'He’s No Weinstein': The New Yorker’s Distorted Defense of Al Franken

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Al Franken, according to a new piece in the New Yorker by Jane Mayer, regrets resigning from his Senate seat at the end of 2017, after many of his fellow Democratic senators called for him to step down in the wake of numerous allegations of unwanted and inappropriate kissing and touching. The stories had come like a wave, after Leeann Tweeden, a conservative radio host and television anchor who had performed with Franken on a USO tour published an account in which she alleged that Franken had forcibly kissed her and “aggressively stuck his tongue in my mouth,” and that he had taken a photo of her while she was sleeping in which he appeared to be grabbing her breasts. Soon after, more women came forward to describe instances in which Franken had tried to kiss them or had groped them during photo ops.

There was hardly a consensus on how to evaluate Franken’s alleged misconduct at the time that Franken chose to resign. But now, less than two years later, a narrative has coalesced among those who continue to remain uncomfortable with his departure from the Senate—of a good man whose actions were taken out of context by a hysterical mob, a narrative that has gained in strength to counter the sunlight of the reckoning promised by Me Too. Complicating the story is the suggestion that Tweeden was, as Mayer heavily implies in her piece, part of a rightwing hatchet job meant to bring him down.

There is a conversation to be had about whether Franken’s behavior warranted his exit from the Senate, and about rightwing-led campaigns that rely on lies to discredit elected officials and other public figures, but that’s not quite what Mayer is doing here—it is instead a largely, remarkably sympathetic portrait, meant to rehabilitate. Franken, in her (and many others’) reckoning, was the subject of a character assassination. And it’s time, it seems, to fully bring him back to life.

Mayer spoke with seven of Franken’s former colleagues who now regret calling for his resignation, several of whom highlighted what they believe to be a lack of due process, a tedious argument that has become standard operating practice in the backlash to Me Too. Patrick Leahy described the decision as “one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made” in his time in the Senate. Angus King, an independent from Maine who regularly votes with Democrats, now says, a tad hyperbolically, that it was “the political equivalent of capital punishment.” Heidi Heitkamp told Mayer, “If there’s one decision I’ve made that I would take back, it’s the decision to call for his resignation.” Tammy Duckworth now believes that an ethics investigation “should have been allowed to move forward.” “I really believe in due process,” Tom Udall said. Bill Nelson echoed Duckworth and Udall, and believes he “should have stood up for due process to render what it’s supposed to—the truth.”

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As I read further, I found myself stuck on that idea of the “truth,” which due process—that is, a careful investigation of facts—is meant to somehow reveal. Mayer’s piece is ostensibly framed as exactly that, an investigation into the allegations made by Tweeden. In a tweet, Mayer wrote, “Almost NOTHING His Main Accuser Said checks out.” Mayer notes that Tweeden’s “prepared statement provided no names of corroborators,” making it difficult to verify her account, and quotes several people who said they witnessed no tension between Franken and Tweeden at the time. The story dives into Tweeden’s connections with the rightwing media ecosphere, and details how her allegations were rolled out.

There are indeed some lies and inaccuracies in Tweeden’s account—that Franken had written the skit in which they were to kiss just for her (Mayer speaks with several women who had played the same role as Tweeden during earlier tours and watches video of earlier versions of the sketch), her claim that, contrary to photos taken at the time, “she never let Franken get near her face after the first rehearsal,” that the photo taken of her while sleeping was sent only to her (it was also sent to others, and included on a CD). The photo itself of Tweeden sleeping and Franken reaching for her breasts is not in dispute. Franken told Mayer, acknowledging some limited culpability, “What’s wrong with the picture to me is that she’s asleep. If you’re asleep, you’re not giving your consent.” When the photo resurfaced in November 2017, he (belatedly) “genuinely, genuinely felt bad about that,” he told Mayer.

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But Tweeden is not the only women who came forward. And what is most striking is the space that Mayer gives in her very long story to people who defend both Franken’s character and his intentions, as if both are somehow equally as relevant as the impact of his actions—an additional vetting wrapped up in “due process.” Franken is “five hundred per cent devoted” to his wife, according to his fundraiser A.J. Goodman. Traylor Portman, an actor who performed with Franken on a different USO tour, told Mayer that “Franken is a good man. I remember him talking so sweetly and lovingly about his wife.” SNL writer James Downey notes that Franken “can say mean things, or use other people as props,” but then adds, “I’ve known him for forty-seven years and he’s the very last person who would be a sexual harasser.” To Downey, Franken, in the 2006 photo, was “adopting the persona of a douche bag,” versus being an actual douche bag.

