Give Al Franken credit for consistency, at least. In the midst of a cultural paradigm shift on sexual harassment and accountability, the Minnesota Democrat has discovered a middle road for those standing accused — and has not deviated from it one whit over the last two weeks.
Earlier this month, Franken's name became a surprising addition to the list of powerful men accused of varying degrees of sexual harassment. Los Angeles radio host Leeann Tweeden posted a picture from a 2006 USO tour of a leering Franken at least mock-grabbing her breasts while she slept, and also accused the then-Air America radio host of forcibly kissing her during a skit rehearsal earlier in the tour.
Franken faced political ruin. But rather than issue flat-out denials as some had, or guilty admissions followed by withdrawal from public life as others had done, Franken found a third path: nonspecific contrition combined with passive denial.
This strategy appears to be working, at least for now.
Franken had little choice but to admit his guilt over the stunning and disturbing image. The photo speaks for itself, particularly when combined with Tweeden's testimony of having been asleep and unable to consent. Franken offered a specific apology for creating the photo while not admitting to actual contact, about which the image is ambiguous. Franken claimed the photo was "clearly intended to be funny but wasn't." As to the assault allegation, Franken insisted that his memory of events was different from Tweeden's, but still sent his "sincerest apologies to Leeann," despite essentially denying her allegation.
That didn't sit well with Minnesota's Star Tribune newspaper, which lambasted Franken for his attempts to duck responsibility. "In apologizing, Franken said he didn't recall the rehearsal incident 'in the same way,' although he declined to say exactly how he remembered it," the editors pointed out. They strongly suggested that Franken consider resigning to allow Gov. Mark Dayton to appoint an interim senator with more credibility. Franken insisted that he would remain in office, issuing a second apology that added more contrition but offering no more admission than the first.
Over the next few days, three other women accused Franken of groping them in publicity photos, one of whom went on the record. Again Franken offered conciliatory responses but never admitted to any of the incidents. After ducking the issue during the Thanksgiving holiday, Franken offered a further response in interviews with local media that suggested the gropes were accidental. "I take thousands and thousands of pictures, sometimes in crowded and chaotic situations. I can't say I haven't done that," Franken responded, despite claims from all three women that he'd specifically grabbed or cupped their buttocks.
On Monday, Franken again used the ambiguous denial-apology strategy in a short open presser in Washington, D.C. He repeatedly expressed remorse for having "let a lot of people down," declaring "again … I am sorry," but no specifics on what (other than the Tweeden photo) he's specifically sorry for. When the reporters tried to pin him down on specifics, Franken fell back on ambiguities and platitudes about "respect[ing] women's experiences," but refused to admit to anything specific. "I'm going to try to learn from my mistakes," Franken insisted while managing to avoid stating what those mistakes actually were.
There's a good (if highly cynical) reason for Franken to stick with his "admission-free apology" strategy. It's working.
The editorial board of the Star Tribune, the largest newspaper in Minnesota, has gone silent (until today) about Franken's credibility as a senator even as more allegations emerge. His Democratic colleagues have not raised the issue further after Franken agreed to the referral to the Senate Ethics Committee. Local and national media have mostly played along, perhaps in part because the allegations against Franken are arguably qualitatively different than those in other scandals, notably Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), who faces a number of allegations of abusing his staff and taxpayer funds.
Still, one odd omission exists within the "respect women's experiences" standard that Franken himself set. No one has asked about the inherent contradiction within Franken's passive denials, which is this: If Franken keeps saying that his memories of these incidents are different, he's inevitably implying that the women aren't telling the truth. Franken manages to say that passively in order to avoid tripping over the "respect" standard, but that's the inescapable conclusion Franken wants voters to draw.
If Tweeden's more serious allegation of assault was false, why not simply say so? Why not give his own version of those events and let the chips fall where they may? The Star Tribune editorial board noticed this dodge immediately, but thus far no one has pinned down Franken and demanded his version of those events, or those of the groping charges later leveled by other women.
This strategy may fail if more serious allegations of misconduct arise, but for now Franken has blazed a path for politicos to follow when accused of sexual harassment. Offer ambiguous contrition, mouth platitudes about respecting women while claiming to recall events differently, and hope that the media gets tired of asking questions. Its unfortunate success might well get Franken off the hook, but if so, it will speak volumes about the political and media environment for accountability.