I watched Al Franken’s resignation speech on Thursday. It was broadcast live on local news here in Saint Paul. My wife watched the last half of it with me. Like me, she’d been an ardent Franken supporter before he was accused repeatedly of sexual misconduct. The speech seemed sincere, and Franken appeared to be fighting back tears through most of it. He did not admit to abusive sexual behavior, yet he affirmed how all such accusations must be taken seriously.
When his speech ended, my wife said, “At least he didn’t make his wife stand behind him.” And this is true. By announcing live on the Senate floor, Franken avoided using her as a prop, the way so many politicians do at press conferences when pleading innocent to similar charges. (Frannie Franklin was in the gallery, along with the Senator’s soon-to-be-unemployed staff.)
The contradiction was jarring. Here is someone who obviously respects his wife enough not to make her publicly bear his disgrace. And yet his disgrace centered around accounts of demeaning women. Franken’s political service itself remains a contradiction. He was a great Senator for Minnesota, and a good one for America. Yet his personal failings resulted in our losing a key progressive voice, who could work easily with both wings of the Democratic Party, right when such figures are needed the most. His fall almost feels like an abandonment — even if it was deserved.
Did Franken Deserve It?
In his speech, Al Franken pointed out the irony of his resignation when Republicans are backing politicians accused of far worse — one of whom was caught on tape bragging about sexual assault. Feminist writers such as Dahlia Lithwick and Ramona Grigg have defended him to some degree. They have argued that, given such a vast degree of difference between the criminality involved in these accusations, Franken’s resignation represents a gift to the forces of evil.
Make no mistake, Franken’s ouster is the GOP’s gain. There are several highly principled and intelligent individuals Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton can appoint to fill Franken’s seat. (My favorite is apparently not on Dayton’s shortlist.) Yet none would be able to match Franken’s legislative influence. (That’s particularly so as the appointment will only last until next November when a special election will be held.)
However, those accusations — if true — indicate a kind of behavior that cannot be tolerated in any workplace.
Was Franken Guilty?
This is, of course, the pertinent question. The opinions of people in Minnesota are varied. Some believe it’s all slander. Others believe he’s probably gotten away with worse. My opinion is, “I don’t know what happened.”
Eyewitness testimony is, as we know, an unreliable form of evidence. Human memory isn’t that good. And that’s just the beginning. It’s entirely possible that Franken’s alleged groping behavior at photo shoots was accidental. It’s harder to believe the instances of forced kissing were accidents.
The Guardian quoted Larry Jacobs, a University of Minnesota political scientist. He said, “I didn’t know of any of these accusations but he’s a very self-confident person who thinks of himself as special. With some of the accusations you see that: what he felt was being goofy or having his way was clearly unacceptable.”
Self-Confidence or Harassment?
I could see that being the case. Al Franken, after all, got away with books titled Rush Limbaugh Is A Big Fat Idiot and his anti-Fox News Lies And The Lying Liars Who Tell Them. Those titles were meant to be provocative, and they were. (Unlike similarly-provocative titles “written” by right-wingers, Franken used fact-checkers.) Also, Franken spent years working at Saturday Night Live, described as having a backstage environment where “everyone hates everyone else and is jealous of everyone’s success.”
Where Franken Came From
If you can thrive in the vicious worlds of political polemics and a Lorne Michaels program, you may very well become accustomed to getting away with Alpha behavior that less competitive people rarely display. I’ve had jobs where I was extremely valuable, and I knew it. At that time, I got into heated arguments about how correct my plans were. I cringe now to remember this behavior. I’d hopefully never talk to a colleague like that today.
But no matter the degree of gray areas in accusations against Franken, I believe it was time for him to go.
The Perils Of A Persona
Some politicians (LBJ, any mayor of Chicago) present themselves as tough guys who “know the game.” Consummate insiders. They don’t expect voters to approve of them personally. Instead, they promise to deliver policies the voters want enacted. And they remind us about how the sausage gets made.
That was not Al Franken’s style.
He claims to have had no interest in politics before the death of (still beloved) Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone in a plane crash in 2002. Franken said he was particularly incensed by Wellstone’s successor, Norm Coleman, a career opportunist who told one reporter “I am a 99 percent improvement over Paul Wellstone.” He said it while waving a cigar — the very picture of DC corruption.
Al Franken’s Rise
Franken beat Coleman by a handful of votes. But he took office and established a reputation as one of the hardest working, most dedicated liberals in Congress. He frequently toured every last corner of Minnesota, holding town halls even in non-election years. He made nice with local Democratic Party insiders who’d tried their hardest to defeat his primary nomination. When in Washington, Franken would post, on his website, hours where he’d be having coffee in publicly-accessible Senate spaces. If you were in town, you were welcome to join him.
