Washington Whispers: Al Franken is No Andrew Cuomo
By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
The Me Too movement can add another notch to its belt. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo stepped down a week after a detailed investigation by New York’s attorney general’s office found that he sexually harassed at least 11 women. Cuomo announced his resignation on August 10, to become effective within 14 days.
Even while resigning, Cuomo defiantly protested that his behavior, while perhaps sometimes “too familiar,” had been used against him in a political world where “rashness has replaced reasonableness.”
While the sexual harassment case against Cuomo appears well supported by the evidence, I can’t help being reminded—by contrast—of Me Too’s earlier victim, Minnesota Senator Al Franken, who was forced to resign in December 2017 after charges of sexual misconduct. There, the rush to judgment was entirely rash, unreasoned, and unfair.
Now, Franken is reentering the public sphere. In September, he will begin a 15-city tour dubbed “The Only Former U.S. Senator Currently on Tour Tour.” Since Franken is about to resurface, we will soon have the opportunity, and I would argue the obligation, to reassess his case. Whether his tour represents a more substantial return to public political life for Franken is too early to tell. But that promising possibility warrants revisiting the Franken debacle, especially in light of the Cuomo findings.
Governor Cuomo was in a position of power over those he allegedly abused; and he received due process through an extensive investigation. The investigation determined that Cuomo had committed serious harassment of women working for him. This included: making suggestive remarks about their appearance and sex lives; kissing them; groping their breasts or buttocks; and running a hand across a female state trooper’s stomach from belly button to hip while she held a door open for him. It also included using suggestive questions and intimate comments in an attempt to manipulate a female aide who had previously been a survivor of sexual assault; and using his power to retaliate against his female deputy secretary for economic development and special advisor, who had made a public allegation of sexual harassment against him.
By contrast, the worst of Franken’s alleged actions would constitute a comedian’s silly tomfoolery. And Franken requested an official independent investigation—which his fellow Democratic senators refused to grant him. Furthermore, Franken was not in any kind of power-position related to his female accusers. They were free to tell him off or engage in some other form of self-help in response to any inappropriate behavior.
The Franken Accusations
In July 2019, The New Yorker published Jane Mayer’s superb article on the accusations against Al Franken, in which Mayer not only extensively interviewed the former senator, but comprehensively examined the facts surrounding the accusers’ allegations against him, exposing—Émile Zola-style—how lacking in merit they were.
The allegations of Franken’s main accuser, Leeann Tweeden, not raised until 2017, were built on distortions and fabrications, using the kinds of claims often legitimately raised by Me Too harassment victims.
Tweeden, a fellow volunteer in a 2006 USO tour, claimed Franken had written a skit with a kissing scene specifically in order to kiss her. She alleged he aggressively pestered her to practice, forcibly kissed her during a rehearsal, sticking his tongue in her mouth, and that she pushed him off with her hands. Tweeden claimed she didn’t report the alleged incident to military authorities because she felt powerless, but told others on the tour. However, she did not provide any names of those she claimed to have told.
Mayer spoke with eight participants in that 2006 USO tour, including Julie Dintleman, the military escort whose assignment was to accompany Tweeden at all times other than bedtime—which would include rehearsals. No one, including Dintleman, observed Tweeden being upset with Franken.
Furthermore, Franken wrote the skit in 2003, before he ever met Tweeden, and performed it on numerous other USO tours with other actresses. And Tweeden’s claim about Franken’s real life actions so closely paralleled the skit as to read like she was plagiarizing it.
Tweeden also produced a photo taken onboard a military plane while she was asleep. In the photo, Franken had his hands out as if he were going to grab her breasts. Tweeden professed outrage, claiming Franken did this to humiliate her.
But, the photo was a play upon a “breast exam” skit they had performed multiple times, including the day before, one of many farcical photos taken of Franken on the plane by a military photographer, and one of a group sent to everyone by the military—not just her—and not by Franken.
When I first saw the photo—long before I knew any of these details, it was obvious to me that Franken was being silly, mugging for the camera. His hands were not touching Tweeden’s person, but miming an approach to it. I could almost see his eyebrows going up and down as if he were Groucho Marx—satirizing the lecher, not the object of the lechery—a woman wearing a helmet, fatigues and a bullet-proof vest that prevented him from achieving his goal.
