, the current movement toward unprecedented accountability for sexual harassers will probably start to peter out. Republicans, never particularly eager to hold their own to account, will use Franken to deflect from more egregious abuse on their own side, like what Trump and Roy Moore are accused of. Women with stories about other members of Congress might hesitate to come forward. That horrifying photo of Franken will confront feminists every time they decry Trump’s boasts of grabbing women by the genitals. Democrats will have to worry about whether more damaging information will come out, and given the way scandals like this tend to unfold, it probably will.
It’s not worth it. The question isn’t about what’s fair to Franken, but what’s fair to the rest of us. I would mourn Franken’s departure from the Senate, but I think he should go, and the governor should appoint a woman to fill his seat. The message to men in power about sexual degradation has to be clear: We will replace you.