Here’s something that shouldn’t need saying: if you claim to oppose some kind of conduct, but modify your stance on it based on whether the person who is engaging in it is a member of your political party, people will probably not believe that you are very sincere in your convictions. The test for whether you’re actually principled is whether you are consistent. If someone condemns George W. Bush for some act, but defends it when Barack Obama does it, they don’t really care about the act itself. Likewise, one’s response to sexual misconduct by Democrats has to be the same as it would be to sexual misconduct by Republicans.
Garrison Keillor has just written a column in the Washington Post entitled “Al Franken should resign? That’s absurd.” Keillor favorably quotes his pastor, who cautioned against “[judging] past actions by present standards and with a benefit of hindsight that is, morally, highly questionable.” Keillor then meanders a bit about renaming lakes, before getting to his defense of Franken:
[Franken] did USO tours overseas when he was in the comedy biz. He did it from deep in his heart, out of patriotism, and the show he did was broad comedy of a sort that goes back to the Middle Ages. Shakespeare used those jokes now and then, and so did Bob Hope and Joey Heatherton when they entertained the troops. If you thought that Al stood outdoors at bases in Iraq and Afghanistan and told stories about small-town life in the Midwest, you were wrong. On the flight home, in a spirit of low comedy, Al ogled Miss Tweeden and pretended to grab her and a picture was taken. Eleven years later, a talk show host in LA, she goes public, and there is talk of resignation. This is pure absurdity, and the atrocity it leads to is a code of public deadliness. No kidding.
Question #1 here is this: if we were talking about Ted Cruz instead of Al Franken, would Keillor be presenting the facts this way? Would he be praising Cruz’s deep patriotism? Would he have called it “absurdity” and an “atrocity” to even “talk of resignation,” and suggested that we were just applying unfair moral judgments to old fashioned Shakespearean bawdiness? Unless Keillor’s judgment would be exactly the same, given the same set of facts, nothing Keillor says can be taken as sincere.
Actually, Keillor’s defense of Franken is somewhat stunning in its dishonesty. He suggests Franken is a decent man victimized by the retrospective application of unreasonable moral standards. Now, we can suspect, but we can’t actually prove, that he wouldn’t write the same editorial about a neoconservative. But what we can prove is that Keillor’s defense requires him to ignore the actual facts of the case: he only mentions one of the allegations against Franken. He does not mention that Franken has been accused of being a serial butt-grabber, who touched multiple women inappropriately when they took photos with him. Nor does he relate the details of what “Miss” Tweeden actually said happened: that he deliberately wrote material that would force her to let him kiss her, and then “came at me, put his hand on the back of my head, mashed his lips against mine and aggressively stuck his tongue in my mouth.” Keillor’s argument is that Tweeden was simply too much of a stuck-up Puritan to appreciate old-fashioned Shakespearean humor, but he’s only able to say that by lying and saying that her problem was with “jokes” rather than with being french-kissed against her will.
But we might expect this from Garrison Keillor, who has a long record of ugly public statements. I began to dislike him when he called Keith Ellison a “lackluster black Muslim” as if the words “black” and “Muslim” were pejoratives. And Keillor has actually demonstrated even more blatant moral double-standards: despite having been married three times himself, he once suggested that flamboyant gay people were undermining wholesome American monogamy:
Under the old monogamous system, we didn’t have the problem of apportioning Thanksgiving and Christmas among your mother and stepdad, your dad and his third wife, your mother-in-law and her boyfriend Hal, and your father-in-law and his boyfriend Chuck…. And now gay marriage will produce a whole new string of hyphenated relatives. In addition to the ex-stepson and ex-in-laws and your wife’s first husband’s second wife, there now will be Bruce and Kevin’s in-laws and Bruce’s ex, Mark, and Mark’s current partner, and I suppose we’ll get used to it…. The country has come to accept stereotypical gay men—sardonic fellows with fussy hair who live in over-decorated apartments with a striped sofa and a small weird dog and who worship campy performers and go in for flamboyance now and then themselves. If they want to be accepted as couples and daddies, however, the flamboyance may have to be brought under control.