Most telling, in preparing to go public, Tweeden didn’t sit down with a lawyer. She sat down with representatives of the right-wing conservative KABC-AM radio station. They didn’t bother with even the most minimal fact-checking, and no one contacted Franken for a reaction before they posted her accusations. But, based on that post, Tweeden subsequently appeared for interviews with CNN’s Jake Tapper, and Fox’s Sean Hannity—with whom Tweeden was friends.
Fox had sued Franken in 2003 because he had attacked the network, Bill O’Reilly, and Sean Hannity in his book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. The network dropped the suit, but according to The New Yorker, when Andrea Mackris later sued O’Reilly for sexual harassment, he told her that if one crossed the Fox News Channel, the then-head of the network, Roger Ailes would destroy you from behind the scenes: “The person gets what’s coming to them but never sees it coming. Look at Al Franken, one day he’s going to get a knock on his door and life as he’s known it will change forever. That day will happen, trust me.”
According to extremist radio host Alex Jones, Trump’s right-wing operative, Roger Stone, told him before Tweeden went on Fox, “Get ready. Franken’s next.” Stone told Mayer that an executive at Fox had tipped him off.
That a victim is of an opposing political persuasion from the accused is no reason to ignore sexual harassment. But the involvement of political operatives with little regard for truth and an agenda to destroy their political opponent should have raised red flags.
After Tweeden, seven even more minor claims surfaced. Most were alleged to occur at crowded venues, posing for photographs. All but two were alleged to occur before Franken was elected to the Senate.
One woman claimed that when her husband took a photo of her with Franken at the 2010 Minnesota State Fair, Franken grabbed her bottom while posing.
One had asked Franken to pose with her at a 2009 inaugural party for President Obama and posted the photo on a website with the message, “Totally stoked…” She told Jane Mayer that though she’d been excited in the moment, she later felt upset because Franken had squeezed her waist.
Apparently, the turning point for Franken’s Democratic colleagues was a Politico article noting a former Senate staffer’s statement that in 2006, when Franken was still a comedian, he had made her uneasy by looking as if he planned to kiss her. She said she had accompanied her boss to a taping of Franken’s Air America show. After the senator left, Franken allegedly came at her to kiss her, and she ducked. She claimed Franken said it was his right as an entertainer.
Franken told Mayer that “was something I would never do or say.” He added, “Maybe it could have been 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.”
Mayer later asked the woman if she thought that Franken had been making a sexual advance or a clumsy thank-you gesture. She replied, “Is there a difference? If someone tries to do something to you unwanted?”
My answer to that question: There is a big difference between a sexual advance and a clumsy thank-you gesture. That failure to see or acknowledge the difference speaks to the myopic rigidity of some in the Me Too movement. And perhaps to some Senate Democrats as well.
The Democratic Caucus—Et Tu Brute?
The various allegations about Franken, even if correct, would be de minimis, nowhere near the same category as the misdeeds of Andrew Cuomo—or those of Brett Kavanaugh, Donald Trump, Matt Gaetz, or numerous Republicans who have committed extremely serious acts of sexual harassment and actual assault without them or their party paying any price for it—yet, anyway.
But New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, the Puritan, touts a “zero tolerance” policy for “sexual impropriety.” Let’s not deal in nuance. Let’s not even bother to investigate the facts. According to The New Yorker, within minutes after the Politico article was posted, Gillibrand’s Chief of Staff called Franken to inform him she was going to demand his resignation. Gillibrand then posted that demand on Facebook, writing, “Enough is enough. The women who have come forward are brave and I believe them.”
Gillibrand later told The New Yorker, “We had eight credible allegations, and they had been corroborated…by the press corps.” However, some of press—in particular those publishing Tweeden’s claims—had made no attempt to assess credibility. Nor did Gillibrand feel the need to bother speaking to any of the accusers to assess their credibility herself. Her view: “…the women who came forward felt it was sexual harassment. So it was.”
When women claim harassment, their allegations should be heard, taken seriously, and investigated, not dismissed. But in Gillibrand’s world, there is no objective truth or fact to be found. Denouncement alone is sufficient to send one’s career and reputation to the guillotine. Gillibrand would have made a terrific Robespierre if she’d lived during the French Revolution.
