Al Franken and the #MeToo Cautionary Tale

By Kaitlin Konecke

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Al Franken

And the #MeToo Cautionary Tale

(Photograph by Geordie Wood for The New Yorker)

In December of 2017, when Al Franken resigned from the Senate amidst allegations of sexual misconduct, I wrote a rather scathing article condemning him that could be summed up in two words, “Boy, bye.” But in light of the recent reporting by journalist Jane Mayer, it is only right and only fair that I write a follow-up piece, to retract my vitriol and examine the story through a new lens.

In late 2017, Al Franken was accused by conservative talk-radio host Leeann Tweeden, of forcing an unwanted kiss on her during a 2006 U.S.O. tour. She claimed that Franken pursued her, and when she rejected his advances, he was angry and set out to humiliate and punish her for rebuking him. She compared Franken to serial rapist, Harvey Weinstein, which is a massive allegation. Following this accusation, seven additional women came forward with their stories of unwanted touching and kissing from Franken. 

The most damning part of the story, perhaps, was a photograph from that 2006 tour showing Franken turned towards the camera, grinning, with his hands outstretched towards the breasts of a sleeping Tweeden, as though he were about to grope her. For me, that was it. That photograph is disgusting and I wanted to watch his career crumble, because here was a man making a sexual joke of a woman without her consent.

Very quickly, Franken was pressured by fellow Democrats to resign his seat on the Senate, which he ultimately did. I applauded, because finally justice was served. But was it? Jane Mayer’s reporting on this story suggests otherwise. 

Jane Mayer’s piece in The New Yorker, The Case of Al Franken, is a thorough, detailed, and essential piece of journalism that should be read by all. And her recent interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air is an important listen as well. I urge everyone to read the article and listen to the interview. When I did, my jaw dropped. For the purposes of this piece, here is a very brief summation of Mayer’s article:

Tweeden’s story had a lot of holes. Her claim that Franken wrote a sketch in which he forcibly kisses her for the sole purpose of getting to kiss her was false. Franken didn’t write that sketch for her. In fact, he wrote it years earlier for a U.S.O. tour and performed it many times with several different actresses. This was corroborated by those actresses, as well as a 2004 interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, in which Franken describes the skit in detail.

From Mayer’s article:

“Franken’s claim that he wrote the skit years before Tweeden’s performance was also borne out by interviews that he did on NPR in 2004 and 2005. He described the skit as a throwback to the frankly lascivious U.S.O. sketches that Bob Hope used to perform with Raquel Welch. The conceit of Franken’s skit is that a nerdy male officer has written a part for a beautiful younger woman, and she has to audition for it. As she reads aloud from the script, she grows suspicious but keeps going, eventually reaching the line “Now kiss me!” To her disgust, the officer lustily does so. The stage directions in the 2006 version of the script say “Al grabs Leeann and plants a kiss on her. Leeann fights him off.” She then reproaches him, saying, “You just wrote this so that you could kiss me!”

“Yeah,” Franken’s character admits. (In videos of the skit, the audience bursts out laughing.)

The young woman protests, “If I were going to kiss anybody here, it would be one of these brave men—or women.” Pointing to the audience, she calls a random soldier onstage, who begins reading from the script. When the soldier says, “Now kiss me!,” the stage directions call for “a long deep kiss” from Tweeden. In video footage, she seems to be gamely playing the part, setting off hoots and hollers from the crowd.

It was “surreal,” Franken told me, that Tweeden had publicly said of him, “I think he wrote that sketch just to kiss me”; her language was essentially borrowed from his skit. Moreover, her fighting him off and expressing anger had also been scripted by him. But it seemed impossible to relay such nuances to the press. Explaining that her accusations appropriated jokes from comic routines that they’d performed together would be as dizzying as describing an Escher drawing.”

There’s much more that goes into the story, including the mishandled journalism of the original reporting of the story by the conservative news outlet, Franken’s history as an actor and his interactions with people as he transitioned from a comedian to a politician, witnesses who corroborate Franken’s version of events, and details about what else was going on behind the scenes when that damning photo was taken. And it would be remiss to not question the possibility of political ulterior motives by the conservative news outlet that broke the story and set this all in motion. 

Franken wanted a committee hearing to prove his innocence, to call witnesses, and to tell the full story about that script and performance. He could prove he didn’t write that skit for Tweeden. He wanted his due process and he was denied. The result of that denial was the end of his career and a stain on his integrity and legacy.

That’s not to say that Tweeden didn’t feel violated during the rehearsal of that skit, because I’m sure she did. It’s not to say that that photo is okay, because it isn’t. But should Al Franken’s entire career have imploded because of it? Honestly, I truly don’t think so anymore.

The #MeToo movement has become a force to be reckoned with and, I would argue, has evolved feminism. There was a time in the very recent past where I felt it was my responsibility as a feminist to put the words of women above due process, and I did so gladly. After all, the American justice system has failed women for far too long. Brock Turner raped a woman behind a dumpster and got barely more than a slap on the wrist. Women constantly hesitate to come forward about their rape, and often stay silent for the very reason that people like Brock Turner get to commit such heinous crimes and face little to no punishment. Women are often not believed, and they are often victim blamed (“How short was her skirt?” “How much had she had to drink?”). Powerful men are able to get away with their transgressions for years while everyone around them turns a blind eye (Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Michael Jackson, etc.). 

When #MeToo took off, women were being seen and heard and some men were finally being held accountable. It was important to the movement that women stand with women in solidarity, exposing the injustices our gender has put up with and demanding to finally be believed and acknowledged. It was empowering to declare that the time was up for this crap to go on. We were seeing a real shift in society. 

But #MeToo has evolved as well, and we must adapt accordingly. Listening to women and believing them is still absolutely essential, and should always be the first action we take when someone makes an accusation. But punishment without due process is reckless and will only hurt the movement. 

At the time Franken resigned, I didn’t care about any of that. I saw in all men a predator, a lecher, a groper. Every man represented every injustice. And so I didn’t care about hearing anything they had to say in their defense; I just wanted them to shut up and go away. I saw that as justice. And when I saw the picture of Al Franken reaching towards the breasts of a sleeping woman, just barely touching them, that sealed the deal for me: Yes, let his career be ruined, banish him, force him to go away.

But that’s not fair. It’s not fair to separate every allegation into black and white, and it’s not realistic to look at men and say you’re either a good person or a rapist.  Reality doesn’t work like that. Every accusation is not the same, does not have the same weight, and should not have the same consequences. We’re talking about people’s lives, their careers. We're talking about public shaming and banishment from society. That is an immense power to wield, and we must do it responsibly. Because if we don’t, ultimately women will suffer for it.

If more stories come out about #MeToo getting things wrong by not allowing or even insisting due process, then people will once again begin to doubt the very real accusations and the very real crimes that are committed against women every day. There are still many people who continue to not believe women, and hordes of men looking for any excuse to prove women wrong. We must investigate every claim thoroughly. Journalists must be responsible in their reporting. And we must not equate due process with not believing or supporting women. Due process does not make you less of a feminist. It makes you a stronger one. 

If Al Franken had been given the opportunity to tell his side of the story in a hearing, instead of being bullied by his colleagues into silence, perhaps his career would have been salvaged. Or perhaps not. Perhaps it was already damaged beyond repair by the mere suggestion of misconduct. I know I didn’t care about the details—only the picture and the words of the woman.

And so, Al Franken is a cautionary tale and, yes, a victim of the #MeToo movement. He’s an example of the power the movement holds, and the consequences if we don’t respect that power and use it responsibly. 

By Kaitlin Konecke