There’s a debate among liberals as to what should happen to Al Franken next. This debate is a good thing. And if it’s at all complicated, you can blame Donald Trump. Or you can blame Bill Clinton. Or you can blame those Alabama pastors who are not only unaccountably defending Roy Moore, but, in some cases, also trashing his accusers.
In Franken’s second apology/explanation/corrective following Leeann Weeden’s accusation, Franken said he didn’t remember the tongue-thrusting incident in the same way Weeden does. But he added that we must, in any case, “believe the women” who come forward with their #MeToo stories.
That position is difficult to reconcile. Either we believe Weeden’s story or we don’t. And the groping photo, in which Franken is seen reaching for Weeden’s breasts as she sleeps — a posed photo which Franken seems to have been playing for laughs — is either disgustingly unfunny, as Franken now admits, or it isn’t.
And there’s now a second accuser, as many figured there would be, who says Franken grabbed her buttocks during a photo taken when Franken was already a senator.
If we believe the women, where does that leave the Franken debate? As of now, it’s in the hands of the Senate Ethics Committee, which is hardly reassuring. The committee is basically toothless, and now we’ve learned that Congress has paid out $17 million over the past 20 years to settle accusations of abuse (not always sexual) by lawmakers and staffers — payments made entirely in secret.
But it’s worse than that. If more congressional harassers come to light — and who thinks there won’t be?— the ethics committee becomes a clear path for stalling and temporizing and waiting for the heat to diminish. It’s not surprising that so many Washington politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike, seem satisfied with the Franken-gets-investigated-by-other-senators solution.
And here’s where it gets complicated. Or as Amy Davidson Sorkin puts it in The New Yorker, how many Frankens should add up to one Roy Moore? Or should that be the calculus at all?
The easy thing — and my first instinct — is to say Franken should resign. It’s worse, in my view, for champions of women’s rights to be #MeTooed, even if the Franken photo predated his life in the Senate. If there’s truly a war on women — and that’s the argument Democrats have been making for years — then you can’t fight the battle from both sides, which seems to be the lesson of Bill Clinton and those who defended him back in the day.
And yet. Not all offenses are the same, and the punishment shouldn’t necessarily be the same either. The accusations against Franken don’t come close to those leveled against Moore. Or those against Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K. Or those against Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly. And nothing like the accusations against Clinton or, for that matter, Clarence Thomas. And just today, there have been accusations against Charlie Rose and New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush, which both have more or less admitted were true.
And then there’s Donald Trump, who has Al Frankensteined his way into the picture with his predictably offensive tweets that come hard after Franken but never seem to mention Roy Moore. It was entirely predictable that Trump would turn Franken vs. Moore into a partisan affair. This strategy runs along the same lines as Trump saying we should believe Clinton’s accusers but not the 16 women who have come forward to accuse him. Franken has his photo and Trump has his Access Hollywood tale of assaulting women.
When it comes to Trump, this isn’t a case of what-about-ism. It’s one of a self-described pussy-grabber launching a partisan attack against an obnoxious-photo tongue-thruster. In an unintentionally hilarious attempt to defend Trump, spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders actually said, “Senator Franken has admitted wrongdoing and the president hasn’t. I think there’s a very clear distinction.” It is a clear distinction and, yes, a complication. How much should Franken’s sort-of admission count in his favor when Trump and Moore call their accusers liars?
It also puts me in mind of the recent Bill Clinton revisionism. What saved Clinton was not so much his friends — you may recall Al Gore shunning him during the 2000 election — but his enemies. Before anyone had heard of Monica Lewinsky, Clinton had been publicly accused of murder, drug running and a dozen other crimes high and low. One of Clinton’s most famous accusers of sexual assault would later accuse the White House of having had her cat killed.
It was never easy to know how to judge Clinton’s accusers. All we knew for sure was that he was sufficiently reckless to have endangered his career and his marriage and everything he hoped to accomplish as president. But to call for Clinton’s resignation was to credit his political opponents who were busily working to impeach him in what amounted to an attempted coup. It came down to choosing which noxious behavior was worse — Clinton’s or the right-wing conspirators’. In other words, it was complicated, even if Clinton’s behavior was not. And it’s fair to say that Trump fought off the Access Hollywood tape by making the case that Clinton had done far worse.
And yet, it’s good to see Bill Clinton now being called to account. And it’s good that women, and at least one man, have been emboldened to come forward at the state Capitol to take on sexual harassment. And it’s good that so many Alabama Republicans seem to have abandoned Moore over his mall-stalking, and accusations of worse, of teenagers.
If it feels like a watershed moment, maybe it is. But if you believe Weeden and believe in #MeTooism, shouldn’t you also believe that Franken should resign from his Senate seat? That’s the debate. And with a second accuser, the terms of the debate become even more clear.
Photo by John Taylor, via Flickr: Creative Commons