Terry Gross interviews Jane Mayer, who wrote the NYer article defending Al Franken

July 26, 2019 • 10:15 am

UPDATE: In today’s New York Times, David Leonhardt agrees with Mayer’s conclusions, but also links to a number of journalists who have diverging opinions about Franken (click on screenshot below). Several, for example, think that Franken should have resigned without going through an Ethics Committee procedure. Read his piece, and the links, and decide for yourself.

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The other day I highlighted a new New Yorker article by staff writer Jane Mayer about the accusations that Al Franken had sexually harassed LeAnn Tweeden and 7 other women. As you know, those accusations ended Franken’s stint as a U.S. Senator; he was forced out by Senate Democrats without an investigation, apparently because Democrats needed to look credible on the issue of sexual misconduct since they were accusing Republicans (like Roy Moore) of it.

Now we have an NPR interview in which Terry Gross interviews Mayer for 42 minutes, as well as playing clips of interviews and statements by both Franken and Tweeden (these interviews, which don’t appear in the New Yorker piece, are the most interesting, revealing, and exculpatory—to Franken—part of the NPR piece). The interview with Franken, which took place several years before Tweeden’s accusations, makes it pretty clear that he was not sexually harassing her in the famous picture shown below, but re-enacting a skit he’d performed on a USO tour many times. Mayer highlights the weakness (indeed, outright falsity) of Tweeden’s accusations, and how readily the press bought them without doing any checking or exercising due diligence.

Here’s the picture that ended Franken’s career as a politician. He’s sorry he behaved this way, noting that a sleeping person can’t give consent, but the pose is part of the skit that Franken had played in many times.

But what about the seven other women who accused Franken of sexual harassement? After all, one person might be wrong, or dissimulating, but seven?

Well, Mayer addressses them all more clearly than she did in her New Yorker piece. Two of them accused Franken of trying to kiss them on the mouth without permission, four accused him of touching them in ways that made them uncomfortable when they were taking a picture with Franken, and one person said that at a fundraiser Franken touched her inappropriately. Each of these instances lasted 3-5 seconds, and all were uncorroborated.

Following up on these accusations, Mayer concludes that Franken was a slob, but someone who was always posing for pictures, and was a hugger and lip-kisser of the type we see in the entertainment world. It seems likely that Franken was simply oblivious to how his behavior was perceived, but it’s also clear that he wasn’t guilty of sexual harassment, and that his expulsion from the Senate without an Ethics Committee investigation was unfair.

Click on the screenshot to hear the interview (there’s also a transcript, but it omits the interviews); when you get to the site, click the arrow at the upper-left of the screen:

 

At the end Gross asks Mayer the question that’s on everyone’s mind:

GROSS: So Jane, you’ve reported so many sexual harassment and sexual assault stories, dating back to the Clarence Thomas hearings. What’s the moral of the story regarding the Al Franken case? Where does that fit in in the #MeToo movement in your judgment?

MAYER: I talked to a number of incredibly smart feminists about how they saw it, and they’re quoted in this story trying to evaluate it, too. And I end the story with a quote from Debra Katz, who was the lawyer for Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accused Justice Kavanaugh of having sexually misbehaved towards her many years ago.

And so Debbie Katz, in this story, says she feels it’s a kind of a cautionary tale, that the #MeToo movement – which she is a tremendous supporter of, as am I – needs to make sure that there is some kind of due process. You need to make sure that there is proportionality in terms of, you know, being able to distinguish different gradations of bad behavior. Not everybody is Harvey Weinstein, but there may be other kinds of misconduct that also need to be addressed, but in different ways. And nobody is saying you need to put up with sexual misconduct, but there are just different levels of it.

And then, finally, you know, I think what she’s saying is that if you confuse less serious charges with serious ones, you feed a backlash against the whole movement that could hurt the movement. And there are number of women who are really strong feminists who worry about that in this story.

What was lacking here was due process, and that rush to judgment was what did Franken in. I for one think that the Democrats should have gone through with an Ethics Committee investigation rather than railroad the man out of office.

h/t: j.j.

25 thoughts on “Terry Gross interviews Jane Mayer, who wrote the NYer article defending Al Franken

    1. Franken had the best interests of his party in mind and wasn’t about to fight the lot of them for his own sake.

      This constrasts quite strongly with Gillibrand and others who were all too happy to damage their party in order to advance their own petty interests.

      1. “Franken had the best interests of his party in mind and wasn’t about to fight the lot of them for his own sake. This constrasts quite strongly with Gillibrand and others who were all too happy to damage their party in order to advance their own petty interests.”

        Exactly right. And this is how we end up with Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court and Trump as President, while Franken is out of Congress (where he was very, very good).

  1. What I remember is being angry that, when Franken announced his resignation, he seemed angry. Doesn’t he owe us some contrition? Now I wonder how he stayed as composed as he did.

  2. Mayer makes a persuasive case that Franken was chased outta office for nothing more than tasteless joshing and verboten goosing.

    Meanwhile, a month ago, Donald Trump was credibly accused of raping newspaper columnist E. Jean Carroll in the mid-Nineties (an allegation corroborated by two credible witnesses to whom Ms. Carroll made fresh, contemporaneous complaints).

