While the Me Too movement has had a positive effect on American culture, making it easier for women to speak out against sexual abuse at the workplace, it has always had one big problem. It makes little or no distinction between genuine evil, Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein, and male behavior that’s merely vulgar or immature. In 2018, Democratic Senator from Minnesota Al Franken became the best known example of the gender war’s collateral damage, forced to resign when a photo of him pretending to grope a fellow USO performer’s breasts while she was asleep.
In an over 10,000 word long article for the New Yorker, investigative reporter Jane Mayer conclusively proves what many people had suspected all along. Franken was the victim of a right wing smear campaign, a conspiracy that weaponized the Me Too movement to bring down a progressive critic of the Trump Administration. Leeann Tweeden, the woman he had allegedly harassed, is not only a right wing supporter of the Trump Administration, she had close connections to Fox News and its far right wing star Sean Hannity, who had wanted to use the photo against Franken for years.
“During those years, Tweeden shared the damning photograph of Franken with a few good friends, including Hannity. On Super Bowl Sunday in 2005, Hannity introduced her to his audience as a “right-winger” who was there to discuss the game. But he soon asked her how she, as a conservative, could pose “halfway naked on the covers” of magazines such as Playboy and FHM. “I do it with the troops in mind,” she said, and described how much she enjoyed signing such photographs for soldiers while doing U.S.O. tours. “I want to be this generation’s Raquel Welch,” she said. By the time of the 2006 U.S.O. trip, Tweeden had begun referring to Hannity as a friend.”
In 2017, during the height of the Me Too Movement, Tweeden’s friends in right wing media finally managed to persuade her to release the photo as part of a larger campaign to exploit the Me Too Movement against the Democrats, who took the bait. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand started the ball rolling by calling for Franken’s resignation. She was followed by Kamala Harris, Claire McCaskill, Mazie Hirono, Patty Murray, Maggie Hassan, and Catherine Cortez Masto, and finally Chuck Schumer. Franken saw the writing on the wall and resigned before a full investigation could be completed.
As Mayer makes clear, when Tweeden remarked that she wanted to be “this generation’s Raquel Welch” it gave her away as a fundamentally dishonest right wing smear artist. It indicated that she well understood that Franken had not been engaging in sexual harassment at all, but getting into the spirt of the show, which was an homage to the vulgar, sexist tradition best personified by Bob Hope and Raquel Welch. Franken wasn’t a sexist. He was playing a sexist.
Franken’s claim that he wrote the skit years before Tweeden’s performance was also borne out by interviews that he did on NPR in 2004 and 2005. He described the skit as a throwback to the frankly lascivious U.S.O. sketches that Bob Hope used to perform with Raquel Welch. The conceit of Franken’s skit is that a nerdy male officer has written a part for a beautiful younger woman, and she has to audition for it. As she reads aloud from the script, she grows suspicious but keeps going, eventually reaching the line “Now kiss me!” To her disgust, the officer lustily does so. The stage directions in the 2006 version of the script say “Al grabs Leeann and plants a kiss on her. Leeann fights him off.” She then reproaches him, saying, “You just wrote this so that you could kiss me!”
In other words, Al Franken is no more a sexual predator than Bruno Ganz is Adolf Hitler or John Wayne a United State Marine. If Franken was guilty of anything, it was an inappropriate blurring of the lines between the show and reality, between the tour’s time on the clock and its time off. He hadn’t realized that after the lights went out he had to come out of character.
Consenting to an act onstage is not the same as consenting to an act while sleeping. Rebecca Solnit, the writer known, among other things, for identifying the phenomenon of mansplaining, told me, “One of the key things about consent is it’s not blanket consent. The actor playing Romeo doesn’t get to kiss Juliet offstage because it’s in the script that they did onstage.”
Yet Bonnie Turner, a writer who worked with Franken on “S.N.L.,” said of Tweeden, “It showed bad faith, and was really wrongheaded of her, not to say that the skit was something they’d rehearsed and done over and over, night after night.” Cabrera told me that, when he saw the photograph, he felt sure that Franken had just been “goofing around” at the time.
Yet something still bothers me about Mayer’s article, and it’s not the length or long-windedness. Mayer spends an excruciatingly among of time trying to put Franken’s behavior in context, and in terms of the Me Too Movement and the issue of sexual harassment she largely succeeds. But she ignores the elephant in the room, the Iraq War. In 2006 when Al Franken allegedly “created a hostile work atmosphere for Lean Tweeden,” they were engaging in propaganda for a crime so heinous and unforgiveable that it made what Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein did trivial by comparison. They were supporting George W. Bush’s destruction of Iraq more than 3 years after it had been decisively proven that the invasion had been based on a lie, that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Franken had not voted for the war in 2003. He had not been in the Senate. But he was an active supporter as late as 2007.
The photos were taken during the USO Sergeant Major of the Army’s 2006 Hope and Freedom Tour, which included stops in Mosul, Iraq, and Kuwait. Franken was a comedian at the time and wouldn’t become a Democratic senator from Minnesota for another three years.
Jane Mayer argues that Al Franken was guilty of nothing more than getting into the spirit of the show he and Leann Tweeden were putting on for the troops, a vulgar, openly sexist burlesque show harking back to Bob Hope. But she never seems to notice just how grotesque that show was, a throwback to a form of entertainment that was already widely recognized as backward and socially regressive in the 1970s when Al Franken was still in his 20s and writing for Saturday Night Live. Indeed, Francis Ford Coppola’s classic film Apocalypse Now, which was released all the way back in 1979, contains a vulgar sexist USO show just like the one Franken and Leann Tweeden were putting on in Iraq, only unlike Mayer, Coppola gets the context right.
The point for Francis Ford Coppola is not that the USO show being staged in the middle of the Vietnamese jungle is vulgar and sexist, or even that it’s outright weird. It’s that it exploits the sexuality of the Playboy Bunnies as a tool of violent American imperialism. What exactly is the purpose of taunting hundreds of frustrated, and heavily armed 18-30 year old men with three sexy young women they’re not allowed to touch? How exactly are they going to act towards local Vietnamese women after being aroused, then let down? Well, in the expanded cut of Apocalypse Now, Coppola makes it explicit. “Clean,” the teenage soldier played by a young Larry Fishbourne, leaves the show so frustrated and subconsciously angry that the next day he machine guns a whole family, including an innocent Vietnamese teenage girl.
In other words, the real story about the 2006 NSO show that cost Al Franken his career is not that Franken was innocent, but that Leann Tweeden, Franken, and everybody involved in supporting George W. Bush’s illegal war in Iraq had been guilty of something far worse than sexual harassment. How ironic therefor that while Al Franken was disgraced for a ill-thought-out and and immature joke, to this day, no American politician, except may for Hillary Clinton in 2008, had paid any price for what is still the worst war crime of the 21st Century. Sadly, it’s unlikely any politician ever will. A million dead Iraqis simply don’t cause as much outrage as a privileged white woman made to feel uncomfortable by a vulgar, sexist jerk. How ironic that Mayer, who’s done important reporting on the Bush/Cheney torture regime, missed the forest for the trees.