It was at this very moment that a ghost in a gray suit strolled, alone and unnoticed, through Eastern Market, less than a mile from the Capitol.
“I’m not talking,” Al Franken said, declining an interview request outside the studio where he was going to record an episode of the Al Franken Podcast.
Franken, 68, is talking, but only on his terms: into a microphone, in the studio, where he gets to set the agenda during the interviews and exercise editorial discretion afterward. He’ll chat with Sarah Silverman about her dark sense of humor, and policy wonk Andy Slavitt about health care. He’ll trade George H.W. Bush impressions with Dana Carvey and talk about climate change with Michael E. Mann, whom Franken dubbed “The Meryl Streep of climatologists.”
He does have an audience: After he announced the podcast on Twitter, it quickly hit Apple’s Hot and New chart, and according to the website Chartable was for a brief time the ninth most popular podcast in the country.
Notably absent, however, from the first batch of recordings has been any discussion of what happened; of why Franken spends his Fridays in a tucked-away recording studio instead of debating legislation on the Senate floor.
It’s been nearly a year and a half since Franken, under pressure from fellow Democrats, resigned his Senate seat following allegations of sexual misconduct. Franken’s was always one of the more hotly debated situations of the #MeToo era. The accusations against him ranged from unwanted kissing to groping during photo sessions, and resulted in his resignation. But the decision was fraught: There were Democrats who didn’t believe that Franken’s actions, especially considering who was president, required such a heavy punishment.
And now, his attempted return to relevance raises more difficult questions: Who deserves a second chance? What does he have to do to earn it?
“We don’t have, as a culture, the vocabulary to deal with all the nuances of this moment,” said Karen Finney, a former spokeswoman for Hillary Clinton. “If he chooses to do so, he has a real opportunity to again be part of moving the conversation forward.”
Just because you can’t hear it on Franken’s podcast doesn’t mean the conversation isn’t happening elsewhere. On the presidential campaign trail, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) gets asked on a regular basis about her decision to call for Franken’s resignation (“I had a choice to make whether to stay silent or not, whether to say, ‘That’s not okay with me,’ and I decided to say that,” Gillibrand said at a recent MSNBC town hall). Franken’s friends, like Silverman, come to his defense in the pages of glossy magazines (“I’m so sad that he got bullied into resigning,” she told GQ in a 2018 interview). And when the podcast isn’t rolling, Franken will gripe, according to friends and co-workers, about what was “taken away” from him.
The accusations against Franken arrived in the midst of an Alabama U.S. Senate race in which stories of sexual misconduct against the Republican, Roy Moore, played a central role. Democrats, who called Moore unfit and pointed to the allegations that he had dated underage girls when he was in his 30s, had reason to be especially vigilant about holding the moral high ground.
And so they put Franken out during a storm. To Franken and his supporters, it felt like a political calculation, not a moral one. They want him back in the arena. But what the women said about the former Minnesota senator — about how he had groped them, or kissed them inappropriately — cannot be swept out of the doorways like rainwater.
How do you solve a problem like Al Franken?
“We all know Harvey Weinstein should go to jail and rot there,” Finney said. “But Franken . . . I don’t think we know the answer yet for what is the process for returning.”
That answer might depend on what Franken says next.
Because the world seems to be filled with men doing creepy things, it can be hard to remember exactly what Al Franken is accused of doing.
First came the allegations from Leeann Tweeden, a radio host out of Los Angeles, who posted a story on her station’s website about a time in 2006 when she and Franken performed a skit together at a USO event overseas. The skit involved a kiss, and Tweeden said that during a rehearsal, Franken used the script as a means to forcibly lock lips against her will.
The story, published in November 2017, also featured a photograph taken from the tour: one of a wide-eyed Franken appearing to grab at Tweeden’s chest while she slept in a helmet and Kevlar vest.
“I don’t know what was in my head when I took that picture, and it doesn’t matter,” Franken wrote after the story published, calling for an ethics investigation into his own behavior. “There’s no excuse. I look at it now and I feel disgusted with myself.”
Three days later Lindsay Menz told CNN that Franken had grabbed her buttocks in 2010 while posing for a picture at the Minnesota State Fair, a claim echoed by two more anonymous women a few days after that. In total, eight women accused him of misbehavior.
