Politics

Al Franken Really Wants You to Know How Clumsy He Is

Franken standing next to a staircase in the Capitol as a photographer takes his picture.
Then-Sen. Al Franken at the U.S. Capitol on Dec. 7, 2017.
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Former Sen. Al Franken has gotten his revenge on Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. The former Saturday Night Live star, bestselling author, and senator came out of seclusion to tell the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer his side of the story about one of the eight allegations of improper conduct that accrued over a period of three weeks in 2017 and led to his resignation. He remembers Leeann Tweeden, the conservative talk radio host who was the first to go public with allegations, but not seven other women who accused him of unwanted touching or attempted kissing. Mayer’s story is sympathetic; it plays up Franken’s account of his haplessness, dejection, decency, and ineptitude. So successfully does Franken convey this sad sack impression of himself that you might almost miss the way he knifed his one-time squash partner’s flailing presidential candidacy. This wasn’t strictly necessary. Gillibrand’s campaign was already underwater, partly because so many Democrats blame her specifically for his resignation from the Senate. But no casual reader of this story could suspect him of anything like revenge. He is a “clumsy” guy, as a former colleague says; he’s a guy who falls backward off chairs because his backpack is too heavy. A guy who doesn’t even chew right, who has so little sense of how he comes across that his staffers have to monitor him so he doesn’t accidentally offend. A man whose large hands might explain inadvertent extra touching. A backturtle. A bumbler.

Mayer’s article, a rich and heavily reported opus that opens with a depressed Franken wandering around a dark “man cave” in socks, relates how much various senators regret their role in his departure, describes several inconsistencies in Tweeden’s account, and doubles as an indictment of the process that led to his resignation, but also of Gillibrand specifically. Take this tidbit: “Gillibrand added insult to injury: she reiterated her call for Franken to resign while also trumpeting her sponsorship of a new bill that banned mandatory arbitration of sexual-harassment claims. She didn’t mention that Franken had originated the legislation—and had given it to Gillibrand to sponsor, out of concern that it might be imperilled by his scandal.” It’s a brutal little detail framed to maximize the reader’s impression of Gillibrand’s treachery. It reads like backstabbing politics as usual, only worse: The woman denounced him and then took credit for his work!

On a second read, though, it’s tricky to figure out what Gillibrand should have done differently, other than believe Franken should have kept his job. Franken himself gave the bill to Gillibrand to sponsor out of concern that it’d be tainted by association with him at that particular moment, so wouldn’t her crediting him with it produce precisely the outcome he’d tried to avoid? The story offers a few confusing scripts like these. Franken was “stung” by Gillibrand’s initial “failure to call him personally,” but when her chief of staff offered to set up a call, he was too busy “frantically conferring with his staff and his family” to take it. In Mayer’s words, America has “ghosted” him, even though he’s stopped every time he goes outside by supporters telling him they wish he were still in the Senate.

Jane Mayer, one of the nation’s greatest investigative reporters, isn’t anyone’s puppet. But she also makes clear that what she found through her investigations has put her firmly on the ex-senator’s side. “How @alfranken got railroaded,” she tweeted when she shared the story. One can admire her investigative work without necessarily agreeing with the implied conclusions. Franken’s self-presentation as an ineffectual schlub, for instance, struck me as more than a little theatrical. A gifted politician in search of redemption doesn’t fail to plan for a famous investigative reporter’s visit, even if, as he says, he needed medication for clinical depression after his resignation. That Franken hadn’t even opened the blinds or put on shoes made me wonder; depending on his needs, even a sincerely depressed performer is capable of choreographing the spectacle of his abjection. But the portrait that emerges by consensus in the piece doesn’t credit him as being capable of any such calculus. Everyone agrees that Franken—a 68-year-old politician, author, and gifted performer—is well-meaning but shockingly inept and socially unskilled. “Franken could be physically obtuse,” Mayer writes. “Staffers had told him not to swing his arms so much when he walked, and to close his mouth when he chewed.” Equivalences are made between clumsiness and thoughtlessness—Franken leaving the house with an untucked shirt is equated with not picking up his own wet towels as a guest in friends’ homes. This slow progression of things shoved under the umbrella of “clumsiness” even comes to include a tendency “to hug many people, and kiss some, even on the mouth.” (A risky move, but Sarah Silverman saves him by describing him as “a social—not a sexual—‘lip-kisser.’ ”)

Gillibrand—a senator and friend of Franken’s who was repeatedly grilled about her colleague’s conduct as eight allegations against him mounted—gets no equivalent presumption of well-meaning awkwardness. Her positions are qualified with quotation marks, calling the sincerity of certain claims into question (“donors sympathetic to Franken have stunted her fund-raising and, Gillibrand says, tried to ‘intimidate’ her ‘into silence,’ ” for instance, or “Gillibrand has cast herself as a feminist champion of ‘zero tolerance’ toward sexual impropriety”). Things Gillibrand does are coded as not merely insincere but calculating and cruel: She “added insult to injury” by sponsoring that bill Franken asked her to sponsor. A former donor calls her “opportunistic.”

