With the resignation of Sen. Al Franken, I asked women on Capitol Hill if he should pay a lesser price than the one that Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, Mark Halperin, and Matt Lauer paid. Or does Franken, for all his boorish behavior, fall closer to George H.W. Bush, aka David “Cop-a-Feel,” than to those who summoned underlings to their lair under the guise of meeting about work but actually to expose and, in some cases, force themselves upon them? Would it be fairer to let this play out before the ethics committee, now on notice that their job isn’t to let folks off the hook? Should the voters of Minnesota decide?
The answer was no to all. In light of the horror show that’s been going on for years, women were willing to banish Franken first and ask questions later. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand spoke first: “When you have to start having to talk about the differences between sexual assault and sexual harassment and unwanted groping, you are having the wrong conversation. We need to draw a line in the sand and say none of this is OK, none of this is acceptable.”
Gillibrand is right that none of it is OK but she is not right when she says we are having the wrong conversation if we attempt to make distinctions among bad actors. For now, Democrats think zero tolerance and swift punishment gives them the high ground. But they already have that. They should know by now there is no shaming Republicans who are so far below sea level it’s a miracle they can be heard from down there.
They are supporting a president whom 16 women have credibly accused of serious sexual misconduct and is on tape celebrating his culpable behavior. Then there’s the pedophile they have endorsed for a Senate seat in Alabama, complete with financial support, despite most Republicans, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, saying they believe Moore’s accusers. Where did those two Republicans get off joining Democrats in calling for Franken to resign?
Some women are urging caution, a pause before rushing to judgment—not full due process but at least not painting everyone with the same brush. Sheryl Sandberg is warning of a backlash. Already, more senators are adopting the Pence Rule—never be alone with a woman not your wife. Sen. John Thune, a Republican, won’t take a meeting with a woman after 8 p.m.
These are heady times with women at last being heard. New power is fragile. But mix the #MeToo movement and politics and you get a more complicated brew than you do with network anchors. Republicans are already calling out Democrats for ulterior motives. Democrats want to stop the congressional Black Caucus from claiming that John Conyers was dealt with more harshly than Al Franken.
And they get to lord it over Republicans with no political cost. Sacrificing Franken didn’t mean losing a seat given that a Democratic governor of Minnesota will appoint a caretaker to it, probably the female lieutenant governor. They don’t see the glee of Republicans planning to take the seat away from them in a special election down the road.
Thursday afternoon Franken was unapologetic, denied most of the seven accusations against him, and regretted he didn’t get his day before the ethics committee. Forcing him out was a hard call for many. Franken is among the most popular members—smart but not arrogant, smart but still hardworking (see his questioning of Attorney General Jeff Sessions), funny but aware that humor better watch its step in Washington.
As bad as the inappropriate touching during photo ops and Wednesday’s charge of a foiled attempt at a kiss at the end of Franken’s radio show (which Franken denies), it didn’t take place in the Senate and doesn’t approach the case of Conyers, who pressured more than one aide for sex, paying one $27,000 out of office funds to keep quiet. Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold repeatedly pressured communications director Lauren Greene to have sex, and paid her $84,000 out of a secret U.S. Treasury fund authorized by Congress to make trouble go away. Farenthold still has his seat. Greene has never been able to work in this town again. She babysits for extra money.
And there are questions about the charge that got the ball rolling. Why did Trump adviser Roger Stone know well ahead of time that Playboy model and radio host Leeann Tweeden would be going public with her charges that Franken kissed her against her will in rehearsals for an X-rated USO tour skit (they are all X-rated) and that she had a 2006 photo of Franken groping, or pretending to grope, her chest over a flak jacket as she slept? Stone sent a heads up to conservative website The Daily Caller about it hours before a story in The Washington Post.
There is also value in finding out if any of Franken’s accusers told someone in real time about the conduct, as victims usually do, and if they happened in the work setting or were a professional power play. The answers may not absolve Franken but there is an ethics committee in place where the questions could have been asked.
Making distinctions can only strengthen the movement. Establish standards and apply a finer gauge. Turn up the pressure on Congress to clean up its dirty little secrets. Abolish the internal Office of Compliance where everyone is on the take. Strengthen the ethics committee by bringing outsiders on board. Hear every accusation in a setting where there can be justice for both sides. No more NDAs. No more payouts.
But yes, a conversation. Gillibrand and other women are now strong enough to have it.