Keillor, however, is not the only Democrat defending Franken. Another Washington Post contributor literally suggested that a greater amount of leeway should be granted for Franken’s behavior because he is a Democrat and Democrats stand for women’s interests. I find this argument somewhat peculiar, because if anything I am even more revolted by people (like Harvey Weinstein) who publicly profess their feminism and use it as a way of deflecting attention from their bad acts. Which one is worse: a sexual harasser who openly says they don’t understand the problem with sexual harassment, or the one who says they deplore sexual harassment and care deeply about women? The harm caused by each may be equal, but when measuring culpability, the harshest judgments should fall on those who understand just how wrong their conduct is and do it anyway. (By the way, if you want to see Democrat after Democrat making excuses, look in the comments sections of Franken articles in liberal newspapers, which almost entirely consist of What about Roy Moore? reposted dozens of times.)
Al Franken’s own responses to the accusations are what convinced me he ought to be hounded from office. His initial apology to Tweeden was so bitter and brief that he was swiftly forced to issue another. (“I certainly don’t remember the rehearsal for the skit in the same way, but I send my sincerest apologies to Leeann… As to the photo, it was clearly intended to be funny but wasn’t. I shouldn’t have done it.”) The revised apology was somewhat better, in that it at least suggested that Franken takes sexual misconduct seriously. But his response to the subsequent groping allegations was downright appalling: “I’ve met tens of thousands of people and taken thousands of photographs, often in crowded and chaotic situations. I’m a warm person; I hug people. I’ve learned from recent stories that in some of those encounters, I crossed a line for some women — and I know that any number is too many.”
As the Minneapolis Star Tribune noted, Franken’s apologies have been strange: they have seemed to simultaneously admit wrongdoing while suggesting that the women in question were either lying or overreacting. Franken consistently says that he remembers it differently, or that to the women he seemed to have crossed a line, but doesn’t say how exactly his memory differs. Did he or did he not put his tongue in Leeann Tweeden’s mouth without asking her? Did he or did he not put his hand on women’s behinds? Franken doesn’t say. Instead, he implies that the accusations are coming in response to innocent acts, that he’s just a huggy and “warm” person, and that of course, out of tens of thousands of people, you’ll have a few frigid and hypersensitive women. The apology amounts to: “I’m very sorry that you couldn’t appreciate my warmth, I was just trying to be nice but I understand that you apparently don’t like nice people.” It’s a very slippery way of simultaneously looking contrite and excusing yourself. It’s also reminiscent of George H.W. Bush’s defense: that because he was in a wheelchair, his hands naturally went around women’s rear ends when he took photographs with them. Bush tried to elicit sympathy even while “apologizing”: I’m sorry that you can’t cut an old man in a wheelchair a break. (Of course, it turned out that he did this even before he was in a wheelchair.) But it was an insult to disabled people: they aren’t naturally ass-grabbers. Likewise, I’m a warm person who loves hugs, but I don’t grab women’s butts. Franken is “gaslighting” these women by suggesting that hugs entail gropes, and that they’re just failing to appreciate that (for which he is so sorry). And he’s trying to cast doubt on their stories without actually denying them, which is exactly the sort of sneaky and manipulative tactic that we should no longer tolerate in a post-Weinstein era.
