Al Franken began his rise as a Democratic politician nine years ago by reluctantly apologizing to women for things he had said and written, enabling him to put his career as a bawdy comedian behind him and win a U.S. Senate seat.
You could argue that he never really got the hang of contrition. On Thursday, Franken stood in the Senate chamber after a string of half-apologies had failed to end a weeks-long groping scandal, and announced that he will resign his seat without so much as an “I'm sorry.”
No one was publicly accusing Franken of sexual assault in 2008. But in late May of that year — less than two weeks before a state convention in which he hoped Minnesota Democrats would choose him as their Senate nominee — Republicans began publicizing an article he had written for Playboy magazine in 2000.
It was called “Porn-O-Rama!” — a sci-fi story in which Franken visited a fictional university to have sex with a doctor in some sort of virtual reality machine.
The doctor was an “extremely attractive blonde” with “legs that won't quit and firm but ample breasts," he wrote. "She seemed to be coming on to me."
A female state senator and five other prominent Republican women in Minnesota co-signed a letter condemning the candidate when they learned of the article.
“This column is at its worst, an extreme example of the kind of disrespect for the role of women in society that all of us have fought our entire lives,” they wrote. “At best, it is the disrespectful writings of a nearly 50-year-old man who seems to think that women's bodies are the domain of a man who just wants to have a good time.”
“Denounce this article and apologize immediately,” the women wrote.
Franken refused for days.
“What would I even be apologizing for?” he thought, as he later recalled in a book. “For writing a silly humor piece? That was my job for 35 years!”
Instead, Franken's campaign defended the article as satire — part and parcel of his previous life as a “Saturday Night Live” alumnus and distinct from the work he would be doing as a senator. He insisted that his political opponents were cynically ginning up outrage against the front-running Democrat as the party sought to take a seat back from a Republican incumbent.
And “I began to feel slightly beleaguered and a little sorry for myself,” he wrote in his book, “Al Franken, Giant of the Senate.”
As the state convention approached, more and more women demanded that he apologize — and not only Republicans.
Less than a week before the convention, a Planned Parenthood executive called the Playboy article misogynistic, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and warned that the Democratic-friendly group might not be able to endorse him.
“While a man's sense of humor is only one part of his personality, it tells us something essential about him,” columnist Katherine Kersten wrote in the Tribune. “It bears the DNA of his character, you might say.”
Then Republicans dropped a second bombshell, digging up a news article from the 1990s in which Franken — an SNL writer at the time — pitched a sketch about raping journalist Leslie Stahl.
Now female Democrats joined Republicans in denouncing Franken's so-called comedy. “Most disturbing . . . offensive and highly inappropriate when linked to a candidate for the United States Senate,” state Rep. Sandy Wollschlager and state Sen. Kathy Saltzman said in a joint statement, the Star Tribune reported. Amy Klobuchar, who held Minnesota's other U.S. Senate seat, called the Playboy article “entirely inappropriate.”
Franken detailed in his book how he finally resolved the crisis.
“Progressive feminists” who supported Franken's policies began to split over whether they could tolerate his actions, he wrote in his book. State delegates began to abandon him en masse.
“Forget about winning in November,” Franken wrote. “It began to seem possible, very possible, that my campaign wouldn’t even survive the . . . convention.”
Two days before the gathering in Rochester, Franken's aides spent hours hammering out a damage control statement for the media. As described in his book, they went back and forth over whether to mention that he had a daughter and whether to keep defending his comedy. One adviser warned Franken against issuing “a dangerous half apology” expressing insincere regret.
The campaign released the following statement late that evening — including “regret,” the daughter and a swipe at the Republican incumbent, but no apology:
I’m proud of my career as a satirist, which doesn’t mean every joke I’ve ever told was funny, or, indeed, appropriate. I understand and regret that people have been legitimately offended by some of the things I’ve written. In real life, though, I’ve been married for 32 years. Franni and I are proud of our son and daughter. I respect women — in both my personal and professional life. And I will work incredibly hard to represent them in the Senate — something Norm Coleman hasn’t been doing for the last six years.
It didn't seem to work.
Franken went to Rochester that weekend feeling terrible, he wrote. He thought of Eliot Spitzer, the New York governor who had resigned in a prostitution scandal a few months earlier and how people must now regard him.
He had spent nearly two weeks refusing to say sorry, he wrote, but now told a friend: “I feel bad that people feel bad about this, and I want to apologize for that.”
Incredible tension filled the convention hall as Franken took the stage, he wrote. It felt like everyone in the crowd was waiting to hear what he had to say for himself.
“I've had some tough conversations this week,” Franken said, two minutes into his speech. “It kills me. The things I've said and wrote sent a message to some of my friends in this room, and to people in this state, that they can't count on me to be a champion for women, and for all the people of Minnesota, in this campaign and in the Senate.
“I'm sorry for that.”
Franken felt a weight lift immediately, he wrote. People rose and cheered.
“I'm sorry for that, because that's not who I am,” he continued. Then he praised his wife, son and daughter, and segued from his regrets into a stump speech — about greedy oil companies, and price-gouging drug companies, and Republicans he would fight as a senator.
About two-thirds of the delegates in the room voted for Franken after the speech, he wrote. And while Republicans continued to attack him for degrading women during the general election, he narrowly won his Senate seat.
But he never actually felt sorry “that I had written ‘Porn-O-Rama’ or pitched that stupid Lesley Stahl joke at two in the morning,” Franken wrote years later in his book.
“I was just doing my job,” he wrote. “But running for office is a different job. When you run for office, you’re asking people to stand with you and work for you and believe in you. And you’re making a promise that it’ll be worth it. People had to know I understood that.”
Last month, nearly a decade after Franken's strategic apology, a woman accused him of groping and forcibly kissing her in 2006. She was followed by another accuser, then another and another — eight women in total by Thursday.
Franken apologized without hesitation this time, but also without admitting anything, and always with qualifications.
“There are some women — and one is too many — who feel that I have done something disrespectful, and that's hurt them, and for that I am tremendously sorry,” he told one interviewer.
“I am very sorry if these women experienced that,” he told another.
Many recoiled from these semi-apologies. And once again, Franken's colleagues began to turn on him. Democratic senators lined up to demand his resignation this week, until he finally took the Senate floor Thursday and announced that he would soon leave.
Unlike his speech in 2008, this one was defiant. Franken regretted only leaving work unfinished in the Senate and that his previous contrition “gave some people the false impression I was admitting to things I haven't done.”
He did not apologize again. It might have been too late to help him, anyway.