Al Franken’s self-serving exit speech

Photo: KABC

I’ve enjoyed watching Al Franken in the Senate — his was a witty and consistent voice. In the wake of accusations that he sexually assaulted women, he is resigning. His exit speech was evasive, self-serving, and inappropriate for a man who had demonstrated integrity in his service as a senator.

After eight women accused him of various forms of sexual misconduct, these were the choices that Franken had:

  • Deny the allegations, continue to serve.
  • Admit to the misconduct, apologize to the women, and explain why despite his regrets, he will continue to serve.
  • Admit to the misconduct, apologize to the women, and resign.

None of these would have been easy. But Franken, ever the creative thinker, found a different path: Refer in passing to the allegations, ignore the women, promise to resign, and take shots at all the other abusers on the way out.

Franken’s transgressions, if they are true, come nowhere near the accusations against Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore, who is accused of sexual misconduct with underage teens, or Donald Trump, who admitted on tape that treats women as sexual conquests and assaults them. But this is not about comparing transgressions. Franken’s response is about what he did — or at least it should have been. Instead, he turned it into an exercise in whataboutism.

Analyzing Al Franken’s swan song

The Al Franken speech is really an amazing document. He gives the impression that he didn’t do what he’s accused of doing without actually denying it. He speaks eloquently about his work on behalf of women in the Senate. It’s gracious and endearing. And yet, it fails to apologize to or give any solace to the women who say he assaulted them, groped them, kissed them against their will, and humiliated them. If we cannot accept such non-apologies and denials from those we loathe, we cannot accept them from feminist senators either.

So take a look at the speech, reproduced almost completely below, and see if you agree with my honest translation of what it actually says:

A couple of months ago, I felt that we had entered an important moment in the history of this country. We were finally beginning to listen to women about the ways in which men’s actions affect them. That moment was long overdue. I was excited for that conversation, and hopeful that it would result in real change that made life better for women all across the country and in every part of our society.

Then, the conversation turned to me. Over the last few weeks, a number of women have come forward to talk about how they felt my actions had affected them. I was shocked. I was upset. But in responding to their claims, I also wanted to be respectful of that broader conversation, because all women deserve to be heard, and their experiences taken seriously.

Translation: As an advocate for women, I never dreamed that their defiant #MeToo moment would catch up to my sophomoric and insensitive behavior as a comic and entertainer.

I think that was the right thing to do. I also think it gave some people the false impression that I was admitting to doing things that, in fact, I haven’t done. Some of the allegations against me are simply not true. Others, I remember very differently.

I said at the outset that the Ethics Committee was the right venue for these allegations to be heard, and investigated, and evaluated on their merits. That I was prepared to cooperate fully. And that I was confident in the outcome.

Translation: I didn’t do everything I was accused of doing in exactly the way I was accused of doing it, so let the Ethics Committee sort it out.

You know, an important part of the conversation we’ve been having the last few months has been about how men abuse their power and privilege to hurt women.

I am proud that, during my time in the Senate, I have used my power to be a champion for women – and that I have earned a reputation as someone who respects the women I work alongside every day. I know there’s been a very different picture of me painted over the last few weeks. But I know who I really am.

Serving in the United States Senate has been the great honor of my life. I know in my heart that nothing I have done as a Senator – nothing – has brought dishonor on this institution. And I am confident that the Ethics Committee would agree.

Translation: I haven’t done anything reprehensible since I became a senator.

Nevertheless, today I am announcing that, in the coming weeks, I will be resigning as a member of the United States Senate.

Translation: I’m quitting. We’ll get to why in a minute.

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.

Translation: What about Roy Moore? What about Donald Trump?

But this decision is not about me. It’s about the people of Minnesota. And it’s become clear that I can’t both pursue the Ethics Committee process and, at the same time, remain an effective Senator for them.

Translation: I won’t fight the accusations that I’m not fully denying.

Let me be clear. I may be resigning my seat, but I am not giving up my voice. I will continue to stand up for the things I believe in as a citizen, and as an activist.

Translation: You can still look for me on the lecture circuit, on cable news, and on bookstore shelves.

But Minnesotans deserve a Senator who can focus with all her energy on addressing the challenges they face every day.

There is a big part of me that will always regret having to walk away from this job with so much work left to be done. But I have faith that the work will continue, because I have faith in the people who have helped me do it.

I have faith in the dedicated, funny, selfless young men and women on my staff. They have so much more to contribute to our country. And I hope that, as disappointed as they may feel today, everyone who has ever worked for me knows how much I admire and respect them.

I have faith in my colleagues, especially my senior Senator, Amy Klobuchar. I would not have been able to do this job without her guidance and wisdom. And I have faith – or, at least, hope – that members of this Senate will find the political courage necessary to keep asking the tough questions, hold this administration accountable, and stand up for the truth. . . . [continues in this vein for a while]

Translation: Don’t blame anybody else. They’re all good people.

