A woman just accused the Minnesota senator of sexual misconduct. If he's really an advocate for women's rights, he should step down.
Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
On Thursday, KABC anchor Leeann Tweeden came forward with an accusation that Minnesota senator Al Franken kissed her and groped her without her consent in 2006, while they were on a USO tour. She included a photograph of Franken—who was then just a liberal comedian but has become a Democratic senator and theoretical 2020 presidential candidate—fondling her while she was asleep.
Condemnation on social media was swift and aggressive, as it should have been. Hearing a story like Tweeden's is one thing, but the photo showing Franken's shit-eating grin while he "jokingly" touches her breasts is damning:
Tweeden, who has worked as a sports broadcaster and model, explained in a blog post that Franken had written a skit to entertain the troops, which in his script required the two of them to kiss:
He repeated that actors really need to rehearse everything and that we must practice the kiss. I said ‘OK’ so he would stop badgering me. We did the line leading up to the kiss and then he 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... I felt disgusted and violated.
These allegations are hard for liberal supporters of Franken to hear. In his professional life, he has been an outspoken advocate of women's rights. After the Harvey Weinstein allegations came to light in October, Franken announced he was working to pass the Arbitration Fairness Act, which would reform laws that "prevent people who experience workplace harassment from going to court." He's consistently supported women's reproductive health rights, and in April, he reintroduced the Paycheck Fairness Act in an effort to help close the gender wage gap.
Franken became famous as a writer and performer on Saturday Night Live, and transitioned into being a politician after writing several books that attacked the right, including Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot. In 2008, when he was running his first Senate campaign in Minnesota, he had to deal with a controversy over his more risque material and past, including rape jokes he made in the SNL writers' room. He barely squeaked by in that election, winning by just 300 votes, but has since become popular on the left for the way he can dissect right-wing arguments. This was on display earlier this year when he grilled Neil Gorsuch on the judge's siding with a company that fired a trucker for not staying with his vehicle in subzero weather. (Gorsuch, of course, was confirmed to the Supreme Court anyway.)
Franken's press office emailed me the statement he has also sent to other reporters: “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.”
The question for Democrats is, is that good enough? I don't think it is. Franken should resign.
In the past week, writers on the left have grappled with Bill Clinton's legacy—not his political legacy, but the accusations that he preyed on women and raped Juanita Broaddrick. In the 90s, when Republicans were trying to bring him down, Democrats, including many feminists, made him out to be the victim of a witch hunt. But with Hillary Clinton's electoral career apparently over, liberals are admitting, however belatedly, that the allegations against him should have taken seriously. At minimum he was a powerful man who abused that power, and he was quite possibly much worse than that. At Vox, Matt Yglesias declared that Clinton should have resigned as president. "The party was on the wrong side of history," wrote Caitlin Flanagan in the Atlantic.
It's not just writers at liberal publications thinking about this: A new HuffPost poll showed that 53 percent of Hillary Clinton voters believe the sexual assault and harassment allegations against her husband, while another 36 percent are unsure.
Before today, I admired Franken. I agree with him on policy. But it doesn't matter. Politicians should be held to a high moral standard. The same judgments we are making retroactively to Clinton should also apply to Franken.
If Franken practices his politics in his personal life, and genuinely believes in punishing men for their sexual misconduct, he needs to resign. It might have socially permissible to grope women in a way that was "clearly intended to be funny" back in 2006, but now it's 2017, and we've finally realized as a culture that it is unacceptable to sexually assault or harass women.
It should be an easy decision for him. After all, it won't even affect his party's standing in the Senate—the Minnesota governor, a Democrat can appoint another Democrat to take his place. (Minnesota congressman Keith Ellison, maybe?) But it would send a strong message to the women across the country if he resigned—that the men of the Democratic Party are finally taking the harassment women have silently endured for centuries seriously, and that things might be different in the future.
Update: Shortly after this article was published Franken released a longer statement. Of the photo, he said, "I look at it now and I feel disgusted with myself." He also requested that an ethics investigation begin, with which he would "gladly cooperate."
Follow Eve Peyser on Twitter.