Al Franken’s image was one of absolute political integrity. He was in office, not for power, not to secure some board membership once he’d delivered favors to donors, but to serve his constituents. He was re-elected by a far larger margin. Even some conservative Minnesotans who disagreed with his politics believed in his sincerity.
And so, once the sexual accusations began to accumulate, Franken’s shine was tarnished. (His first, most famous accuser originally said she forgave him; had that been the only instance, he wouldn’t be stepping down.) Even if his statements about “I remember the incident differently” were 100% honest, they sounded exactly like what any other politician would say. Al Franken wasn’t supposed to be like any other politician; he was supposed to be something different.
Come Back, Shane
I bought it. And I’d enjoyed Franken ever since his days on the old Bill Maher program Politically Incorrect. (You remember: back when Maher was willing to let his guests do most of the talking.) I’d heard his radio show; I’d read his books. And Norm Coleman was (And still is!) human slime — your typical ex-liberal who switched sides when it became convenient. He ran one ad which featured an honest-to-God cancer kid; it would have made Elvis Costello sick.
A Personal Recollection of Franken
At the time of Franken’s first campaign, I was working at a residential facility for adults with disabilities. We took all of them to the State Fair, as every Minnesotan except me loves the State Fair. We went very, very early in the morning — 6:00 am! — because the crowds are thinner that early, and pushing wheelchairs is difficult in a big crowd.
At one point, we ran into Franken. We were taking a break — it was still early, but we needed coffee — and I spotted Franken similarly caffeine-ing up a few feet away with his wife. I walked over; he looked exhausted. “Hi, I’m sorry to bug you,” I said, “but this guy I know over there is a big politics junkie, and if you could just take a picture…”
Now, that individual isn’t just a politics junkie (which he is, he’ll watch city council meetings on public-access cable), but one of the most outgoing souls I’ve ever known. Half the time he looks like he’s about to die of pure old age right there in his wheelchair. Then he meets someone he’s happy to see, and his whole face glows with joy.
Al Franken came over, got the Joy Face at full strength, and you could see Franken’s spirits lift. A corncob tasting at some unholy hour on a Sunday morning, that’s the drag of campaigning, but the good moments — they’re worth it.
The picture of them together still hangs in that person’s room. When frustration or physical pain or low pay was getting me down at work, sometimes I’d go look at that picture, and remember one time when my feeble efforts helped make someone very happy.
And now that memory is partially ruined.
As is the memory of how much my wife enjoyed listening to Franken’s last book, Giant Of The Senate on CD. She particularly liked Franken talking about how, in that 2008 campaign, his adult children asked him if the opposition would dig anything up they needed to know — and Franken said no, their family was safe from that shame.
The day after my wife finished that book, the first accusations came out. Her response was very angry and straightforward, “He lied to his family.”
The Scum Also Rises
So, quite likely through faults of his own, Al Franken is gone. While worse certainly remain, and worse certainly served a full career without any accountability for their darkest behavior.
In 1995, I was living in Oregon, during the forced resignation of senator Bob “The Tongue” Packwood. (He not only was accused of worse than Franken, he kept a diary about it.) A GOP congressman who pressured Packwood to resign later said, “we had a choice: Retain the Senate seat or retain our honor. We chose honor, and never looked back.” That was Mitch McConnell, current Senate majority leader and apologist for Donald Trump and Roy Moore. Honor, indeed.
Our old friend, Norm Coleman? He’s doing great! He became a lobbyist, naturally, serving all kinds of wonderful clients, including a stint pimping for Saudi Arabia. Now he’s chairman of a Israeli lobbying group (show me the money, honey!) which shared on their website Coleman’s bliss over Trump announcing that America would no longer recognize Palestinian claims on Jerusalem as a historic capital. “No more false news,” Coleman was quoted. (Lord, he can’t even get his dogwhistle catchphrases right.)
This group, the Republican Jewish Coalition, is funded by scumbucket Vegas casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson. They threw an exclusive gala at the Trump International Hotel in DC Thursday night. What a glorious day for Coleman; knowing how lushly he’s been rewarded for stooping so low, and how disgraced his old opponent was, who tried to behave with such dignity.
Aspirations Aren’t Enough
The man aspiring to good ruined, perhaps deservedly so. The man wallowing in evil triumphant, and certainly not deservedly so. I’ve always liked to believe this recurrent American story would someday change. But I am considerably less hopeful about the possibility than when I used to look at that smiling Al Franken State Fair picture.