By contrast, Franken—an intelligent man—is widely understood to have no intentionality whatsoever. Gillibrand may “cast” herself as a feminist, but Franken is so regretful and confused and upset and supportive of #MeToo that it seems impossible to imagine him “casting” himself as anything at all. That’s a little weird considering he literally cast himself as a creep in the sketch the first allegation is about, so he presumably has some grasp of how self-presentation works (and doesn’t). His defenders cast him as well-meaning and lacking anything like guile or political cunning or even pride. His successes aren’t omitted, but they don’t register as hubris because others narrate them for him (feminists liked him, he was “talked up” as “a possible challenger to President Donald Trump in 2020,” etc.).

My own feeling, reading Mayer’s reporting on various factual inconsistencies in Tweeden’s account, was that the additional context she supplied weakened Tweeden’s allegation. But that was one out of eight, leaving seven allegations that weren’t about scripted performances acting out creepy scenarios, and one of those accusers tried to come forward weeks before Tweeden did. Others had told their friends about being groped years before. Despite comments from Franken suggesting otherwise—“Franken recalls the incident that ended his career as lasting a split second,” referring to the photo with Tweeden where he mimed grabbing her breasts; or “Franken has maintained that the woman’s story was the allegation ‘that killed me,’ ” referring to the account of a congressional staffer—the ex-senator’s ouster did not rest on a single incident. And journalists who reported on some of the others have since come forward to remind us that those accounts were well corroborated and not especially easy to dismiss. Ignoring them does not seem like a solution to this problem.

That doesn’t mean Franken is wrong to be angry with Chuck Schumer over the lack of an ethics investigation; it doesn’t even mean he’s wrong to be angry with Gillibrand. He can be angry at whomever he likes. But if we are to grant that Gillibrand was “trumpeting” her sponsorships and “casting” herself in various ways, we should also ask what Franken was casting himself as in the course of cooperating with Mayer for this story. Was he hapless and helpless? Or was he perhaps tailoring his self-presentation—and the stories he chose to share, and the people whose roles he emphasized? As Mayer herself points out, the ex-senator has in the past tailored his personality in order to achieve particular effects: “Franken was careful to remove jokes from his repertoire, especially during his first term; he wanted voters to see him as a statesman, not as a comedian,” she writes. It seems likely that he wanted Mayer, and her readers, to see him a certain way too. He outright described himself to Mayer as “a very physical person,” adding “I guess maybe sometimes I’m oblivious.” Mayer appears to report this without skepticism, just as she straightforwardly reports his contrition. She may be right. But it seems worth at least mentioning that Franken has documented his own history of apologizing insincerely in order to survive politically: A New York Times review of Franken’s 2017 book, Al Franken, Giant of the Senate, includes this passage about how he dealt with blowback over some misogynistic jokes he’d told and didn’t regret: “ ‘I learned that campaigns have their own rules, their own laws of physics, and that if I wasn’t willing to accept that, I would never get to be a senator.’ And so Franken took a deep breath and told a little white lie: ‘I’m sorry.’ ”

Comics and politicians may be weird, but they’re rarely oblivious. They calibrate and fine-tune their images and acts by measuring audience response at a level of granularity most of us aren’t capable of. Franken is so acutely aware of how things look that he steers people into the best possible light for photographs—in Mayer’s piece this is evidence of his thoughtfulness, but it’s also evidence of situational awareness, and of how he looks. As a senator, Franken’s interrogations were well-prepared, witty, and incisive enough to become viral YouTube clips—a history that doesn’t quite square with the image-obliviousness he sells in this piece. “He can be very aggressive interpersonally. He can say mean things, or use other people as props,” SNL writer James Downey said, immediately adding that Franken couldn’t possibly be a sexual predator. These are the remarkable effects the bumbler alibi can achieve: A consummate politician and performer with an axe to grind has done a formidable job of coming across as a clownish but well-meaning oaf. The question is: Should we buy the portrayal? Or fact-check it?