I’ve been reading loads of commentary on Jane Mayer’s big Al Franken article, and I’ve seen all kinds of points being made, some fair and some dubious. But I think the main point is obvious, and it’s this: Democrats did not only him but themselves and liberal values serious harm by forcing Franken out without him getting his due process, and this is all going to come back on them, and those values, and quite possibly the #MeToo movement, in ways we can’t really anticipate.
Let’s acknowledge that once the story broke, Franken (whom I’ve known since 2003) didn’t handle it well. As he said to Mayer, he was in shock. There’s been a lot of criticism of him along the lines that if he’d behaved differently during the controversy, shown more sincere contrition, maybe he could have saved his job. I doubt that, for reasons I’ll get into below. But fine, he could have handled it better.
Let’s also acknowledge that Chuck Schumer made an understandable, if ruthless, political calculation. It was as perfect a storm as has ever swelled around the head of a United States senator, probably. The Harvey Weinstein story was just a month old. Matters of sexual harassment were at a frenzy. Very few people were pausing to make distinctions between rape and groping. There was that special election in Alabama involving Roy Moore, and the press was saying that if the Democrats stuck by Franken, Republicans would nail them as hypocrites. Democratic congressman John Conyers had just been hit with sexual harassment allegations of a more serious nature than those facing Franken (Conyers used the power of his office and fired a female staffer who spurned his advances). This had members of the Congressional Black Caucus telling Democratic senators that if Conyers is going down, then Franken better be going down, too.
But here was the most important point of all. Minnesota had a Democratic governor. This governor would surely appoint a Democrat to replace Franken, so he could be cut loose. This had not been the case, for example, in New Jersey, where Senator Bob Menendez was under indictment. Menendez had been indicted on bribery charges. The judge in his proceeding declared a mistrial—incredibly, on the very same day (Nov. 16, 2017) that the photo appeared of Franken on that USO plane seeming to “fondle” (through a flak jacket) Leann Tweeden’s breasts.
Menendez emerged from the courtroom and declared triumphantly, “I'm going back to Washington to fight for the people of New Jersey.” He could be serenely confident that, despite the many allegations of shady dealings against him over the years, his Democratic colleagues would indeed welcome him back.
Why? Because New Jersey had a Republican governor, Chris Christie. There was never any way on Earth that the Democrats were going to let Menendez twist in the wind with Donald Trump’s buddy sitting there itching to appoint his successor.
But with Franken, there was a Democratic governor. If Minnesota had had a Republican governor, I guarantee you his caucus would not have treated him as they did, and he would still be senator. That’s the real “principle” that was at work here.
Besides—Menendez had his day in court. The allegations were brutal, but a jury couldn’t agree. That’s the way the system works.
But not for Franken. Now I’ve heard some people say, what do you mean, due process? He wasn’t in court, wasn’t accused of a crime.
No, he wasn’t. But he was a public servant. A mechanism exists for reviewing allegations against senators. It’s a very flawed one, maybe, but it’s the only one that exists. It’s a forum where a charged person has the opportunity to defend himself, which is one of the two or three absolutely bedrock principles of this country. He was surely entitled to his day in court, even if that court was a Senate Ethics Committee hearing.
The fact that he was a public servant reminds me of someone else that was entitled to have some say in how this was adjudicated: the people of Minnesota. They were his boss, not Schumer or Kirsten Gillibrand or his bandwagon-jumping colleagues. They had elected him to the Senate twice—very narrowly in 2008, and by 200,000 votes in 2014. And he was popular. Even after he announced in December that he would be resigning, Minnesotans were polled, and they wanted him to stay.
But the popularity isn’t as important as the votes. That’s another of the two or three bedrock principles of this country. The voters decide; votes confer legitimacy. This wasn’t like Charlie Rose or Mark Halperin. They worked for private employers who had the right to do with them as they pleased. Franken worked for the people of Minnesota, whose voices were completely silenced.
What about the women? Well, Mayer demonstrated conclusively that Tweeden, whose account started the ball rolling, is a liar. The others were different cases. But they too would have had their day in court, instead of waiting for a reporter to really look into their claims, which there was precious little time to do before Franken was pushed out on the basis of them.
Yes, such decks are often stacked in favor of the men, the senators. But not always. Republican Bob Packwood was forced to resign from the Senate in 1995 after the Senate Ethics Committee handed down a blistering report that offered mountains of evidence about his sexual misconduct (darkly humorous historical footnote: chairing the ethics panel at the time was a fellow Republican of Packwood’s named McConnell). So it’s not impossible that an ethics probe would have found that Franken did commit offenses unworthy of a senator.
But we’ll never know. And no, he couldn’t have toughed it out. Schumer was threatening him with no committee work, and anyway, being in the Senate isn’t like being, say, the lieutenant governor of Virginia, who has issued blanket denials on the far worse claims made against him. The Senate functions (to the extent that it functions these days) on collegiality, and when 36 of your colleagues have called for your head, it’s hard to get back on good terms.
What the way this episode was handled is going to do, in the end, is tell more men that they can’t behave like Franken, who expressed some degree of remorse (not enough for most people) and called for a full investigation of himself. Instead, they’ll decide, I’d better behave like Justin Fairfax (said lieutenant governor). Or: I’d better behave like Trump. Deny everything up and down, call the women liars, or worse. What cause is that going to advance?
Al Franken isn’t a senator now, resigning before he could be pushed out by his fellow Democrats, which his friend Norm Ornstein told Mayer was “no more a choice than jumping after they make you walk the plank.”
It’s crushing for Franken, but the world still turns, poets still write verse, and so on. It was still distasteful to see Democrats defenestrate the core principle of due process for one of their own in that way, especially with the knowledge that they’d have behaved differently if Minnesota had a different governor.
And when some unprincipled right-winger comes after one of them someday with unvetted charges and they start screaming “but due process!”, I’ll be among those reminding them where their troubles started.