Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken has been, if one is inclined toward the liberal perspective, an accomplished, progressive and thoughtful U.S. senator. To conservatives, he was a problem, a burr, an articulate, smart, formidable foe in debate. And having spent much of his professional life in entertainment, he knew how to present himself across many forms of media.
But Franken’s promising career ended in a hail of accusations of sexual harassment, some of which Franken out-and-out disputes, others of which he says he has a different recollection. And though some of his defenders are suspicious of the motivations of his accusers – their charges coming in the midst of a controversy over Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore and accusations of his behavior toward teenage girls some years ago – Franken’s resignation was inevitable.
The senator, who rose to fame as a writer for “Saturday Night Live,” did make a point of the irony in his situation, his action coming as Moore campaigns for the Senate and Donald Trump – whose lascivious comments about women were actually caught on tape some years ago – sits in the White House.
“I, of all people, am aware that there is some irony in the fact that I am leaving while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office, and a man who has repeatedly preyed on young girls campaigns for the Senate with the full support of his party,” Franken said.
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But the senator is at least due credit for devoting many of his remarks in a speech announcing his resignation to the honor in public service and his hope for the future. Republicans, including Trump, doubtless won’t be able to resist ridiculing Franken until his last moment in office. There is little he can say, and his political foes know it. That is part of the price he will pay.
The episodes involving Franken, Moore, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Harvey Weinstein and others have, doubtless to the delight of some Republicans and Democrats, also focused attention on former President Bill Clinton, whose encounters with a young intern and his deceit about those encounters led to his impeachment and might have resulted in his removal from office.
In the current climate, with Franken’s moment a sort of benchmark in the ongoing and necessary need to weed out those who believe their positions of power give them leeway to engage in sexual harassment of one kind or another, Clinton might indeed be in peril of having to leave office. The way of history would have been profoundly changed.
With all the incidents that have come to light involving powerful men, Americans of all philosophical beliefs are inclined not to compromise when it comes to sexual harassment. Never again will such accusations be treated lightly, and never again will anyone have the ability to try to reconcile bad behavior with weak excuses. Sexual harassment is wrong. It is always wrong. It has always been wrong. And it always will be.
But Franken’s departure also underscored how outrage is not the same as justice. Franken had wanted the claims against him reviewed by the Senate Ethics Committee, but the storm against him grew so intense – especially after Democratic Rep. John Conyers resigned after being accused of sexual harassment – that Franken could not both effectively serve the people of Minnesota and dispute the allegations against him.
Franken’s resignation in the face of claims he contested illustrates the need for politicians, advocates and the media to balance anger over sexual harassment charges with fairness and to distinguish between the levels of offense.