In mid-November, a Los Angeles radio host named Leeann Tweeden stepped forward to claim that Senator Al Franken had shoved his tongue down her throat under the pretext of a rehearsal for a sketch he’d written. The coup de grace was a photograph of a sleeping Tweeden and the now-senator pretending to grab her boobs for the camera.
There was an instant cognitive dissonance with Democrats on Twitter. People like Franken. Democrats need Franken. See, the accuser had been on Sean Hannity’s show. She must therefore be a right-winger. She could have been put up to this, they speculated. Roger Stone had tweeted that the “touchy” Franken was about to be exposed six hours before the story dropped. That’s fishy, they surmised. They all sounded paranoid, irrational, and conspiratorial. But that’s how we all sound these days.
I assumed Franken would step down later that day. Tweeden’s story rang true to me. I’d told myself I was the only one. I’d been groped by Franken in 2009.
It happened at a Media Matters party during the first Obama inauguration. It was a great time to be a Democrat. Not only had we just elected the first African American president of the United States, but Franken’s race had triggered a recount, leaving lefties giddy that we would soon have a supermajority in the Senate.
This was my first inauguration. I’d never been in the proverbial room where it happens. My experience with government at that point was being a ward of the court in foster care. Noting that I had an interest in politics and in grandstanding—at 14, I ran a scorched-earth campaign to make the entire group home I lived in recycle—my foster dad set up an internship for me at the district office of Representative George Miller. The summer before my senior year of high school, as an intern, I answered calls, thumbed through the congressional record and misalphabetized his constituent files. It was a great experience and, at the time, the closest I’d been to power.
D.C. was decked out and packed in for the inauguration of a young and popular new president. The town was buzzing with optimism, and one of the many events on our list was a swanky Media Matters party with Democratic notables everywhere. Then I saw Al Franken. I only bug celebrities for pictures when it’ll make my foster mom happy. She loves Franken, so I asked to get a picture with him. We posed for the shot. He immediately put his hand on my waist, grabbing a handful of flesh. I froze. Then he squeezed. At least twice.
I’d been married for two years at the time; I don’t let my husband touch me like that in public because I believe it diminishes me as a professional woman. Al Franken’s familiarity was inappropriate and unwanted. It was also quick; he knew exactly what he was doing.
It shrunk me. It’s like I was no longer a person, only ornamental. It said, “You don’t matter—and I do.” He wanted to cop a feel and he demonstrated he didn’t need my permission.
* * *
Nearly 20 years ago, during Kenneth Starr’s investigation of President Bill Clinton, I was taking night classes, waiting tables, and chasing boys who looked like Ricky Martin. At the time, the focus on Clinton’s sex life seemed to me a Republican-fueled, puritanical media frenzy. I thought it was a crusade to penalize consensual sex. Clinton was the first Baby Boomer president. He came of age during the sexual revolution and his wife was an “overbearing yuppie wife from hell”; there was a counter-culture couple in the West Wing! To family-values Republicans, the Clintons were an affront to all that was good and holy.
When Toni Morrison called Bill Clinton the first black president, she wasn’t saying he was down with the cause; she was saying he was dismissed and demeaned by the existing power structure. Clinton was born poor in a backwater state, raised by a single mother. He ate Big Macs, played the sax, and chased women. And when, Morrison wrote, “his unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution,” African American men felt a kinship. “The message was clear: ‘No matter how smart you are, how hard you work, how much coin you earn for us, we will put you in your place or put you out of the place you have somehow, albeit with our permission, achieved,’” Morrison wrote. “‘You will be fired from your job, sent away in disgrace, and—who knows?—maybe sentenced and jailed to boot. In short, unless you do as we say (i.e., assimilate at once), your expletives belong to us.’”
Gloria Steinem penned her own defense, “Feminists and the Clinton Question,” in The New York Times. “Like most feminists, most Americans become concerned about sexual behavior when someone’s will has been violated; that is, when ‘no’ hasn’t been accepted as an answer,” she wrote. In 1998, this was the final word for feminists: Yes, Bill was a womanizer, but, relax, the ladies liked it.
I ignored the very idea that Bill Clinton raped Juanita Broaddrick. I put it in the same category as Bill Ayers, the New Black Panther Party, and Benghazi: A shorthand swipe Republicans lob on cable TV. Besides, I liked Bill Clinton. I had a single mother too. I also liked Hillary. As first lady, she made old men furious for not “knowing her place.” The Clintons were an inspiration to me.
Then Tweeden tweeted #metoo.
The detail in Tweeden’s story that keeps rolling over in my mind was after the forced kiss, while they were still on tour, Franken would toss out, “petty insults, including drawing devil horns on at least one of the headshots I was autographing for the troops.” That report fits with the classic pattern of sexual harassment. Ribbing Tweeden to let her know she wasn’t being accommodating enough—nice enough—to him. Boundaries and rebuffing turn beautiful women into bitches.