On Dec. 6, 2017, Gillibrand released a statement calling on her friend and occasional squash partner to resign, a point she reiterated at a news conference. By the end of the day the majority of Senate Democrats called for him to step down, too.
“Some of the allegations against me are simply not true,” Franken said on the Senate floor announcing his plans to step down. “Others, I remember very differently.”
After leaving the Senate, Franken has avoided talking about the subject in public. In private, though, according to friends and colleagues, he often can’t shut up about it. Even with months to reflect, it would appear his feelings haven’t much changed.
“I do know that he believes that he did nothing significantly wrong,” said Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and one of Franken’s best friends.
For more than eight years, Franken had loved being a senator, and by most accounts, was a good one.
He’d made a name for himself as a deft interrogator in congressional hearings. In one particularly memorable moment, Franken questioned Jeff Sessions, then the nominee for U.S. attorney general, about possible affiliations between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. The question prompted Sessions to call himself a Trump “surrogate,” which would later lead to his recusal from Russia investigations, and introduce the country to Robert Mueller III and his eventual report.
“Regardless of whether you think it was right or wrong for him to leave the Senate, his voice is missed in the midst of this Trump-created crisis of democracy we’re living through,” said Stephanie Cutter, political consultant and former deputy campaign manager for President Barack Obama.
Franken’s name had even been bandied about as a possible presidential candidate for 2020, someone with progressive bona fides who happened to be from the Midwest.
And like that, he was just a guy splitting time between D.C. and Minnesota, spending time with his grandchildren, and trying to figure out how to get back in the fight. His entire legacy seemed to hang in the balance: his time as a staff writer and performer on “Saturday Night Live,” his career as a best-selling author of lefty books and his work in the Senate all potentially overshadowed by his ignominious exit. He was, Ornstein said, “very depressed.”
Franken never stopped thinking about how to reenter, in his words, "the fray." He got encouragement out in public: a standing ovation when he showed up to his Harvard reunion last June, according to his longtime friend and Washington Post opinion writer E.J. Dionne; tweets of support from fans; and a poll of Minnesota voters showing more people wished he hadn't resigned than were glad he did. He surrounded himself with PR professionals such as Mandy Grunwald, one of Hillary Clinton's top aides. He hired a digital firm to make him a splashy new website, where he recently began posting his writing (William Barr congressional testimony fan-fic, anyone?). And he watched comedian Louis C.K.'s ill-fated comeback into the comedy world for tips on what not to do.
“His takeaway was don’t be an a--hole,” said Ornstein. “But he knew that anyway.”
And yet, not everyone is sure he’s gotten that message.
“I think he made out like a bandit,” said Tina Dupuy, a former congressional staffer who accused Franken of grabbing her waist during a photo in a way that made her uncomfortable. “He’s not the victim here. And now we’re talking about a comeback without him even being fully honest about what he’s done.”
Hilary Rosen, a Democratic consultant, says that for Franken to be fully welcomed back into the fray, he needs to take responsibility for why he’s no longer in the Senate. Too many people, Rosen said, are blaming Gillibrand for his resignation, putting responsibility onto a woman for the actions of a man.
“He never comes to her defense,” Rosen said. “I’ve heard through the grapevine that he blames her and is resentful. Shame on him.”
For now, Franken has decided the podcast would be the best way to talk, or not, about the Issue.
“Let me ask you about taste,” Franken said to Silverman in the most recent episode. “You do a lot of dark humor, and you get away with it for a number of reasons.”
“I’m different from my first special which is, oof, pretty problematic,” Silverman said. “But I feel like if you don’t look back on old stuff and cringe you’re not necessarily growing.”
Being a good comedian requires feeling “safe enough to mess around,” she said, to know that it’s okay to make mistakes as long as you give yourself a chance to grow from them.
“There’s something wrong right now,” Franken said in agreement. “There’s too much fear.”
If he had any thoughts about how this conversation related to his own situation, he either kept it to himself, or it ended up on the cutting-room floor.
On the sidewalk after the storm, Franken said there was a reason he wasn’t talking about the Issue, and that reason “will become clear in a little while.”
“I can’t explain it right now,” he said. “There will be a certain point I give my first interview, and when it happens, I think you’ll understand.”
Maybe everybody will understand, then, what’s to be done with Al Franken. Or maybe everyone will know but him.