    An allegation like that would’ve likely hounded either of the Bushes or Barack Obama outta office, and would’ve at least been another major scandal for the Clinton administration (one that Republican Party hacks and Fox News would’ve never let ahold of even after Bubba was long gone from office).

    With Trump, it’s like “Ho hum, another one? How many is that now, 16? 18? 20?” It barely broke into the daily news cycle.

    Republicans play smash-mouth American football, where the only goal is to push the ball into the end-zone. Dems play croquet according to the rules of the All-England Club at Wimbledon.

  3. And what has happened as a result? The Dems are forced to hold to high standards of respecting women so they can make accusations credibly, but the Repubs seem unfazed and still defend people like Trump anyway. So the Dems lose power by taking the moral high ground, and the reprobates remain in power.

    Nice.

    1. Yes, my wife and I (both of us voted for Franken in both of his senate runs in Minnesota) had a very similar discussion to your analysis.

      We both felt he should have stayed and gotten the SIC hearing.

      Tweeden clearly chose the ripe moment for attacking a Trump critic and for self-promotion (and to promote the radio station she was working at).

  4. “I for one think that the Democrats should have gone through with an Ethics Committee investigation rather than railroad the man out of office.”

    Agreed, and I said it at the time. The whole set of accusations seemed really shaky to me.

    I especially will not have any truck with anonymous accusations. There’s no way to verify that the accusation isn’t made up from whole cloth. (And in these days of faked everything, this is especially important.)

  5. Kirsten Gillibrand, the Junior Senator from New York, was apparently the major influence in forcing Al Franken out. Ms. Gillibrand has been notable for taking whatever actions her ambitions demanded at each career stage. While a junior associate at the law firm of Davis Polk & Wardwell in the 1990s, she served as a defense attorney for the Phillip Morris tobacco firm. [I know, every multibillion dollar corporation deserves the presumptiion of innocence.] When campaigning for and serving in Congress from upstate New York, she posed as a “Blue Dog” Democrat, campaigning against amnesty for illegal immigrants, pledging to protect gun rights, and receiving a 100 percent rating from the National Rifle Association. In the Senate, she has moved on to loudly feminist issues, and is ringing this bell in her presidential campaign, as a recent NY Post report indicates (below):

    “Democratic presidential candidate Kirsten Gillibrand reportedly slammed her own party Thursday night, saying her fellow Democrats “turn a blind eye to sexual assault.”
    The New York senator lobbed the harsh criticism while addressing a group of women union members at a weeklong conference in Iowa City, according to the Iowastartingline.com.

    “I can’t tell you how angry I am that Democrats, Democrats turn a blind eye to sexual assault, sexual harassment and any reforms that value women in the workplace,” Gillibrand told the crowd.

    …Gillibrand also lashed out at her fellow Democratic presidential running mates, claiming more than one of them aren’t on board with women’s equality.
    Without mentioning names, Gillibrand said, “We have Democratic candidates running for president right now who do not believe necessarily that it’s a good idea that women work outside the home.
    “No joke. We have presidential candidates running right now who think the Me Too movement has gone too far.” “

  6. I figure the bottom line is: “if you confuse less serious charges with serious ones, you feed a backlash against the whole movement that could hurt the movement.”
    The me-too movement has a noble goal, but it’s pretty much run amuck in cases like that of Al Franken. There has to be proportionality and nuance in dealing with accusations. There was no proportionality or nuance here.

  7. “MAYER: I talked to a number of incredibly smart feminists about how they saw it…”

    And the conclusion is?
    That perhaps there ought to be some consideration, of due process of proportion and that not everyone is a Harvey Weinstein.
    That seems a good start, but something that was not allowed to be said by Matt Damon.

    And the other problem is if you confuse less serious charges with serious ones you feed a backlash that could hurt the whole movement.
    Well, I would say not just feed a backlash but help create the backlash, and rightly so.

    And there are a number of really strong feminists who worry about that in this story.

    It is a worry, but tarring Al Franken or whomever else with a Bill Cosby or Harvey Weinstein brush seems a tad problematic too.

  8. In view of the relatively minor ‘offenses’ (apart from the tongue kissing, if true): Mr Franken did not even touch Ms Tweeden on the photo where she’s sleeping, the fact that -despite Ms Tweeden’s contention- the sketch was not specifically written for her, etc etc, and in view of Ms Tweeden having become a pro-Trump writer and hence motivated to smear Mr Franken, I tend to think that he is not barred from a come-back, if he so wishes.

  9. That is the photo that made me personally disappointed in Franken, whether or not the rest is fact et cetera.

    Franken is violating a woman, a sleeping woman no less. The fact that he is referring to a previous skit were he must have played at violating women makes it if possible even worse, I don’t understand why people tries to see that as exculpatory, for whatever reason – money/fame (for a skit), personal (as a slob) – Franken repeatedly and publicly injure women.

    On the politics, yes of course an ethics committee should be at work within the party and the senate, and both should have publicized ethics standards proscribing such and other behavior. I am not familiar with US politics; do you have any of those (and if not. why not)?

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