This has been a tough few weeks for me. But I am a very, very lucky man. I have a beautiful, healthy family that I love, and that loves me very much. I am going to be just fine.

I’d just like to end with one last thing.

I did not grow up wanting to be a politician. I came to this relatively late in life. I had to learn a lot on the fly. It wasn’t easy. And it wasn’t always fun.

I’m not just talking about today. This is a hard thing to do with your life. There are a lot of long hours and late nights and hard lessons, and there is no guarantee that all your work and sacrifice will ever pay off. I won my first election by 312 votes – it could have easily gone the other way. And even when you win, progress is far from inevitable. Paul Wellstone spent his whole life working for mental health parity, and it didn’t pass into law until six years after he died.

This year, a lot of people who didn’t grow up imagining they’d ever get involved in politics have done just that. They’ve gone to their first protest march, or made their first call to a member of Congress, or maybe even taken the leap and put their name on a ballot for the first time.

It can be such a rush, to look around at a room full of people ready to fight alongside you, to feel that energy, to imagine that better things are possible. But you, too, will experience setbacks and defeats and disappointments. There will be days when you will wonder whether it’s worth it.

What I want you to know is that, even today, even on the worst day of my political life, I feel like it’s all been worth it. “Politics,” Paul Wellstone told us, “is about the improvement of people’s lives.” I know that the work I’ve been able to do has improved people’s lives. I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.

Translation: It’s been fun to be a senator.

For a decade now, every time I would get tired, or discouraged, or frustrated, I would think about the people I was doing this for, and it would get me back up on my feet. I know the same will be true for everyone who decides to pursue a politics that is about improving people’s lives. And I hope you know that I will be right there fighting alongside you, every step of the way.

Translation: It’s not fun any more. Maybe it will be ok once I step down.

Are you upset about this criticism? Think about it for a moment.

I have one principle: The people I agree with deserve the same critical attention as the people I disagree with.

Many of those who are now defending Al Franken are not willing to take that pledge. Which of these arguments can you use to defend Franken?

  • He shouldn’t resign if Trump doesn’t. In fact, what we decide about him has nothing to do with Trump. It’s about his own conduct and what that means.
  • What he did was long ago. What is the statute of limitations on sexual misconduct? What Roy Moore did was much longer ago — is it irrelevant now?
  • He has been a voice for women. How much women’s advocacy excuses how much misconduct? I’d like to know what the equation is. If it excuses one instance, does it excuse eight?
  • The Democrats need his voice. True. And the Republicans need Roy Moore’s vote. How much need is necessary to excuse this behavior?
  • Nothing has been proven. This is a legitimate argument. But Franken has already apologized to Leeann Tweeden for unwanted and uninviting kissing and photos where he appears to grope her. There is something here. How much, we don’t know.
  • His accusers are conservatives out to get him. Even if this were true (and it’s not the case for all of them), is it ok to assault young women who are conservatives, but not those who are liberals? What’s at issue is what he did, not the politics of his accusers.
  • But I like Al Franken. OK. I like Kevin Spacey’s acting, the movies that Harvey Weinstein produced, and the convenience of Uber. Does this mean that what they did wrong doesn’t matter? How would you explain this to the women and young men who had to deal with their behavior?

In the end, you can take one of two positions. You can publicly forgive the figures you agree with and pillory those you disagree with. This makes you a partisan, and you should admit it.

Or you can create a single set of standards and hold everyone to those standards. That’s hard. It’s painful. It may even cost you votes on important things. But at least its consistent.

In the end, this is a democracy (at least for now) and the people decide who stays and who goes. Franken had the integrity to resign, knowing that his replacement will be a Democrat and will carry on his work. I just wish he had the integrity to address the women who’ve complained about his past behavior.

If you believe in Al Franken, read the Vice News summary of what his accusers are saying. Then ask yourself, why is it ok to have a man like this in the Senate?

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  1. Eight women accused him, but there has been no legal proof. Moreover, we believe that at least two of them are right wing political operatives. Hearing women and believing them is not the same as evaluating sworn testimony under oath. We have such a thing in our country as the burden of proof on the accuser, not the defendant. Franken’s speech makes this clear. The term “moral high ground” is meaningless when it denies the accused the presumption of innocence and the due process of law. I am not saying that Al Franken didn’t do it. I am saying that the Senators who called for his resignation devolved from the rule of law to the rule of the mob. Meanwhile, a self-confessed sexual predator is reigning as our dictator and a suspected child molester who believes in the restoration of black slavery is given a green light by his party.

    1. Video proving that Tweeden has the habit of open mouth accosting famous comedians with Rocin Williams. A couple claimed a wrong hand placement during photo opp. How many thousands of photo opts has he done. It wouldn’t be hard to misplace a hand or put it accidently where some woman would take note but most wouldn’t. The picture was meant to be funny or prop during a skit period while he was a comedian, where he never actually touched her! Accidently touching a woman or placing their hand in a place they claim uncomfortable doesn’t make him a pervert. He’s fought for the people but who fought for him? Christ Trump did things on purpose and has gotten away with it and not a wrong hand placement during photo opts.

