Sen. Al Franken. Photo by Lorie Shaull.
The disclosure by newscaster Leann Tweeden that she was molested and bullied by Al “Fishlips” Franken could turn out to be a watershed in our national discussion about workplace sexual abuse and harassment. It might even hook a president.
Sen. Franken, a Minnesota Democrat who gained fame as a comic on Saturday Night Live, built his political career in part by presenting himself as a dedicated ally of women. He has been a reliable supporter of his party’s legislative agenda, an outspoken defender of abortion rights and a sharp-tongued critic of all things Trump.
Progressive organizations loved him, right up to the moment when Tweeden posted a now-notorious photo of Franken appearing to grab her breasts as she slept on a military fight home after a USO tour in 2006.
Tweeden described in a blog post and on the air how, at the start of that tour, Franken prepared a script that called for them to kiss, and insisted that they rehearse the kiss when nobody else was around. “He mashes his mouth up against mine, and he sticks his tongue in my mouth, and as it happens – it happens so fast – and he puts his tongue in my mouth, and his mouth is just wet and slimy – and to this day I call him ‘fishlips,’ because it’s disgusting,” she recounted on KABC in Los Angeles.
“Other than our dialogue on stage, I never had a voluntary conversation with Al Franken again,” Tweeden wrote in her online post. “I avoided him as much as possible and made sure I was never alone with him again for the rest of the tour. Franken repaid me with petty insults, including drawing devil horns on at least one of the headshots I was autographing for the troops.”
Then, on the way home, someone snapped a photo of the leering comic as he put his hands over Tweeden’s breasts while she slept. To ensure her public humiliation, the photo was included in a souvenir CD that went to everyone on the tour. Tweeden included the photo in her post, making Franken instantly recognizable as nothing more than a bully. His expression was exactly what you would expect to see in a nasty social media post by an obnoxious middle schooler.
Franken initially responded with a brief semi-apology in which he claimed he does not remember the “rehearsal” the way Tweeden does. He later wrote a more elaborate missive that boiled down to the same thing, saying his recollection varies from hers and stating that the photo was an unfunny attempt at a joke. Not unfunny enough to keep out of the souvenir CD, however. As to the belittling of Tweeden during the rest of the tour, Franken said nothing at all.
When The New York Times and The New Yorker broke the stories about Harvey Weinstein’s long history of abuse of female actors (and his alleged sexual assaults against several, which he has denied), there was initially an awkward silence from many in the entertainment industry, coupled with a rush by Democrats to distance themselves from their long association with the movie mogul.
That wall of silence has at least been breached, if not entirely crumpled, in the weeks since then. As allegations, and in many cases admissions, of past misconduct by prominent men have multiplied, the partisan “war on women” storyline that was pushed by Democrats (including Franken) is being displaced. The list of alleged harassers, coercers, gropers and rapists spans the political spectrum across the power centers of Washington, New York, Silicon Valley and Hollywood. While Democrats have been forced to reconsider their past support for Bill Clinton – already, Clinton protege Kirsten Gillibrand has said the 42nd president should have resigned over the Monica Lewinsky affair – and to contemplate an ethics investigation into Franken’s conduct, the GOP (outside Alabama) was quick to abandon former Judge Roy Moore. The implications for President Trump are not good.
There will, of course, continue to be intense disagreements over issues such as abortion, workplace advancement and compensation, parental leave, and many other so-called “women’s issues.” Principled people, as well as charlatans and creeps, have staked out positions on both sides of these issues. If you liked the presidency of Barack Obama, you most likely did not care for the tenure of George W. Bush, and vice versa. Yet both of them had women in their inner circles, and nothing has emerged to make us question the respect and decency they showed their colleagues, inside the White House and out.
That is not the case with the current Oval Office occupant. If he survives physically and politically to the end of this term, President Trump is going to face a reckoning just as surely as will Weinstein, Franken and so many others.
It’s true that Trump was elected despite the famous Access Hollywood recording, as well as multiple allegations of sexual aggression and misconduct against him. This may have only been because of the baggage carried by his opponent, however. That particular shield will not be available in 2020.
The #MeToo movement opened a lot of eyes. Most of those eyes were probably male. For this to be more than a passing internet meme, however, women need to keep speaking up, and men need to keep listening and responding when they do. That is easier when we dispense with the wedge-issue opportunism of the false legislative “war on women.” Republicans and Democrats hold sharply different opinions about legislation and judicial nominees, but we should all agree that men should keep their pants on and their tongues out of other people’s mouths unless invited to do otherwise, in private.
If we are prepared to credit the allegations recently raised against former Roy Moore, and if we are going to reconsider and rehabilitate the charges leveled long ago by various women against the House of Clinton, then it’s hard to see how Trump’s history can avoid the same reconsideration. Even if we merely revisit how badly he openly treated women like Rosie O’Donnell, Megyn Kelly and others during the 2016 campaign, leaving aside all the other charges he insists are false, the president’s prospects don’t look good.
Tweeden showed us that Franken’s respect for women is not much more than a fish story. Perhaps by encouraging some humility among Democrats, she will also encourage Republican primary voters to pick a better specimen to enter in the presidential race three years from now.