In the days that followed Tweeden’s account, Lindsay Menz told CNN that Franken had groped her when she asked him to pose for a photo in 2010 at the Minnesota State Fair. “As my husband took the picture, he put his hand full-fledged on my rear," Menz said. "It was wrapped tightly around my butt cheek.” Another woman told HuffPost that she had posed for a picture with Franken in 2007, at a Minnesota Women’s Political Caucus event. “He grabbed my buttocks during a photo op,” she said. A third said she introduced herself to Franken at a 2007 event. “I shook his hand, and he put his arm around my waist and held it there,” she told HuffPost. “Then he moved it lower and cupped my butt.” Stephanie Kemplin, an army veteran, posed for a photo with Franken while he was on a USO tour in 2003. “When he put his arm around me, he groped my right breast,” she told CNN. “He kept his hand all the way over on my breast.” And on Wednesday, a former Democratic aide told Politico Franken had tried to forcibly kiss her when she appeared on his radio show in 2006.
“He’s not a sexual predator,” protested Randi Rhodes, the left-wing radio host, hours after Tweeden’s story broke. “This has got to be because he bested Jeff Sessions,” Franken’s former Air America co-worker offered. Rhodes said she’d never witnessed anything like what Tweeden had described. Then she weirdly added, “Al Franken is a lip kisser.” And, “He does kiss on the lips instead of the cheek.”
There were other women who rushed to defend him. The comedian and political activist Chelsea Handler went on Bill Maher’s show the next night. “Al isn’t a sexual predator,” she declared. Then 36 former Saturday Night Live colleagues also chimed in: He had not sexually harassed them, either. As Handler put it, “We all know Al, okay?”
It wasn’t just Franken, either. Tweeden’s story broke the day before the news of Girls writer Murray Miller being accused of rape. Lena Dunham, a self-described feminist who had interviewed Hillary Clinton on the topic of feminism, issued a statement dismissing the accusation against Miller because she “worked closely with him for more than half a decade.” So after six years of knowing some dude, Lena knows. “While our first instinct is to listen to every woman’s story, our insider knowledge of Murray’s situation makes us confident that sadly this accusation is one of the 3 percent of assault cases that are misreported every year,” Dunham wrote to The Hollywood Reporter. “It is a true shame to add to that number, as outside of Hollywood women still struggle to be believed. We stand by Murray and this is all we’ll be saying about this issue."
I’m not sure which wave of feminism dictates reflexively doubting women because the man seems pretty cool, but it washed away Dunham’s credibility on this issue. She later apologized.
Elite feminists who stood by their man William Jefferson Clinton were standing by the guys they like now. The left was having another “bimbo eruption.”
The author Kate Harding, shortly after Tweeden published her account, wrote a piece for The Washington Post, headlined: “I’m a feminist. I study rape culture. And I don’t want Al Franken to resign.” In it, she rehashes what Steinem wrote 20 years ago: These are our guys, we must protect them especially if there’s a risk one could be replaced by a Republican. “If we set this precedent in the interest of demonstrating our party’s solidarity with harassed and abused women, we’re only going to drain the swamp of people who, however flawed, still regularly vote to protect women’s rights and freedoms.”
Really? If Democrats demonstrate our party’s solidarity with harassed and abused women something bad will happen to women’s rights? Are you kidding me? Is that why there is a slush fund on Capitol Hill to settle sexual-harassment claims with taxpayer dollars—because of feminism?
I heard this argument in private, too. It’s about protecting power and asking the victims to understand the larger goal of (maybe) protecting them sometime soon. This calculation was more reasonable in the 1980s. Now it seems like a Faustian bargain that’s doomed women’s ascension to real power: Boys will be boys and girls will be quiet.
I have a radical idea: Maybe Democrats can replace politicians who harass and abuse women with anyone other than an abuser. There are good men in the world. I married one. I’ve worked with many more. Do we really believe our talent pool will dry up and our caucus will be nonexistent once we kick out all the creepers? I don’t. What if protecting men who harass and abuse women isn’t actually good for women?
Maybe, just maybe, it’s only good for the men.
This year’s pervert purge has inspired many to look at uncomfortable truths about their heroes, their co-workers, and their values. The New York Times’s Michelle Goldberg repented of her support for Bill Clinton, writing a piece with a battering ram as a headline, “I believe Juanita.” For me, it’s been sinking in that the working white women who felt condescended to by affluent feminists voted, by significant margins, for an admitted sexual predator over the lady who’d not believe them if they were abused by someone she liked. Their choices don’t seem so ridiculous to me any longer.
Democrats sold our soul. Nothing makes that more clear than how women voted in the 2016 election.
I’m also no longer defending Bill Clinton. I’m ashamed I ever did. But I’m not condemning or admonishing Hillary. I think we all make the choices that seem right at the time. I don’t feel like pummeling her with my privilege of hindsight. But there’s a rot in the Democratic Party. It’s not just bad men and exhausted women; it’s that we chose Bill over the women. And that original sin lost us the election of what we all assumed would be the first female president of the United States. And Trump, who boasted he could “grab ‘em by the pussy,” being in the White House doesn’t make that untrue. It just makes it a painful irony.
I wasn’t going to come forward. Then I was. Then I wasn’t. I’ve been hoping Franken would just step down and I wouldn’t have to say anything. I’ve been hoping he’s a decent enough man not to force his victims to parade in front of the Ethics Committee. I’ve been hoping I’d not ever have the moniker of “Franken accuser.” At some point I decided I was just going to tweet cryptically and hope someone got it. “We all hoped the Weiner story was fabricated by Breitbart. It wasn’t,” I tweeted weeks ago. As of this writing it’s gotten only one retweet.
In my soul searching, I did feel the need—the necessity of this moment in history—as a Democrat and as a woman to tweet to Monica Lewinsky: “Sorry.”
She clicked, “Like.”
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