  2. I am partisan. I admit it. No, i’m not a Democrat, I just vote Democrat because the Democrats are better at everything(except getting along with each other) in my opinion. I am one of Al’s constituents. I like Al. I don’t disagree with much of what you have written here-BUT I wish you would do a similar analysis of Gillebrand’s comments, and the rest of them that piled on. So far, I’ve read NOTHING about any of them calling for 45 to resign, or pointing out that Moore is a pervert who is being supported by his party. And I don’t blame Al one bit for mentioning 45 and Moore. Somebody had to do it. … In regard to Eric’s comments, I disagree that Al is entitled to a presumption of innocence as that applies only in the criminal justice system. It does not apply in civil actions or in the court of public opinion. I do think, though, that Al was entitled to some kind of due process and I would have preferred that his his cannabalistic fellow democratic senators would have backed off and let the committee do its work.

  3. Please excuse my ramble: First, I agree with everything you wrote. I don’t support his actions or his exit speech. His first apology seemed appropriate and I was hopeful that he’d be able to go through the investigative process. His problem with the exit speech may be partially that he was trying to speak to several audiences. And I have a mess of other feelings, as well that you might confuse with “whataboutism” but I can’t separate them. I just finished reading Franken’s book when this news came out. It was the timing of it that made me suspicious at first — right when the news about net neutrality was also breaking. I don’t put it past the Right to frame someone for political gain, and making liberal women take sides on this issue is just the kind of extra cynical slap in the face that is considered “winning” these days. We are in an era where both sides aren’t playing by the same rules, and that’s usually un-winnable. When an abuser has always been “out” as an asshole, it’s much easier to say “bye-bye.” But when it’s someone whose talents you value, there is disappointment mixed with the shock. I feel the same disappointment about this as I felt about Bill and Anthony and Louis and Charlie and Woody and even frickin’ Garrison. I want to scold: “You should know better! Why would you do this? Why are you hurting people? And by the way, why are you self-sabotaging?” While the purging will continue, no one is comfortable with how we’re dealing with it. How will any of these men (or their victims) get help? Some people don’t care if they get help; they just want them to go away. But they don’t go away forever. Punishment is a different conversation. Public shaming is one level — but Trump believes that all “publicity” is good publicity — he can’t be shamed, so can’t be punished by shame alone. To him, and to his buddy Roy, it’s a notch on his belt. Their defiance again punishes their victims (and all women) instead. They are using the issues to underline their authoritarian, patriarchal views, and their belief that women are there to be used. I’m not hearing outrage on the part of women on the Right about their side’s perverts, but maybe I’m just not hearing from them on anything. Maybe it fits with a “submissive” belief system. Maybe that’s part of the problem. Aside from public shaming, what are the appropriate consequences? You get investigated? You don’t get to play the power game you were playing? You need to go to jail now? It would be nice to think we have a system worked out that we can depend on. But in reality, we have stacks of rape kits that have been ignored. We have a culture of arrested development. While I appreciate your devotion to taking a hard look at what someone says, I don’t think the point, in this case, is to learn how to write the best apology. Whatever they say is a benchmark that screams: “This is my awareness (or lack of awareness) right now.” It is the only way we’ll be able to measure how someone has done the work that’s needed. I fear the power of ostracism, and the allure of suicide — for them and their victims. And I feel a spotlight needs to be shed on the relentless news coverage with pundits talking ad nauseam about it like gossip — more ramping up the mobs and masses. Sex sells; the country be damned. In these tenuous times, are we leaving it to the Washington Post to decide whether to out Republicans or Democrats, knowing the Democrats will follow the precedent of expulsion and the Republicans won’t, further tipping the political scales? Last year, it seemed like a lot of good people died. This year, it seems like a lot of people I thought were good people have really disappointed me. We can do better. (Incidentally, Billy Bush’s interview by Colbert was surprisingly thoughtful…).

  4. I am curious about folks’ thoughts on the timeliness/statue of limitations argument? I am thinking bigger than sexual misconduct/harassment/assault/rape and thinking it is connected to the innocent until proven guilty through the due process of the law.

    I know that memories change over time and I know memories differ with each participant/spectator (no matter the time lapse from situation to recall).

    I believe that those combined are the reason we instituted limitations on the time between an incident and calling the foul.

    I am also curious on how big folks think the “iceberg” is? Is what has been reported on these people merely the tip of a huge iceberg of evidence against the folks and that the folks calling for resignations and the lot may have more insight into the specifics. These seem to fit the pattern of fantastic news stories that have much more depth and nuance behind them than a news story can deliver.

  5. To Norman: Yes, it is an iceberg, a huge one. I don’t know a woman who hasn’t been sexually harassed. Not. One. To Joanne: Pretty articulate for a ramble. Brava. And thank you.