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Another SNL staffer, Jane Curtin, brushes off the photo of Franken and a sleeping Tweeden as a joke: “The photo was funny because she’s wearing a flak jacket, and he’s looking straight at the camera and pretending he’s trying to fondle her breasts. But the humor is he can’t get to them—if a bullet can’t get them, Al can’t get them.” It’s comedy, folks! The photo “was not at all malicious,” said Shajn Cabreba, who had been on the plane when it was taken, and insisted that Franken was just “goofing around.”

As for the other women who alleged Franken had engaged in inappropriate touching and kissing that made them uncomfortable? They are essentially dismissed—a reaction, perhaps triggered by accusations that fall short of sexual abuse and rape, that has also emerged with respect to former senator and presidential candidate Joe Biden—and their accounts are given relatively little attention.

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Indeed, in the telling of people Mayer interviewed, Franken is just a “warm, tactile person” whose motivations and intentions are misunderstood. “There’s a difference between molesting someone and being friendly,” as his former assistant Andy Barr put it, acknowledging that “there may not be a difference between feeling molested and feeling that someone’s being friendly.” The fact that an aide in 2007 was alarmed enough after Franken “kissed a female acquaintance on the mouth” to tell him not to engage in that kind of behavior, and that high-level staff felt the need to “place someone within arm’s reach whenever he was in public,” receives relatively little attention.

While his accusers are given few quotes (perhaps, of course, they did not wish to state again what they have already publicly spoken of at length), Franken himself is given an abundance of space to clarify his intent. “I’m a very physical person. I guess maybe sometimes I’m oblivious,” he told Mayer, adding, “I’ve been a hugger all my life. When I take pictures, I bring people in close.” He describes feeling shocked and surprised when the allegations against him came out. “My first instinct was ‘This doesn’t make any sense. This didn’t happen.’ But then, when they started adding up, I said, ‘Well, maybe I’m doing something I’m not aware of,’” he told Mayer of the many women who stepped forward, adding, “But this was out of the blue for me.” Of the congressional staffer who alleged that in 2006, while accompanying the senator she worked for to a taping of Franken’s show, he tried to kiss her, Franken denied her account. (She alleges that he told her, “It’s my right as an entertainer.”) That, he said, “was something I would never do or say,” chalking it up possibly to a misunderstanding. “If she seemed freaked out or something, I may have said, ‘Sorry, I was just trying to give you a hug, and that’s what we do in show business.’ Or something like that,” he said.

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When told that the unnamed congressional aide said to Mayer that she “didn’t end his Senate career—he did,” Franken began to cry, describing her comments as “callous” and “wrong.” “I ended my career by saying ‘Thanks’ to her—that’s what she’s saying,” he said.

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If Me Too has shed a light on the spectrum of abuse that women have been systematically subjected to, then it has also served to flatten a wide variety of experiences under one imperfect and unwieldy umbrella, giving those who would already tend to dismiss women’s claims or are uneasy at the idea of a “good” man committing gross acts an easy way to defend their positions. “This isn’t Kavanaugh. It isn’t Roy Moore,” the comedian Sarah Silverman pointed out in the piece. Though Franken acknowledges that he’s far from a Harvey Weinstein-type abuser (“I don’t think people who have been sexually assaulted, and those kinds of things, want to hear from people who have been #MeToo’d that they’re victims,” Franken said, “holding his head in his hands.) he makes it clear that he feels wronged:

Yet, he added, being on the losing side of the #MeToo movement, which he fervently supports, has led him to spend time thinking about such matters as due process, proportionality of punishment, and the consequences of Internet-fuelled outrage. He told me that his therapist had likened his experience to “what happens when primates are shunned and humiliated by the rest of the other primates.” Their reaction, Franken said, with a mirthless laugh, “is ‘I’m going to die alone in the jungle.’”

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Yet Franken has not been banished from public life, nor has he, it seems, lost much goodwill—he has lost his job, and as Mayer’s reporting makes clear, despite the public pressure and the calls from his fellow senators, it is Franken who ultimately made the decision to step down. In the speech that Franken gave when he resigned, he said, “This has been a tough few weeks, but I am a very lucky man. I’m going to be just fine.” And isn’t he right? Kirsten Gillibrand’s presidential campaign has to a large degree had the oxygen sucked out of it by the backlash to her call for Franken to resign. Franken however, far from being destroyed, is well on his way to a comeback.

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