“Embarrassed and ashamed,” is how Minnesota Senator Al Franken described his feelings since four women accused him of unwanted groping this month. In one of Franken’s first interviews since news the allegations broke, he told the Star Tribune that he’s “let a lot of people down and I’m hoping I can make it up to them and gradually regain their trust.” He added that he would return to work on Monday and cooperate with a Senate Ethics Committee investigation. Franken’s interview with the Star Tribune was followed by an on-camera interview with Minneapolis’s CBS affiliate and another with Minnesota Public Radio News.
In each of the interviews, Franken emphasized his sense of shame, combined with promises of “responsibility” and being held accountable. “I‘m going to take responsibility. I’m going to be held accountable, and I’m going to try to be productive in the way I speak about this,” he told Minnesota Public Radio News. He indicated too that he would remain in office and return to work on Monday but would “make it up to” the “people I’ve let down.” Franken did not offer specifics, but said he had a “long way back to win back the trust of the people of Minnesota.”
Franken’s interviews were peppered with apologies of sorts. “The picture... that was inexcusable,” Franken told Minneapolis’s CBS, referring to a photograph published by Leeann Tweeden that showed Franken groping a sleeping Tweeden. “I don’t know if anything is going to come forward,” he added. “Right now, I’ve been so shocked by all of this that nothing is going to be surprising, I guess. If you had asked me two weeks ago if something like this... if some accusation like this had come forward, I would have been shocked.”
But if Franken was publicly penitent over the Tweeden allegations (he did not reference her allegation that he “aggressively stuck his tongue in my mouth” after badgering her for a kiss), then he was less apologetic about the three women who have accused him of groping them during campaign photo ops in 2007, 2008, and 2010. “I take thousands and thousands of pictures, sometimes in chaotic and crowded situations,” Franken told CBS. “I can’t say I haven’t done that. I’m very sorry if these women experienced that.” More bluntly, Franken told the Star Tribune, “I don’t remember these photographs, I don’t. This is not something I would intentionally do,” he said, echoing his initial statement after Lindsay Metz accused him of groping her during a photo op. He added:
I’m a warm person. I hug people. Some women found my greeting or my embrace or hug for a photo inappropriate and I respect their feelings about that. … In recent days, I’ve been thinking about how that could happen and I just recognize that I need to be more careful and a lot more sensitive in these situations. I feel terrible that women have felt bad and I’m very sorry for that.
What’s clear is that Franken is cultivating a specific narrative that wavers between apology and denial; between taking responsibility for some of his behavior while naturalizing other elements (“I’m a warm person”). Somewhere between his shame and the “some women” who found his “embrace... inappropriate” is Franken’s self-made narrative of rehabilitation. Whether or not Franken is sincere is hard to say, and perhaps not even worth the speculation since he clearly has no plans to resign, and the Democratic party seems to have only dealt the superficial discipline of an ethics investigation.
What’s perhaps more interesting is whether or not Franken’s apology tour is a roadmap for rehabilitation of the many men who in recent weeks have had sexual harassment and abuse allegations leveled against them. It seems unlikely that Franken can “make it up” to the hypothetical people he has “let down,” but it’s worth asking whether or not a series of public apologies and pseudo-apologies is enough in the wake of Me Too. Franken certainly thinks it is.