Intelligencer staffers Benjamin Hart, Margaret Hartmann, and Ed Kilgore discuss the Al Franken resignation in the wake of new reporting on the subject.
Ben: The New Yorker published a long piece on Monday centering on former senator Al Franken’s 2017 resignation amid several allegations of sexual misconduct. Reporter Jane Mayer quite effectively casts doubt on the claims put forth by Franken’s best-known accuser, Leeann Tweeden, marshaling evidence that she had mischaracterized a comedy sketch that was at the center of her account. Mayer also reports that Franken regrets resigning and that seven Democratic senators now wish they hadn’t called for him to step down. And she quotes many Franken friends and associates who say he would never do the things he was accused of (seven women besides Tweeden have accused him of touching or kissing them inappropriately).
The story has caused a stir as well as something of a backlash on social media from those who say it doesn’t actually support the notion that Franken was “railroaded,” as Mayer puts it. After reading the piece, do you think Franken should have resigned, now that we’re almost two years removed from his doing so?
Ed: As Matt Yglesias pointed out today, letting Franken off the hook would have probably made it impossible for Dems to go after Roy Moore as effectively as they did. And Franken’s regrets over resigning really should be exceeded by his regrets over piggish behavior, even if you don’t credit every detail of every allegation.
Margaret: I think Mayer makes it clear that this wasn’t reported well enough at the time. I wish it had been. But the piece also made me angrier at Franken and happy that he resigned when he did.
Margaret: It was specifically the part where he started crying. He has said that he feels awful that anyone felt bad. In one anecdote in the piece, a staffer who was accompanying her boss, a senator, says Franken tried to kiss her when she was clearing her papers after the senator was interviewed on Franken’s Air America show. Franken suggests it was a “show-business thing” and maybe he was just trying to give her a hug. When she reiterates to Mayer that she was uncomfortable whatever he was doing, and notes correctly that he’s the one who killed his Senate career, not his accusers, Franken calls her “callous” and “so wrong.” Quoting from the piece here:
“Franken was stricken when I related her comments to him. ‘Look,’ he said. ‘This has really affected my family. I loved being in the Senate. I loved my staff — we had fun and we got good things done, big and small, and they all meant something to me.’ He started to cry. ‘For her to say that, it’s just so callous. It’s just so wrong.’ Rubbing his eyes beneath his glasses, he said, ‘I ended my career by saying “Thanks” to her — that’s what she’s saying.’”
Which is it? Does he feel regret, or is he the victim of these ladies who just couldn’t “be cool” with his handsy greetings? I thought Rebecca Traister’s point toward the end was smart: “One of the troubling things about this is that there aren’t easy answers. When you change rules, you end up penalizing people who were caught behaving according to the old rules. But if you don’t change the rules, they will never change.”
Ed: Well put.
The ultimate issue we have to deal with here is whether borderline behavior that might be tolerated in a different context is simply unacceptable for U.S. senators (and candidates for the Senate), not just because they need to embrace a higher standard of behavior but because of the power they exercise and the power balance they enjoy over their victims.
Margaret: The beginning of the piece raises some questions about Tweeden’s account, and I’m not entirely convinced that Franken was repeatedly groping people in an intentionally sexual way. But this point stuck out to me: “He tended to hug many people, and kiss some, even on the mouth. ‘It was the New York hello-goodbye kiss,’ a longtime adviser told me. The talk-show host Randi Rhodes and the comedian Sarah Silverman have described Franken as a social — not a sexual — ‘lip-kisser.’”
Even if he’s a “social” lip-kisser, that’s still gross. Why do women have to roll with it because a man — a senator, no less! — thinks that’s an acceptable social greeting?
Ed: I haven’t spent much time in the Apple, truth be told, but I didn’t do any social lip-kissing there.
Anyway, Franken could have toughed it out if he was sure he was innocent. He wasn’t kicked out of the caucus or anything. He was just “pressured” to resign. But as I like to say, you can’t take the politics out of politics.
Ben: A common theme among the senators who now express regret, and among Franken supporters who stew over how things went down, is that there should have been a formal Senate investigation before his fate was decided upon. Would this have done anything to clarify the situation?
Ed: Would a yearlong, two-year-long investigation of Franken have solved anything? Is there some definitive clear-cut Truth we’ve missed? That’s doubtful.
Ben: Yeah, our colleague Josh Barro said on Twitter, “While in many ways the Franken defenders are offering opposite talking points from what they said about Brett Kavanaugh, the arguments about both share an absurd belief in the power of Senate committees to do useful fact-finding about pre-Senate sexual misconduct.” I think there’s something to that.
Margaret: I think if it had come at a less heated moment, we all would have benefited from hearing all the details. Having a broader discussion of the “social vs. sexual kiss” greeting issue — that part is a gray area.
Ben: It’s true that Franken’s presence could have undermined both Democratic efforts to win the Alabama Senate seat (even though his alleged transgressions are not in the same league as Moore’s) and their united front during the Kavanaugh hearings. A Senate investigation might have dragged on and overlapped with one or both of those events. But is political expediency alone really a good enough reason for him to have resigned? Is that what you meant by “You can’t take the politics out of politics,” Ed?
Ed: Yes. If Franken has been denied the ability to make a living (I have no idea if he was, though I doubt it) or has had his reputation destroyed (the many efforts to defend him suggest otherwise), that’s one thing. But there’s no moral right to serve in the United States Senate. Its membership is always and at every time and every place subject to what you might call changing community standards of behavior, ideology, and even — yes — expediency. Did Franken in part suffer from the sins of his fathers (and brothers and others)? Yes. Is that fair? No. Is politics any more or less subject to changing mores and tastes than his previous profession of showbiz? I don’t think so.
Margaret: Yeah, I was convinced by Yglesias’s argument that the events in the following months would have been much worse for Dems if he’d stuck around. And I think it was a good thing for the party to spare us once he was engulfed in scandal. As Nate Silver noted, the New Yorker piece also underscores that Franken didn’t have a good defense. His answers are still sloppy and going in multiple directions.
Ben: So in conclusion, the article isn’t all that exculpatory of his behavior, and the reasoning behind his resignation remains pretty strong in both your eyes?
Margaret: Yes. I think the broader thing this underscored for me is that many people haven’t learned some of the key lessons of #MeToo. There are so many Franken defenders in this piece saying something along the lines of “Hey, I never saw him grope somebody!” I thought we discussed and rejected that argument when Kavanaugh released a list of female classmates who said he didn’t assault them.
Ed: I’m old enough to remember when pols openly bragged about sexual misconduct (e.g., the married pol Ed Edwards’s famous “I can’t lose this election unless I’m found with a live boy or a dead girl”). To Rebecca’s point, you can’t get from there to where we want to go without at some point refusing to let powerful men slide. If there were evidence that the whole case against Franken was fabricated, then of course that’s different. But I don’t think Mayer accomplished that.