Read: Al Franken, that photo, and trusting the women
It all began to unravel on November 16, 2017, with the release of a photo taken on an airplane during a 2006 USO tour, two years before Franken was elected to the Senate. It showed Franken’s USO co-star, Leeann Tweeden, asleep in a chair, dressed in a helmet, fatigues, and a body-armor vest. Franken is leering into the camera, his hands spread above Tweeden’s breasts—his hands appear to be hovering, not making contact.
I found it an inoffensive burlesque of a burlesque—they were, after all, on a USO tour, which is a raunchy vaudeville throwback. But I recognized that my reaction belonged to the pre–#MeToo world. That’s the world Franken was still in when he issued this initial perfunctory apology: “As to the photo, it was clearly intended to be funny but wasn’t. I shouldn’t have done it.”
Franken was quickly engulfed by the post–#MeToo world. Just weeks prior to Tweeden’s release of the photo, The New York Times and The New Yorker published what became Pulitzer Prize–winning stories about decades of sexual misconduct and career threats against women by the film producer Harvey Weinstein. This was swiftly followed by accusations of appalling workplace behavior by a parade of prominent men. Many immediately lost their reputations and their jobs.
The photo of Franken caused a national convulsion. Michelle Goldberg of The New York Times wrote that it was “utterly dehumanizing,” and initially called for his immediate resignation. Seth Meyers, the talk-show host and SNL alum, said it was “horrifying.” Franken quickly understood the stakes, and issued a self-flagellating self-denunciation: “I feel disgusted with myself … It’s obvious how Leeann would feel violated by that picture. And, what’s more, I can see how millions of other women would feel violated by it.”
Tweeden also released a written account of her experience on the USO tour 11 years before, describing a skit in which she and Franken kiss onstage. She wrote that Franken insisted on rehearsing the kiss over her objections, then when she acceded, he “mashed his lips against mine and aggressively stuck his tongue in my mouth.” She felt further humiliated, she wrote, when she later discovered the photograph, which she said showed he had “groped me, without my consent, while I was asleep.”
Read: ‘It was clearly intended to be funny but wasn’t’
Over the next three weeks, like a series of aftershocks, seven more accusers came forward. (Time created a timeline of the accusations that includes Franken’s responses.) The accusations can be divided into two general groups. Three women accused him of unwanted kissing. This includes Tweeden, who’s said she twice voted for George W. Bush; an elected official in New England who “long admired Franken’s politics”; and a former Democratic congressional aide. The elected official said that in 2006, Franken tried to kiss her onstage at an event; she turned her head, and the kiss landed on her cheek. The former congressional aide said that after a radio-show taping, also in 2006, Franken tried to kiss her goodbye; she ducked, and he missed.