Woman accused Al Franken of forcing tongue into her mouth. A photo appears to show him "jokingly" groping her breasts as she sleeps
Errol Louis: Franken's (second) apology is decent model of how to advance national discussion about ending abuses we should have been talking about long ago
Editor’s Note: Errol Louis is the host of “Inside City Hall,” a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
Add liberal Democratic Sen. Al Franken to the long and growing list of prominent men (yes, it’s all men) who turn out to have abused their power by engaging in sleazy, self-indulgent misconduct. A credible, infuriating account by radio news anchor Leeann Tweeden describes Franken allegedly forcibly kissing Tweeden against her will in 2006 while rehearsing for a USO overseas tour to entertain troops in the Middle East.
It’s tempting – but pointless – to try and score political points from the revelation. Franken’s new scandal does nothing to relieve the plight of ultra-conservative Senate candidate Roy Moore or the daily deluge of damaging stories about his alleged past conduct with teenage schoolgirls. (He denies the allegations.)
Just as conservatives can’t save Moore by pointing a hysterical finger at Franken, political progressives and entertainment industry defenders should not waste their time attempting to explain or excuse Franken’s outrageous conduct.
No serious person thinks sexual assault or harassment is the exclusive province of liberals or conservatives. This is bigger than politics.
America finds itself at a cultural turning point, long overdue, in how we perceive, describe and adjudicate sexualized attacks by powerful men. From Hollywood to Capitol Hill and from Silicon Valley to Gadsden, Alabama, women are calling out the men who have demeaned and abused them.
The list of men who have quit or been removed from prominent positions since early October includes producers Harvey Weinstein and Brett Ratner; actors Andy Dick and Kevin Spacey; comedian Louis C.K.; journalists Mark Halperin and Michael Oreskes; and Jeff Hoover, now former speaker of the House in Kentucky.
Now comes the case of comedian-turned-politician Al Franken. The events described by Tweeden took place in 2006, shortly before the 2008 election in which Franken defeated incumbent Sen. Norm Coleman.
While practicing a skit that called for a kiss, writes Tweeden, Franken “came at me, put his hand on the back of my head, mashed his lips against mine and aggressively stuck his tongue in my mouth.” In addition to forcing himself on Tweeden, Franken arranged to have someone snap a photo of him later groping her breasts while she slept, exhausted from their trip.
Tweeden, like so many women before her, bottled her anger and avoided her harasser. She wrote:
“Not long after, I performed the skit as written, carefully turning my head so he couldn’t kiss me on the lips.
“No one saw what happened backstage. I didn’t tell the Sergeant Major of the Army, who was the sponsor of the tour. I didn’t tell our USO rep what happened.
“At the time I didn’t want to cause trouble. We were in the middle of a war zone, it was the first show of our Holiday tour, I was a professional, and I could take care of myself. I told a few of the others on the tour what Franken had done and they knew how I felt about it.
“I tried to let it go, but I was angry.
“Other than our dialogue on stage, I never had a voluntary conversation with Al Franken again. I avoided him as much as possible and made sure I was never alone with him again for the rest of the tour.”
In response to her account, Franken started by issuing a weak, two-sentence semi-apology: “I certainly don’t remember the rehearsal for the skit in the same way, but I send my sincerest apologies to Leeann. As to the photo, it was clearly intended to be funny but wasn’t. I shouldn’t have done it.”
Such an “apology” doesn’t fly. A true apology explicitly acknowledges what was done, explains why it was wrong, expresses remorse and includes a promise not to repeat the harm.
A few hours later, Franken put out a fuller, true apology that included these words:
“I don’t know what was in my head when I took that picture, and it doesn’t matter. There’s no excuse. I look at it now and I feel disgusted with myself. It isn’t funny. It’s completely inappropriate. It’s obvious how Leeann would feel violated by that picture. And, what’s more, I can see how millions of other women would feel violated by it – women who have had similar experiences in their own lives, women who fear having those experiences, women who look up to me, women who have counted on me.
“Coming from the world of comedy, I’ve told and written a lot of jokes that I once thought were funny but later came to realize were just plain offensive. But the intentions behind my actions aren’t the point at all. It’s the impact these jokes had on others that matters. And I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to come to terms with that.”
That’s a real apology. And Franken invited further scrutiny: “I am asking that an ethics investigation be undertaken, and I will gladly cooperate.”
That is a bold action, since it opens the door to investigation by a Senate committee, composed of three Democrats and three Republicans, that is empowered to investigate a broad range of Franken’s personal conduct and financial records.
If Franken’s scandal follows the by now familiar pattern in which additional women come forward with similar stories, the committee could end up as a source of deep embarrassment, or worse. In the 1990s, the Ethics Committee, tasked with investigating allegations of sexual misconduct by Republican Sen. Bob Packwood, ended up considering allegations from more than a dozen women, and ended up in a lengthy legal fight to get access to Packwood’s personal diaries.
In the end, the committee subpoenaed thousands of pages of his musings before recommending his expulsion from the Senate. Packwood resigned shortly after the vote.
We don’t know what additional claims or evidence– if any – against Franken will appear, but until something additional surfaces, calls for Franken to resign are premature. Just as Moore’s political fate will ultimately be decided by Alabama voters, it will most likely be Minnesota voters – with or without formal ethics findings – who settle accounts with Franken at the voting booth if he seeks a third term next year.
That is as it should be. The will of the voters should prevail until and unless a criminal or civil lawsuit places the case into a court of law.
As the process unfolds, the senator’s second apology stands as a model of how to keep his career afloat while helping to advance the national discussion about ending abuses we should have been talking about long ago.