Whether Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) resigns Thursday or not, his hesitation in leaving office — and his explanation for that hesitation — has given weight to one of the most pernicious half-true rejoinders dragging down the #metoo movement: “What about due process?”
This was the first line of defense for Franken’s allies, no doubt. Most Democrats who spoke up for him initially were reluctant to reach for the weapons that less woke partisans might use: It is unseemly for a good liberal to slut-shame an accuser, and outright denial of the women’s stories run up against the progressive value of believing the powerless when they speak against the powerful. Sure, whataboutism has taken up residence in the West Wing, but “let him resign when your guy does” isn’t an argument, it’s a tantrum.
Now that Franken’s career has come down to whether he will heed a chorus of fellow Democrats and step down, the notion of due process has brought out some odd sympathizers, expressing odd sympathies. Byron York, a conservative reporter for the Washington Examiner, fretted that the Senate Ethics Committee worked for three years on the case against serial harasser Bob Packwood before he resigned but “now . . . it’s just three weeks.” He went on: “There’s reason to be concerned about what comes next.” Right-wing radio host and documentarian John Ziegler confessed that there was a time he “would have rejoiced at the demise of such a far left zealot” but now wrings his hands that Franken’s resignation “will set an incredibly dangerous precedent which will likely cause chaos and injustice in the future.” Wednesday night, Newt Gingrich — Newt Gingrich! Of all people! — said Franken’s critics were motivated by “this weird puritanism which feels a compulsion to go out and lynch people without a trial.”
Franken’s conservative allies are not all latecomers. Back in November, one of the New York Times’s own respectable Never-Trump neocons, Bari Weiss, raised her hand up on Twitter to wonder, “Are others disturbed by the moral flattening going on here? . . . Al Franken should not be mentioned in the same breath as Harvey Weinstein/Kevin Spacey.”
But those who decry what’s happening with Franken — and the #metoo reckoning writ large — as “moral flattening” are doing some serious steamrolling themselves, yoking together every corporate disavowal, every canceled contract and every defunct résumé line into the same tragic ending, such as Ziegler characterizing Franken’s likely return to civilian life as a “demise.” Or Gingrich equating the same move to dangling off the branch of a tree. (I am reminded of Mike Barnicle bemoaning the fate of his erstwhile MSNBC co-contributor Mark Halperin: “But does he deserve to die?”) Much as rape is not opportunistic groping and exposing oneself is not child molestation, there’s a whole scale of consequences available between death and “no longer having an extraordinarily prestigious and well-paying job.”
Franken will leave the Senate quite alive, and with little threat (at this moment) of legal damage. He might have been denied “due process,” but that’s not because he won’t appear in front of the Ethics Committee, which will drop its recently opened investigation if he leaves the Senate; it’s because he’s not being criminally charged. His life won’t just not be over, it won’t even be ruined — he’s a wealthy man with many friends who show no sign of desertion. And I can’t see a man with Franken’s sizable talents and ego ever totally disappearing from the national stage.
I point this out not because I think Franken’s life should be ruined and his career laid to waste, but because I hope it isn’t. As a constituent of his, at least for a few more hours, my hope is that Franken faces consequences that are appropriate to his mistakes; to go by what we know now, an even metaphorical death sentence does seem too much. Franken leaving office and then moving on to reconcile his ideals and his voting record as a politician with his behavior as a human being could be more than enough. It could be the start of our society disentangling the consequences of being a harasser with one’s rights under the law.
Undoubtedly, some of the actions that have recently come to light deserve the scrutiny of law enforcement: Harvey Weinstein’s survivors described violence, and he seemed to skirt lawful behavior in multiple other ways; one of the stories about Matt Lauer’s predations clearly describes a rape; oh, and our president confessed to sexual assault. In those cases, the guidelines and protections of our legal system will hopefully serve survivors and defendants equally well.
But the courts aren’t where our national conversation is taking place, so let’s not dither about the dangers of proclaiming guilt or innocence. The standards of evidence necessary to decide you don’t want to go see someone’s movie, or laugh at his jokes, or watch him read the news while you get dressed, or elect him to the Senate are not the same as the ones required to put such men in prison. Instead, let’s acknowledge the nuances that already exist: Some men in public life have been accused of different levels of predation. They’ve suffered varying levels of employment loss as a result. And we have no idea what their long-term “sentences” look like, or if there will be any further consequences at all.
Indeed, if we listen to those who wail that taking someone’s punditry gig and book contract is the same as if you “kill a guy,” I suspect we’re in for a whole rash of reincarnation.