A good senator on the wrong side of a fine line


Our president isn’t a subtle man, so his tweeted glee over last week’s sexual assault allegation against Sen. Al Franken isn’t much of a surprise.

The irony, of course, is staggering. As far as we know, Franken never bragged about forcibly kissing and groping Leeann Tweeden during a 2006 USO tour and, unlike our president, he appears to have the capacity to be embarrassed, ashamed and apologetic.

Still, Franken committed a stunning violation of decency, according to Tweeden’s accusation and his own admission. He used his celebrity status to intimidate Tweeden into a compromising situation and forced her into an unwanted tongue-probing kiss. Then he delighted in having his picture taken while groping her as she slept on the plane ride home.

About the only thing that Franken can say in his defense is that this was a one-time event, a temporary loss of control uncharacteristic of his genuine attitudes toward women and power.

Nevertheless, even this one-off occurrence puts Franken on the wrong side of a line between two types of men: those that would do something like this and those that wouldn’t. Current events notwithstanding, the latter category still has a few men left in it.

President Barack Obama, for example. Among the many allegations directed toward him before and during his presidency — Kenyan nativity, Islamism and so on — as far as I know, no one ever accused him of making aggressive assaults on women.

But if the predilection for sexual assault is truly bipartisan, so is decency. It’s hard to imagine Vice President Mike Pence using his power to intimidate and violate women.

Unfortunately the line between men such as Obama and Pence and men such as Donald Trump and Roy Moore — and, now, Franken — is a thin one. And the problem with being on the wrong side of it isn’t just that offenders sometimes let their more-or-less normal sexual desires get out of control; its that they have a misguided understanding of women and power, as well as a perverse sense of self-entitlement.

But what do we do with someone like Franken, who isn’t accused of pedophilia, like Moore, or an unrepentant serial offender, like Trump?

Last week New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg argued convincingly that Franken should resign and allow Minnesota’s Democratic governor to appoint his replacement. And that his replacement should be a woman.

Like Goldberg, I would regret Franken’s departure. His political positions are irrelevant to this discussion. Fact is, he’s a dedicated, duly elected senator who works hard for his constituents and is willing to ask challenging questions.

But Goldberg’s suggestion would demonstrate strong support for our currently tentative steps against tolerance for sexual violations. Clearly our nation is far from resolving the inequities of the ancient power dynamic between men and women. That dynamic depends on intimidation and force, and, most of all, it requires our willingness to overlook bad behavior.

Still, Franken’s resignation or removal is concerning. It would imply that we’re unwilling to distinguish between essentially good, contrite people who make mistakes and shameless repeat offenders such as Trump and Moore.

Further, we should be reluctant to impinge on the right of the people to choose their representatives. Trump was duly elected. Alabamans may very well choose to send an accused pedophile to represent them in the Senate.

And in 2020, Minnesotans have the right to decide whether to retain or punish Franken.

In the meantime, Goldberg is right about one thing: We need to elect more women.

Indulge some gender-based stereotyping: It’s difficult to imagine women confusing power, privilege and sex the way men do. But we might imagine them being more compassionate, generous and thoughtful, as well as less belligerent, intolerant and egotistical than the current occupant of the White House.

Representative government that more closely represents fully half of our population might tap into perspectives, attitudes and capacities that would serve us better than our long history of white male governance has. Voters should give it a try.


By John M. Crisp

John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Georgetown, Texas, and can be reached at [email protected].

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