Jane mayer

Reexamining the case of Al Franken

Jane Mayer is the author of “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right” and a New Yorker staffer whose most recent article for the magazine is “The Case of Al Franken.” PHOTO BY STEPHEN VOSS

Between the Lines / By Peter McDermott

Seven sitting or former members of the U.S. Senate say they now regret the role they played in forcing colleague Al Franken out of the Senate in November 2017, according to a reexamination of the case in the July 29 issue of the New Yorker. One more has joined them since the article appeared.

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Among the eight are Independent Maine Senator Angus King, Democrats Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin, both of Illinois, and Heidi Heitkamp, formerly senator of North Dakota.

It’s not easy to say you were wrong. Think of that hard-charging prosecutor who secured the convictions of two mentally-challenged brothers in the rape and murder of a girl. The men were later exonerated and released after years in prison, in part due to DNA evidence that implicated a convicted sex offender who lived on a property very close to the crime scene. The prosecutor continued to insist he got it right.

And there’s been a lot of doubling down since the publication of “The Case of Al Franken” from other politicians and from media outlets like Slate, Jezabel and Vox, and supported by Fox News and some other conservative outlets. They question everything from writer Jane Mayer’s motivation to her methods. Why, they ask, would she write a 12,000-word article so clearly in sympathy, in their opinion, with Franken?

Mayer, whose May 2018 article with colleague Ronan Farrow about New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman led to his immediate resignation, answered the question as to the why in an interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air” last week. She pointed to the fact that Franken and his initial accuser Leeann Tweeden both wanted a Senate ethics investigation. The Minnesota senator didn’t get that because he resigned when pressurized to do so by a majority of his party colleagues. But, she asked, what would such an investigation have looked like?

All of Mayer’s critics have omitted from their narrative that she’s been a specialist on the influence of money in politics whatever its source and that her research for her acclaimed book “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right” brought the attention of private detectives looking for information to discredit her. She wasn’t intimidated then and therefore is not likely worried by what a few fellow journalists think.

If one is curious as to how an investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee might have turned out, an unencumbered and uninhibited defense would be necessary for the experiment to make sense.

And so there is the Franken that his friends in entertainment, including from “Saturday Night Live,” said is not “that man,” not the sort about whom there’s “open secret” hovering over him; he’s a man, who friends add, is loud, sometimes obnoxious, eats with his mouth open, is physically clumsy and doesn’t quite know what to do with his hands. And because he’s such a man, he himself, his family, friends, colleagues and staff members were entirely blindsided by the allegations, which were made against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement’s rise.

That’s followed by the forensic examination of his original accuser’s story (though Tweeden refused to speak with Mayer), which is said to be full of holes, and is challenged on other counts by some witnesses, and is largely lacking the context needed to understand the USO tour in 2006.

The liberal-left Nation in a piece, though hostile to Franken personally, said he’s won a partial exoneration. In the American Conservative, President McKinley biographer Robert W. Merry said the “conclusion is inescapable that Franken’s fate was a miscarriage of democracy.” He added that Mayer’s article “is a remarkable work of journalism and deserves close scrutiny by anyone who cares about standards of proof and fair play in matters involving real or alleged sexual abuse.”

“It’s a difficult one. But Democrats got it wrong,” went the subhead of the short New York Times piece by David Leonhardt. Franken’s original accuser,” he said, “is not very credible” and has a political motivation.

“Not all the allegations are clear cut,” he said of the women who came forward after Tweeden. “Taken together, though, they suggest that Franken behaved inappropriately.”

A Forbes contributor said: “The number ‘eight’ received far more attention than the substance of what was actually said. One accusation was that, after a woman asked Franken to pose with her and put her arm around his shoulder, he ‘squeezed her waist in a creepy way.’ Obviously, the term ‘creepy’ is very subjective, but minutes after the photo was taken, she posted it with the comment ‘Totally stoked. So suck it.’”

That last contribution is a measure of her excitement about being photographed with a celebrity. What would motivate someone to reinterpret the same event and come forward with a different version years later?

In some instances, it’s because people truly want to be helpful; they want to be part of the story; they want to be part of history.

A friend having read Mayer’s article in recent days invoked the specter of McCarthyism in the 1950s. At first, I thought that maybe was stretching it somewhat; but then thinking about some more, I did begin to feel that there was an element of “The Crucible” about it all. Not because the #MeToo movement has gone “too far,” whatever that means, but because of the typically reductive ways American politicians respond in certain situations.

When in 1954 Joseph Welch said “At long last, have you no sense of decency?” Joseph McCarthy had already been on his rampage for four years; the Red Scare was seven years old. Vice President Nixon had assumed office in 1952 as a 39-year-old. He’d become a senator at age 37 following a most disgraceful campaign of red-baiting waged against Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas, a liberal Democrat. It proved impossible to counter the vitriol Nixon directed at her.

The response in recent days has been to suggest a sort of backsliding on the issue of assault and harassment and a retreat from zero tolerance.

But zero tolerance is zero tolerance. It has nothing directly to do with the level or degree of punishment or sanction or censure. It has nothing to do with proportionality. I don’t like armed bank robberies or the people who carry them out; you could properly say I have zero tolerance in that regard. You know that because I've told you, not because I recommend a certain form of punishment for the crime. Whatever that is ought to be appropriate and serve the overall common good.

If I believe that a 19-year-old who is convicted of first-degree murder should be eligible for parole after 30 or 35 years that does not make me more tolerant of murder than someone whose view is that it’s always a death-penalty offense or requires a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

However, this is America and we have mass incarceration because politicians have been terrified for decades of seeming too tolerant of something or other.

Kirsten Gillibrand, a former friend and the first senator to call for Franken’s resignation, was quick to suggest in true American style that others just weren’t quite as serious about this overall issue as she was.

No nuance is allowed. Point the finger. Don’t take responsibility.

“Who is being held accountable for Al Franken’s decision to resign?” Gillibrand asked rhetorically. “Women senators, including me. It’s outrageous. It’s absurd.”

Actually Franken was practically frog-marched to the front door by Senators Schumer and Gillibrand. You tell an extrovert, someone who’s often the life and soul of the party, who is respected for his brilliance, that he is now in effect a pariah and his position is only going to get worse on his side: that he will be blamed for defeat not just in Alabama, but ultimately for the loss of his own seat in Minnesota, and indeed every other electoral reverse for the party in the immediate future. Where’s the choice? Franken’s wife wanted him to fight on, but his children could see that psychologically it just wasn’t possible.

When he was an entertainer and author, Franken was in the trenches fighting the malign influence of right-wing media. He had a target on his back. It became bigger when he proved to be just about the ablest senator when it came to the cross-examination of Trump nominees (he had now Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch all but confess to being a sociopath in one grilling).

Yet, when an accusation came out of conservative media world (Tweeden is a Birther and the story had Sean Hannity’s fingerprints all over it), his colleagues failed to support him. Every company, church, school and college knows that when accusations are made, they must be listened to and then credibility has to be established. The basics weren’t done here. Al Franken isn’t perfect, but he and his voters, and the broader base of the Democratic Party, would have been better served if he'd been allowed due process.

President Obama warned this past spring against “rigidity” in the Democratic Party going into 2020 and talked about the dangers of a “circular firing squad.” Well, both were much in evidence among Senate Democrats in the last weeks of 2017.