Franken a predator? Tweeden an opportunist? Who pulled better hit job?

Model and radio host Leeann Tweeden. (photo: ABC)

hose aren’t the only questions raised by the surprise assault accusation by radio performer Leeann Tweeden against comedian-turned-US Senator Al Franken, but they might be enough to offend everyone. And everyone probably should be offended by one or another aspect of this story – a dicey opinion to have so early in a story, but let’s look closely at what we know now (late on November 16).

Start with the accusations: There are two, and they are quite different in important respects. The two alleged incidents occurred during a two-week USO tour to Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan in December 2006. The accusations of 2017 first appeared on a KABC website. She works for KABC, which ran the story under Leeann Tweeden’s byline and with the fundamentally problematical headline:

Senator Al Franken Kissed and Groped Me Without My Consent, And There’s Nothing Funny About It

The first accusation took place early in that USO tour, during a rehearsal of a skit written by Al Franken in which he was supposed to kiss Leeann Tweeden. Tweeden describes a backstage scene in which Franken insists on rehearsing the kiss until she reluctantly agrees:

He repeated that actors really need to rehearse everything and that we must practice the kiss. I said ‘OK’ so he would stop badgering me. We did the line leading up to the kiss and then he 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.

I immediately pushed him away with both of my hands against his chest and told him if he ever did that to me again I wouldn’t be so nice about it the next time.

I walked away. All I could think about was getting to a bathroom as fast as possible to rinse the taste of him out of my mouth. I felt disgusted and violated.

Here is where we’re supposed to say, “I believe Leeann,” and there’s no reason not to at this point. It’s an allegation of a single event. It’s typical stupid male behavior. She checked it immediately. It didn’t happen again. They performed the skit several times afterwards and Tweeden avoided ever being kissed again. Franken says he doesn’t remember the rehearsal the same way, but so what? He also hasn’t given a different version and he has apologized and Tweeden has accepted his apology, although not without some bitter comments. The incident as described certainly illustrates unacceptable behavior, though hardly on the scale of Weinstein, Trump, Roy Moore and the gang. Franken has agreed with calls to have the Senate Ethics Committee consider the matter, even though he was not a senator at the time. In the current climate, that’s probably as fair a way to proceed as any, and if Franken gets a censure tantamount to a tongue-lashing, that might be disproportionate but not unjust.

But then there’s the second accusation in that problematical headline:

Senator Al Franken Kissed and Groped Me Without My Consent, And There’s Nothing Funny About It

The impression that the kissing and groping were part of a single assault is false. It is deliberately (or incompetently) misleading. The kissing offense is relatively clear-cut. The groping offense probably never happened. The evidence is a posed photograph showing Al Franken grinning at the camera while his hands are poised over the flak jacket covering Tweeden’s chest. Franken left hand is clearly NOT touching her and the right hand may or may not be in contact with the flak jacket. Tweeden did not wake up during the event. The gag is sophomoric at best and Franken apologized for that immediately: “As to the photo, it was clearly intended to be funny but wasn't. I shouldn't have done it." Tweeden might never have known about the photo except that the USO provided it to her as part of the tour collection:

It wasn’t until I was back in the US and looking through the CD of photos we were given by the photographer that I saw this one. I couldn’t believe it. He groped me, without my consent, while I was asleep. I felt violated all over again. Embarrassed. Belittled. Humiliated. How dare anyone grab my breasts like this and think it’s funny?

What we have here is a fact not in evidence. There is reasonable doubt that any groping occurred. We have the image of mock groping, clearly. Based on that image, it is more likely than not that no groping, and perhaps no touching took place.

Intentionally or not, the damage is done and the dishonest story – “kissed and groped” – is the story mindless media and mindless public figures are running with and running from. That public figures are so quick to panic and so incapable of serious, critical analysis is a chronic scandal of our post-factual culture.