On December 1, 2017, soon after Gillibrand demanded that Franken resign, she and six other Democratic female senators–Kamala Harris, Claire McCaskill, Maisie Hirono, Patty Murray, Maggie Hassan, and Catherine Cortez Masto—met with Chuck Schumer to say that they were about to demand Franken’s resignation.
Despite the fact Franken had almost immediately asked for an investigation and hearing before the Senate Ethics Committee, and Chuck Schumer had initially endorsed that request, Schumer caved in to those demanding Franken’s ouster. Five days later, he gave Franken an ultimatum requiring him to announce his resignation by 5 pm. According to Schumer’s spokesperson, Schumer told Franken that if he didn’t resign, he could be censured and stripped of all committee assignments.
The Republicans never say die. Regardless of what malfeasance they commit, they will fight for their own to the bitter end. The Democrats, on the other hand, frequently seem to give up before their interests are even truly attacked. One must wonder how, with that approach, they ever obtain power or manage to keep it for any length of time. In this instance, at least 34 members of the Senate’s Democratic Caucus—spineless wonders all—jumped on Gillibrand’s wagon, demanding Franken’s resignation without permitting him any forum in which to defend himself.
After Franken was no longer in the Senate, numerous former colleagues expressed regrets. Patrick Leahy told The New Yorker that calling for the resignation without having all the facts was one of his biggest mistakes as a senator.
Tom Udall said he had second thoughts shortly after Franken stepped down, and that he “really believes in due process.” However, if Udall “really” believed in due process, he would have spoken up to afford it to Al Franken, not give his belief lip service once Franken was gone from the Senate.
Heitkamp acknowledged that her decision was “made in the heat of the moment without concern for exactly what this was.” Duckworth said “That due process didn’t happen isn’t good for our democracy.” Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley admitted, “I took the judgement of my peers rather than independently examining the circumstances. In my heart, I’ve not felt right about it.”
How kind of them to express their regrets after their damage has been done. How very disappointing to find that these particular senators are not the thoughtful and reasoned individuals I had considered them, but elected leaders who, at best, lack the courage of their convictions and, at worst, even before push came to shove, reacted like startled, unthinking sheep.
Franken in the Senate—Will He Run Again?
For three of the crucial Trump years, we were deprived of one of our most effective senators. Franken was one of the strongest supporters of a single-payer system for healthcare. Among his many accomplishments, he wrote an amendment to the Affordable Care Act that required insurance companies to spend at least 80 percent of premiums on healthcare costs.
He opposed privatizing Social Security or cutting benefits, advocated cutting subsidies to oil companies, and supported cutting interest rates on student loans.
Franken, along with Senators Hank Johnson and Patrick Leahy, introduced legislation to ban mandatory arbitration of sexual harassment claims. But ironically, worried that this legislation might be endangered by the harassment accusations against him, Franken gave it to Gillibrand to sponsor. She gave him no credit or acknowledgement.
On committees, Franken asked intelligent, incisive questions. And of course, he is well known for his very pointed questioning of Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions concerning the truthfulness of his testimony before the Senate.
Since being unceremoniously ousted from the Senate by his Democratic colleagues, Franken has continued his devotion to the progressive principles that drew him into politics, trying to further them from the sidelines. He uses interviews on his podcast to educate his listeners on a variety of public issues. He has been using the Midwest Values PAC he founded in 2005 to help elect Democrats in local and down-ballot races.
Prior to his nine years in the Senate, Franken had been a prominent author, actor, comedian, and host of a political radio show on Air America. Since leaving the Senate, he has edged back towards being a cultural personality. In 2020, in addition to his podcast, Franken began appearing on cable news, on the radio, and writing op-eds. He told The Daily Beast, “I want to have my voice heard so I can keep fighting for the things that I care about and the people I care about.”
I hope that Franken’s 15-city tour this fall is a step towards his running again for office. If his voice can again be heard in the Senate, our country will be the better for it.
Political columnist Jessie Seigel had a long career as a government attorney in which she honed her analytic skills. She has also twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the Washington, D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her fiction, and has been a finalist for a number of literary awards. In addition, Seigel is an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. Of this balance in her work between the analytic and the imaginative, Seigel jokes, “I guess my right and left brains are well-balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.