Al Franken’s resignation speech on Thursday seemed less heartfelt than grudging. He cast it not as an act of atonement — he continues to deny the charges largely and acknowledged through his stifled rage that his previous quasi-apologies had hastened his demise — but a reluctant act of gallantry. He was submitting docilely to the “broader conversation” on sexual harassment, he said, while signaling that his replacement, to whom he referred as “her,” would be a female pol embodying that conversation.
The speech followed the usual pattern of lying pols: I didn’t do it, I’m only quitting because I am a distraction and can’t advance my party’s agenda “effectively anymore, and the other side is worse. Franklin bitterly remarked upon the “irony” of his resignation, presenting himself as an innocent man on the pyre while guilty men like Trump and Roy Moore walk free.
Secure in the knowledge that the party will hold his seat and that it could become akin to an honorary chair for militant feminists, the Democrats saw an opportunity for some cost-free moral posturing. Franken was “doing the right thing,” they said. But how is he doing the right thing if he continues to deny the charges? The same rationale for quitting — that it is good for the party — would have kept him in the seat if Minnesota’s governor were Republican.
Democrats enjoy the luxury of growing a conscience about the age of Kennedy and Clinton now that it is over. Where was it last year when they were all campaigning beside him? Or just weeks ago when John Kerry was picking up an award at the “Edward Kennedy institute”? It came out recently that the Hillary campaign knew all about Harvey Weinstein’s reputation as a sexual predator. Lena Dunham and others have come forward to say that they warned the Hillary campaign last year not to get too close to him given his open reputation as a scoundrel. “I just want to let you know that Harvey’s a rapist and this is going to come out at some point” — that’s what Dunham says she told Hillary staffers, according to the New York Times.
But Hillary says she learned about Weinstein’s predation from the newspapers, like she learned about Monica Lewinsky from the “vast right-wing conspiracy.” The Obamas, who dispatched their daughter to intern for Weinstein, also professed total ignorance of his reputation. Barack had made this defense famous during his presidency. The most powerful man in the world was somehow always learning about massive breaches in his government “from the newspapers.”
The body language of Al Franken during his farewell address was that of a hapless customer handed another patron’s bill. In Franken’s case, it is Bill Clinton’s long unpaid one. The party decided that Al should pay it for his stolen kisses, figuring cynically that that would cover a variety of costs — from exorcising the demons of the Clinton years to empowering its crusade against Trump and Moore — without posing any inconveniences. They assume his seat will get even bluer.
Franken’s career ends as shakily and oddly as it began. In his first term, realizing that he won a squeaker on a fluke, he kept a very low profile, avoiding the spotlight for the most part. But after his reelection his old cockiness came back. He was the Al Franken again who had authored books about Rush Limbaugh as a “big fat idiot” and Bill O’Reilly as a “lying liar.” He penned a jokey memoir, wallowed in senatorial grandstanding, and resumed cheap-shot commentary on MSNBC.
In his speech, he alluded to the excitement that he felt at the beginning of the nation’s “conversation” on sex harassment” before he realized that it would upend his political career. In that remark, he showed a glimmer of awareness that the real irony in his fall was that it began with the destruction of his nemesis, Bill O’Reilly. The boomerang he and his friends hurled at Fox ended up conking several of them out.
The Ailes/O’Reilly pieces predated the Harvey Weinstein story and turned sexual harassment into a regular beat. Out of that has come an endless stream of accusers, whose complaints, no matter how fleeting or minor, have all congealed in a universal edict of zero tolerance that has the power to wipe out offenders both large and small.
Franken didn’t so much confess to wrongdoing as naïveté at the fury of this purge. His attempts to honor the “conversation,” he wimpered, had given the “impression” of guilt. Finally understanding that he couldn’t stop his expulsion, he took refuge in the last act of a male feminist pig — adopting the airs of a victim while pulling out his chair for a female successor.