This story didn’t start as a smear. A few weeks earlier, Leeann Tweeden signed on to #metoo, indicating that she, like millions of other women, had suffered unwanted sexual attention. She did not give details until November 16 when she was in a twenty-minute segment on her employer’s McIntyre in the Morning program. It started with the host hyping her appearance as the first time she was publicly telling this story and then asking: “Who is your abuser?” “Uh, Senator Al Franken,” was her answer. In her telling of the story, Franken showed her the kissing-skit well in advance and asked her if she would be OK with it. She says she agreed, assuming she would never actually kiss him, but rather turn her head or cover his mouth. That’s not what happened, as she credibly goes on to describe. In fact, she scrupulously separated the kissing incident from the groping incident. The corrupt “Kissed and Groped Me” framing started with the printed version of the story with her byline. OK, so what?

For one, the exaggerated story, amplified by uncritical media coverage gives Republicans a twofer. First it distracts from the far worse and more numerous sexual predator allegations of their president, as well as Senate nominee Moore. Perhaps more importantly to them, it threatens one of the more humane members of the Senate. And by reducing judgment to a single, narrow, unforgiving test, the current culture continues to hurtle toward savage insincerity. Al Franken did something bad, but incredibly petty on the scale of threatening nuclear war (most members of Congress and the president) or starving people we’re not even at war with (most members of Congress and the president). And Al Franken’s response has been honorable:

I respect women. I don't respect men who don't. And the fact that my own actions have given people a good reason to doubt that makes me feel ashamed.

But I want to say something else, too. Over the last few months, all of us—including and especially men who respect women—have been forced to take a good, hard look at our own actions and think (perhaps, shamefully, for the first time) about how those actions have affected women.

For instance, that picture. I don't know what was in my head when I took that picture, and it doesn't matter. There's no excuse. I look at it now and I feel disgusted with myself. It isn't funny. It's completely inappropriate. It's obvious how Leeann would feel violated by that picture. And, what's more, I can see how millions of other women would feel violated by it—women who have had similar experiences in their own lives, women who fear having those experiences, women who look up to me, women who have counted on me….

While I don't remember the rehearsal for the skit as Leeann does, I understand why we need to listen to and believe women's experiences.

I am asking that an ethics investigation be undertaken, and I will gladly cooperate.

And the truth is, what people think of me in light of this is far less important than what people think of women who continue to come forward to tell their stories. They deserve to be heard, and believed. And they deserve to know that I am their ally and supporter. I have let them down and am committed to making it up to them.

This is so much more decent and credible than anything we’ve ever heard from the Clintons. Clearly, we can only wait and see before we can know anything with certainty. If it develops that this is a pattern with Franken, not a one stupid episode, then all bets are off and the Senate loses a voice for decency if not a man of decency.

But for now there’s a balance to be weighed between two flawed players. Do we as a society want to let someone like Franken be destroyed by someone like Leann Tweeden? Yes, this is an ad hominem choice. The case against Al Franken has been made. But who is Leeann Tweeden, other than someone being used in a political vendetta? She is a “long time friend” and frequent guest of Sean Hannity, who is calling for Al Franken to resign (in part because he recalls Franken yelling at him once). Tweeden was spinning her tale on his radio show November 16, but she said she was NOT calling for Franken to resign. She may have thought the publicity she’d get from this story would help her career as a sexy sportscaster, but she’s getting severe pushback for being someone who has long used her sexuality for self-promotion (such as cover of Playboy, “nude on the inside”), making her protestations of outrage seem hollow – “methinks the lady doth protest too much,” as Hamlet said of his guilty mother.

Tweeden is the daughter of a military man, married to a military man, and has gone on a reported 16 USO shows. As we all well know, the US military has spent decades going around the world constantly doing things more offensive than sticking their tongues down people’s throats. It’s hard to find anything on record showing that Leeann Tweeden objects to napalm, depleted uranium, killing civilians, or torturing anyone (not that Franken’s all that good on military predation either).

Perhaps the worst part of this whole mess is the stampede of craven Democrats to unprincipled safety, cloaked in a mantle of self-righteous pre-judgment. No wonder the Democratic Party is in the shape it’s in, divided and standing for nothing coherent, not even due process for one of its own or countering an apparent political hit job. Whatever turns out to be the full truth about Franken, we have yet another confirmation of Democratic spinelessness.