It’s true that what Al Franken did was not nearly as bad as what Roy Moore or Donald Trump did. But he still doesn’t belong in the Senate. He’s an embarrassment to the party and needs to go. That is, first and foremost, because what he has done, combined with his self-serving attempts to address it, makes him unfit to be a public representative of the Democratic Party. But it’s also because Franken is a political liability: the presence of men like him in the party makes it more difficult for Democrats to make compelling public stands on women’s issues, because nobody will think the party actually cares about those issues. In February 2016, I noted that this exact same dynamic was going to make it very hard for Hillary Clinton to successfully campaign against Donald Trump on women’s issues: Trump would just bring up Bill Clinton, and because Bill Clinton is a sleaze, and Democrats have protected and excused him, Hillary would have a hard time maintaining the moral high ground on what should be one of her strongest issues. Sure enough: look what happened when the “grab them by the pussy” tape came out. There was a debate a few days later. Any female candidate who was not Hillary Clinton could have made a grand gesture at that debate: she could have walked onto the stage, said “I am not going to stand here and debate a man who sexually assaults women,” and walked off. Unfortunately, Trump saw an advantage: he stuffed the audience with Bill Clinton’s accusers. In the debate itself, when Hillary Clinton brought up Trump’s actions, he brought up Bill’s. Hillary was forced to drop the subject and move on with the debate. What could have been a triumphant moment for women was a disaster, all because Democrats have failed to rigorously hold their own party to the standards that they claim to believe in.
Just look at Nancy Pelosi’s response to the accusations against John Conyers. Conyers is alleged to have stripped in front of a staffer in a hotel room, fostered an office culture of boundary-crossing in which other staff committed misconduct, put his hand up a woman’s dress without her consent, touched and made inappropriate comments toward his scheduler (leaving her with insomnia, anxiety, and depression), and verbally abusing his staff. The initial BuzzFeed investigation reported that Conyers “repeatedly made sexual advances to female staff that included requests for sexual favors, contacting and transporting other women with whom they believed Conyers was having affairs, caressing their hands sexually, and rubbing their legs and backs in public.” Yet when Nancy Pelosi went on Meet The Press to discuss the accusations, she indicated that she wasn’t familiar with the case, and said:
We are strengthened by due process. Just because someone is accused — and was it one accusation? Is it two? I think there has to be — John Conyers is an icon in our country. He has done a great deal to protect women — Violence Against Women Act, which the left — right-wing — is now quoting me as praising him for his work on that, and he did great work on that. But the fact is, as John reviews his case, which he knows, which I don’t, I believe he will do the right thing.
I’m a strong believer in due process, too. I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong for Pelosi to say that Conyers shouldn’t have to resign until there has been some kind of investigation, and that the media shouldn’t jump to conclusions. The problem here is that Pelosi is not suggesting she’s going to wait for the findings, but rather taking Conyers’ side: he is an “icon” who does great work for women and will do the right thing, while the accusations are a confusing mess (“Is it one? Is it two?”). Pelosi fudged and fumbled, praising Conyers and casting doubt on the accusations.
There is a correct way to respond to allegations like this. Pelosi should have said: “If John Conyers has done what he is accused of, he must immediately resign from Congress. The accusations of misconduct are extremely serious and they are credible. It is important, however, that everyone be entitled to due process, and there needs to be an investigation before I take a position on what should happen. My party will have zero tolerance for the kind of behavior alleged, and we will simultaneously balance the interests of justice for victims with the need to ensure a fair process.” Of course, even this avoids mentioning that Conyers had already settled a claim. But it’s better than “John Conyers is a good man and the accusations against him are vague.”
It’s crucial that Democrats don’t just shuffle their feet and look at the floor when accusations are made about members of their own party. That’s because sexual misconduct is wrong and people who engage in it should not hold national political office. Furthermore, unless your stance is consistent regardless of the perpetrator’s political party, you will appear to be unprincipled and motivated solely by partisanship. The continued presence of Al Franken in the Senate is an embarrassment that undermines Democrats’ ability to successfully defend women. Likewise, John Conyers. And nobody, not Garrison Keillor and not Nancy Pelosi, should be making excuses.
[Update: An hour after this piece was published, it was reported that Garrison Keillor has been fired by Minnesota Public Radio over allegations of inappropriate behavior.]
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