The Smearing of Al Franken
The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer kicked up quite a dust storm last week with her piece detailing the sound and fury surrounding Minnesota Senator Al Franken’s 2017 resignation. Franken left the Senate in disgrace after numerous women accused him of sexual misconduct, and hardly anyone seemed interested in what really happened, or didn’t happen, during those encounters. Mayer said after her piece ran that Franken was “railroaded,” and tweeted, “Almost NOTHING His Main accuser Said checks out.”
The sisterhood went wild with indignation. They couldn’t fathom why Mayer, of all people, would write such an article. After all, anyone familiar with her work knows that she always has an ax to grind, and it’s an anti-conservative ax. She’s also been at the forefront of the #MeToo investigations. Why would such a writer now take on that movement? (Disclosure: Mayer and I were colleagues in The Wall Street Journal Washington bureau in the 1980s and were partners for a time on the White House beat.)
Amanda Marcotte, writing in Salon, called Mayer’s piece “a truly baffling move” and “a frankly hackish piece defending Franken and giving ammunition to a year and a half of bad-faith arguments coming from his defenders who really ought to know better.” Christina Cauterucci, in Slate, writes, “Nothing that Mayer debunks gets to the heart of why Franken resigned, or even really speaks to detractors’ interpretation of his behavior.”
On the other side of the spectrum, Fox News’s Jesse Watters dismissed Mayer’s article as a “puff piece” by “an advocate for the Democrats” bent on rehabilitating Franken’s career. And it is true that Franken’s most aggressive accuser, Leeann Tweeden, is a conservative and Sean Hannity pal who works for a pro-Trump radio station in Los Angeles. Such figures are generally the types who find themselves in Mayer’s sights.
But Mayer’s 12,000-word piece, titled “The Case of Al Franken,” is a remarkable work of journalism and deserves close scrutiny by anyone who cares about standards of proof and fair play in matters involving real or alleged sexual abuse. After all, in modern times, as Mayer points out, only three senators had been forced to resign their seats before Franken. And the “cascading” wave of opprobrium that descended upon him, as Franken described it, rendered any defense all but impossible.
Indeed, Mayer found seven senators (six Democrats and an Independent) who had called for Franken’s resignation during the 2017 frenzy but who later expressed regret over their rush to judgment.
The most disturbing part of the piece concerns the now-famous 2006 photo that began Franken’s decline 11 years later. It was taken when Franken and Tweeden were costars on a USO tour to entertain American troops overseas. She is seen sleeping in a cargo plane used to transport tour celebrities, while Franken mischievously pretends to fondle her breasts as he leers at the camera. Mayer calls this a “lecherous pantomime,” and notes that Tweeden is wearing fatigues, a military helmet, and a bulletproof vest. Tweeden says the photo was designed to humiliate her after she spurned Franken’s earlier efforts to maneuver her into situations where he could kiss her and grab her inappropriately. Even Cauterucci, the Slate writer, concedes that “Mayer’s fact-checking does poke plenty of holes in” Tweeden’s story (though that doesn’t deter her from her attack on Mayer).
Tweeden said that Franken told her he had engineered a kiss between them specifically by including one in a skit they would perform together. She said that, despite her protestations, he insisted on rehearsals so there would be more kisses. She said he maneuvered her into a private area for the rehearsal, then kissed her aggressively, grabbing the back of her head and sticking his tongue in her mouth. She said after that she never let him get close to her face when the skits were performed. She said she revealed her distress to others on the tour. She said the offending photo, taken on December 24 at the end of the tour, was sent afterwards to her alone as a way of humiliation.
Much of this seems to be untrue.
Franken had written the skit years earlier and had performed it with two other women on previous tours—both of whom said he conducted himself professionally. Mayer interviewed eight participants on the tour, none of whom saw any evidence that Tweeden was distraught. She talked with Julie Dintleman, the military escort assigned to Tweeden, who said her job was to be with the model at all times to ensure there were no untoward antics or incidents, and she never saw any misbehavior by Franken. Mayer established that the photo in question had been sent to numerous tour participants, not just to Tweeden. She also established that it was taken on December 21 and that subsequent images showed that Tweeden had performed the kiss scene according to script during subsequent skits. Mayer could locate no one to whom Tweeden had confided any anguish over Franken’s behavior during the tour.
A bizarre aspect of the story concerns the skit itself, which sought to generate laughs from overseas military troops by showing in jest essentially what Tweeden accused Franken of doing. The script, silly but apparently funny to GIs far from home, has a military officer conducting an audition with a beautiful young woman who is reading a script–essentially a script within the script. She eventually reaches a line, “Now kiss me.” Whereupon the officer plants a passionate kiss on the shocked women, who complains, “You just wrote this so that you could kiss me.” Franken’s character replies, “Yeah.” Later in the script, after a soldier is brought on stage, he reads: “Now kiss me.” And Tweeden, according to script, gives him what the stage direction calls “a long deep kiss.” As Mayer writes, “In video footage she seems to be gamely playing the part, setting off hoots and hollers from the crowd.”
