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Opinion Al Franken isn’t exonerated

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) leaves the Senate floor after delivering a resignation speech on Dec. 7, 2017. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

It turns out the whole thing is the woman’s fault.

That’s the upshot of a carefully reported New Yorker piece titled “The Case of Al Franken,” in which friends and fans of the erstwhile senator from Minnesota bemoan his downfall. The magazine’s Jane Mayer writes that many of Franken’s former colleagues regret their own part in ousting him after eight allegations of sexual assault and harassment, but many seem to regret the role someone else played even more.

Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) was the first of three dozen Democrats in the Senate to call on Franken to resign, which apparently also makes her the worst of them. The facts, Mayer’s story seems to suggest, didn’t warrant Franken’s removal — but Gillibrand’s “vigilante” move made it inevitable. Never mind that fellow New Yorker Charles E. Schumer’s role as minority leader gave him the actual power he eventually exercised to nudge Franken out the door.

Gillibrand “has a lot to answer for,” her critics intone. She’s “opportunistic.” She “cut short” the sterling career of a party star. Efforts are mounting to hamstring her campaign for president, which admittedly didn’t really seem to have the longest legs in the first place.

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Gillibrand has a perfectly logical explanation for her actions amid this perfectly illogical onslaught: “He wasn’t entitled to me carrying his water, and defending him with my silence.” But plenty of people seem to think that’s exactly what Franken was entitled to.

Mayer’s story reads as if it’s laying out an abundance of exculpatory evidence that Franken was never allowed to present because he was pressured out of office before he could get a hearing. It also reads as though it’s exposing a coordinated campaign by the vast right-wing conspiracy to bring down one of the opposing party’s beloved. But neither of these is true.

The reporting basically confirms the core of Leeann Tweeden’s accusation. She and Franken, then a professional comedian, were on a USO tour. They rehearsed a sketch in which Franken kissed Tweeden, though she says he “stuck his tongue” in her mouth and he says he didn’t. Then, on the plane back, Franken posed for a photo of him pretending to grope her while she slept. Tweeden went on to become a conservative talk radio host, and made friends in the fever swamps — including Sean Hannity — who helped spread her story when she decided to tell it.

What those friends didn’t do, at least as far as Mayer’s research has turned up, is manufacture the seven other allegations against Franken. In fact, testimony about Franken’s “clumsiness," not to mention his penchant for haphazardly kissing acquaintances on the mouth, along with the revelation that staff and colleagues told him to knock it off lest someone misinterpret, suggest that those allegations are just as credible as they originally appeared.

The question is the same one it always has been: Was this enough?

Was the kiss a harmless gag, performed with others (as Mayer makes clear) multiple times before for the God-blessed purpose of entertaining the troops, or was it a violation of a woman’s bodily integrity? Was the “breast exam” a parody of crude behavior, or was it itself crude?

The article offers some context to aid the audience, much of which revolves around what sort of event the tour was (raunchy) and what sort of person Tweeden was (ribald). But “a little nutty and a little slutty” isn’t supposed to cut it anymore.

And what about those seven other women? Should their complaints be written off as excessive sensitivity to friendly overtures from a politician who Sarah Silverman says “has no sexuality”? Should we believe that some too-tight squeezes around the waist, or a butt grab, were probably unintentional, if they happened at all?

The defense Franken is mounting for himself today isn’t that different from the defense his allies mounted back then, which is that these questions have answers, and those answers work in his favor. He’s realizing he could have stuck it out and hoped senators would answer the same way. They’re realizing they probably could have, perhaps without paying much of a cost, and they wouldn’t have had to lose a colleague they’ve always thought was a lovely guy.

Indeed, what’s most striking about Mayer’s story is how personal it all seems. Franken was a lovely guy, and he was on the Democrats’ team. Schumer overlapped with him at Harvard. Gillibrand was his squash partner, for gosh sakes! Of course she was expected to carry his water and defend him with her silence. That’s what everyone else was doing even amid the drip-drip-drip-drip-drip-drip-drip of me-too’s after Tweeden told her tale.

Senators didn’t want to make judgments because they didn’t want to open themselves up to charges of hypocrisy amid a mass movement against abusive men, but they also didn’t want that mass movement to take down one of their own. Gillibrand did make those judgments, and suddenly her colleagues felt optionless. They felt she forced them into something they never asked for.

Sound familiar? Mayer asked Franken’s final accuser if she regretted ending his Senate career.

I didn’t end it, she replied. “He did.”

Read more:

Ruth Marcus: Was Al Franken’s punishment fair?

Kathleen Parker: Al Franken, martyr

Ruth Marcus: So what should happen to Al Franken?

Letters to the Editor: What should have happened with Al Franken

Jennifer Rubin: Al Franken and all the others