Yecch! Al Franken was a boor. A jerk. A pig. A sexual assaulter. Not like serial offenders Roy Moore, Bill Clinton or Donald Trump, but on the sexually offensive spectrum nonetheless. In 2006, on a USO tour, a photographer took his picture mugging for the camera and appearing to grope the breasts of entertainer Leeann Tweeden, wearing a flak vest, sound asleep, on a plane leaving Afghanistan. The picture was shared. You could give Franken the benefit of the doubt that the photo was a frat boy prank or a lousy joke, but he doesn’t deserve a pass.
Prior to the incident, Franken had insisted on practicing a kiss in a skit rehearsal. He allegedly put his hand at the back of Tweeden’s head, “mashed his lips” against hers and “aggressively stuck his tongue” in her mouth. She pushed him off, warned him never to do it again and headed for the bathroom “to rinse the taste of him out of my mouth” as fast as possible. She felt “disgusted and violated.” Because she was violated. Unlike others, Franken has apologized for his behavior, which occurred before he became a Senator, and he asked for an Ethics Committee probe. Response to his transgression should be carefully calibrated. All sexual misconduct is not equal. Tweeden herself has accepted his apology.
There is no equivalency between Al Franken and Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, who, while in his thirties and an assistant district attorney, regularly trolled a mall and picked up teenagers, including one who was just 14 years old, to exploit them sexually. Eventually, the mall barred the creep from its premises. And there’s no equivalency with Donald Trump who boasted about committing worse sexually abusive behavior than that for which Franken apologized.
We’ve known for a long time that sexual assault and harassment cut across lines of party, profession, class, race, ethnicity and more. The sexual-harasser-in-chief (accused by 16 women of inappropriate sexual behavior) this week predictably tweeted against Franken and ignored the litany of Moore’s transgressions. In 2016, Trump supporters, notably Republican women, gave him a free pass. We don’t know how Alabama will judge Roy Moore December 12.
Times have changed somewhat in the past year. Since Harvey Weinstein’s fall, it has become a bit safer to come out of hiding for high visibility women who have been assaulted. For generations, they could not easily confront their violators for fear of reprisal, victim blaming and public humiliation. Gains are more tenuous for the waitresses, secretaries, chamber maids and retail clerks subjected to sexual misconduct.
Consider what happened to Anita Hill when she testified before Congress about now Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Or the disbelief and shaming that greeted the women who made credible accusations about President Bill Clinton, many emanating from incidents when he was governor of Arkansas.
Those targets of Bill Clinton’s sexual appetites couldn’t bring him down, but his own behavior with intern Monica Lewinsky – and his lying under oath about it – nearly did. Back then, however, Democrats circled the wagons around Clinton, including, shamefully, prominent feminists like Gloria Steinem. They tsk-tsk’d, then rejected calls that he step down from the Presidency. Democrats in Congress voted against impeachment. Many who supported Clinton’s policy agenda looked the other way. With 20-20 hindsight, Clinton probably should have stepped down, with Vice President Al Gore replacing him. That would have been right morally. And, as it turned out, Clinton’s program ground to a halt because of the time and energy diverted to the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Preparedness for 9/11 may have been one of the costs.
Today, from Capitol Hill to Beacon Hill, indeed worldwide, there is a pattern of powerful officials, aides and lobbyists taking advantage of women. Washington remains a cesspool of predatory behavior, and, with a morally bankrupt Trump in the White House, fighting off sexual assault lawsuits, change will not come easily.
Congress doesn’t apply to itself laws it writes for others. Its procedures for handling sexual abuse charges are designed to protect members. Complaint filing is discouraged by rules that impose unfair hurdles, requiring a woman (or a male victim) first to have counselling for 30 days followed by 30 days of mediation with the accused. You have to sign a non-disclosure agreement, banning your talking to a therapist or friend. Outrageously, any settlement reached is paid for by the taxpayers, with millions of dollars already paid out.
Criminal sexual behavior in Congress is legendary. Staffers maintain a creep list. Women staffers are advised about Congressmen with whom they should not be alone in an elevator. Senator Susan Collins knew to keep her distance from Strom Thurmond. Senator Claire McCaskill recalled being abused as an intern.
California Democratic Congresswoman Jackie Speier was assaulted when she was a staffer and is cosponsoring a bill with a handful of Senators and Representatives to try to address the problem. The new proposal would include training for both staffers and members of Congress, provide zero-tolerance, ban non-disclosure agreements and publicly-funded settlements. Optimally, the rules and culture will be changed, and there’ll be no more excuses for “boys-will-be-boys” behavior.
For many of these incidents, the statute of limitations has run out. There will be no justice from a court of law. But punishment will come in different forms. Harvey Weinstein has lost his company and still may face civil suits and criminal charges. Kevin Spacey has been dropped by Netflix, and House of Cards is over. Corporate executives have been forced out. Clinton’s inexcusable behavior resulted in his becoming only the second President in our history to be impeached. His story holds a lesson for us still. We can’t go back in time to punish miscreants, but we can rewrite history to tell the full story.
Franken’s behavior has already compromised his usefulness in the fight against the GOP tax package and his effectiveness in party fundraising. Moore’s history has diminished his standing in the polls. For Franken and Moore, it’s their voters who should decide.
There are differences among all these cases. For now, Franken’s seems to have been a one-off, offensive and unacceptable episode, disappointing but not necessarily career disabling. Massachusetts Congressmen Gerry Studds and Barney Frank were censured and reprimanded respectively for sexual transgressions, while serving in Congress, far worse than Franken’s, and they went on to have distinguished careers. But the underlying message is clear. Victims no longer have to remain silent, humiliated, degraded, violated or injured. There can be strength in numbers. It will take both men and women to change the culture.
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