The New Yorker published an extensive article Monday about the sexual misconduct allegations that forced Al Franken’s resignation from the Senate in 2017. And, given Franken’s expedited, semi-voluntary ouster, at which point the details of the accusations became less pressing, the article has provided an opportunity for a debate that was never really had in full, with the added benefit of two years of festering resentment from his most devoted supporters.
It also provides the defense of Franken that he, to his detriment, never really gave himself.
For those who need a refresher, around Thanksgiving 2017, model and broadcaster Leeann Tweeden went public with an allegation that Franken forcibly kissed her while rehearsing a sketch on a USO tour in 2006. She also provided a picture showing Franken mock-groping her while she slept on a military plane. Soon, seven more women — some of them granted anonymity — came forward with allegations of varying degrees of inappropriate sexual conduct and contact by Franken.
Jane Mayer’s piece focuses extensively on Tweeden’s account. It pokes holes in some of the contentions she made in her initial version of events, including that Franken told her he had written the sketch as a pretext to kiss her (he had performed almost the same sketch on previous USO tours with other actresses). She also said that she felt he had intended for the photograph to intimidate and humiliate her once she returned home and saw it (others present dispute this). It also points rather suggestively in the direction of the role of politics in Tweeden’s accusation, probing Tweeden’s friendship with Fox News host Sean Hannity and the conservative bent of the radio station at which she was working, which published her allegation.
All of these things are kibble for those who have long argued that Franken was effectively railroaded out of office — many of whom have turned to presidential hopeful Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) as their Public Enemy No. 1.
Gillibrand was the first Democratic senator to call for Franken’s resignation, but most of the caucus joined her. The intervening two years have apparently allowed for introspection on the part of some of them: Seven current and former senators expressed regret in the piece for joining in the call for Franken’s ouster. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Angus King (I-Maine) are joined by former senators Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) in that distinction, telling Mayer they jumped the gun.
Nothing in the article is exculpatory. It adds detail to doubts about Tweeden’s account that already existed, and it gives voice to suggestions that people like these senators were too afraid to make in real time. And that list includes Franken.
When the allegations first arose, Franken was slow to meet them head-on, as Mayer recounts:
Franken tried to devise a response, but, he told me, he found it “impossible to explain the context of the goofing around everybody had been doing, so I just said, ‘It was a joke — it wasn’t funny, and I apologize.’ ” His statement was lambasted on social media as hopelessly inadequate. He released a longer, more self-critical apology. But, he told me, “I was in shock, and I wasn’t thinking as clearly as I should have.” He went on, “You feel very trapped. And the press was just reporting it as she said it.”
After Mayer notes the similarities between Tweeden’s allegations and the sketch the two of them were rehearsing — both an undesired kiss and a mock breast examination were part of it — Franken suggests that he could have made that case but that it would have been difficult:
It was “surreal,” Franken told me, that Tweeden had publicly said of him, “I think he wrote that sketch just to kiss me”; her language was essentially borrowed from his skit. Moreover, her fighting him off and expressing anger had also been scripted by him. But it seemed impossible to relay such nuances to the press. Explaining that her accusations appropriated jokes from comic routines that they’d performed together would be as dizzying as describing an Escher drawing.
There is no doubt that relaying these nuances to the media might have been difficult; doing so could have looked as if he was calling his accuser a liar, at a time when Democrats including Franken were saying that women who accused men of sexual harassment should be believed. But Franken never really tried. Instead, his strategy was to cast it as a potential misunderstanding, express some degree of contrition, and hope that was good enough. He kept saying he “remembered” the whole thing differently than Tweeden did, but he never really went in-depth about it.
But that led to the obvious, unanswered question: What did he remember differently? Tweeden didn’t describe a one-off moment; she was talking about a pattern of predatory behavior (which she compared with that Harvey Weinstein tape) that was punctuated by two major events: the kiss and the photo. That makes it more difficult to dismiss it as a misunderstanding. And the additions of the other allegations only made it more difficult.
Whether that was an “impossible” argument to make, it was probably a necessary one. But it was absent.