Subsequently, the script calls for Franken, playing a lascivious doctor who believes in the efficacy of breast exams, to approach Tweeden with arms outstretched and hands in fondle mode. She protests, “Al! At ease!” He turns to the audience with an erotic grin and says, “I’m afraid it’s a little too late for that.”
I recount all this ribald nonsense merely to convey the context of the allegations. Now it must be stipulated unequivocally that the atmosphere of the tour didn’t give anyone license to overstep the bounds of propriety in dealing with the opposite sex. Nor did any female participant cede her right to be inviolable in her person. But it’s at least intriguing that Tweeden would employ the precise words of the skit in lodging her complaint against Franken. And Franken, it seems, was reprising another part of the skit in his foolish pose in the photo: this may not be exculpatory but it is at least explanatory.
More to the point, there are sufficient inconsistencies in Tweeden’s allegation to at least raise doubts as to whether it’s credible enough to justify the political destruction of a United States senator.
But then came the rush—seven other women who alleged misconduct by Franken. Here the question gets sticky. Often the emergence of a pattern can seriously bolster an initial allegation. And this convergence certainly is what did Franken in.
But each must be assessed on its own merits. What do we make of the woman who stood with Franken at a photo shoot, put her arms around his shoulder, then posted the image on the web with the words, “Totally stoked. So suck it”—and then accused Franken of inappropriately holding his hand on her waist during the picture taking? “It wasn’t violent rape,” she said, apparently trying to make a fine distinction. “But it was, like, ‘Ick.’” She explained her feelings in part by noting that she had put on weight at the time and was particularly sensitive to anyone’s hand on her waist.
Or what to make of the woman who felt certain that Franken was about to give her a “wet, open-mouthed kiss,” so she ducked out of position? Nevertheless, she said, “I felt demeaned.” It was on the stage of a local Vermont theater, with 750 people in the audience, yet this person—insisting on anonymity—said nobody noticed the encounter. Except one local reporter said she did see it, and it appeared to be an awkward effort on Franken’s part to administer a “thank you” kiss. Unfortunate, to be sure, but a firing offense? When this anonymous person sought to get the Boston Globe to report on her experience, the paper deemed the story “too weak,” as Mayer puts it.
These particular stories are difficult to take seriously. Still, others are not so easily discounted, such as the woman who said that during a photo shoot, Franken had his hand “wrapped tightly around my butt cheek.”
The question, though, is whether what we know definitively of Franken’s conduct is sufficiently egregious to justify hounding him out of the Senate. Clearly, Mayer thinks the answer is no. And she’s right. When we add up what we know for sure, discounting the incidents that don’t really rise to firing offenses and taking into account Tweeden’s credibility challenge and the “goofing around” culture of the USO tour, the conclusion is inescapable that Franken’s fate was a miscarriage of democracy.
And it was a miscarriage in large measure because he was forced out by the Washington power complex and not his own constituents. After 36 senators demanded his resignation, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer told him to call it quits by five that afternoon or he could be censured by his Democratic colleagues and stripped of his committee assignments.
But what about the people of Minnesota? Should they have had a say in the outcome? Did Washington’s Democratic establishment, bent on eliminating this embarrassment as it pursued the exploitation of sexual abuses by Republicans, even care what Minnesotans thought?
At the height of his personal and political crisis, Franken should have addressed his home state. He should have said something like this:
Ladies and gentlemen of Minnesota, my party in Washington wants me to resign and to sever my ties with all of you, who have voted in our democratic system to retain me as your representative in the U.S. Senate until January 2021. Some 36 of my colleagues have demanded my resignation based on allegations that I don’t think rise to the magnitude of such an action, either in terms of veracity or in terms of seriousness. No doubt I have done some things wrong, and I apologize for any and all hurt I may have caused by my actions through the years. And I pledge to you that I will work assiduously to correct any such bad behavior in the future, irrespective of my fate as your senator. But I’m not going to let either my colleagues or the Washington establishment determine my relationship with the people of Minnesota. If you want me to go, I’m sure you will find a way to convey that to me in unmistakable terms in the next days and weeks. And I will respond. If, on the other hand, you agree with me that my resignation would not be justified by the facts in hand, then I’m sure you will let me know that as well. Either way, I consider the bond between myself and you to be politically sacred, and I will bow to your wishes, as I have tried to do over the past nine years. Thank you and good night.
Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington journalist and publishing executive, is the author most recently of President McKinley: Architect of the American Century.