Two days after Howard Fineman tweeted that Al Franken is “NOT predatory, adores his wife & family & is a lifelong champion of women’s rights,” another woman has accused Franken of groping her buttocks—this time during a 2010 photo op, when he was no longer a comedian, but, rather, a U.S. Senator. This has led some to suggest that he “could be in a lot more trouble now” than he was after Leeann Tweeden’s allegations last Thursday.
I, unlike those, including many women, who’ve supported Franken for years, am not surprised by any of this. I don’t know that he deserves the label “predatory,” and I’m sure he does adore his wife and family—at least more than Trump does his—but I’ve had a hard time thinking of Al Franken as an advocate for women’s rights ever since the spring of 2004, when I read the article he wrote for the March/April 2004 issue of Mother Jones.
In it, Franken described a USO tour he’d been on to Iraq and Afghanistan in December 2003. I cringed thinking about how his wife might feel reading this piece. He described touring with “No Illusion, a three-gal ‘urban’ singing group who are beautiful and sing like angels. They’re young—19, 20, and 22—and given my rule that I don’t allow myself to be sexually attracted to women younger than my daughter, I behaved paternalistically toward No Illusion. That was not entirely true with the two Washington Redskins cheerleaders. No USO Tour is complete without NFL cheerleaders, and the Redskins sent two, Kelley and Katie Cornwell, whom the troops seemed happier to see than me. As I told the soldiers, ‘I don’t know how you guys do it for nine months. I’ve been over here a week, and the first thing I’m going to do when I get home is have sex with my wife—while thinking about the cheerleaders. Not so different from you guys, except I won’t be alone’.”
Granted, Franken was a comedian then, not a politician. But he was known as a liberal comedian, a good guy, someone progressive enough to be published in Mother Jones.
Re-reading this article now, what’s most striking is the similarity between Franken’s own account of the skit he performed then with Karri Turner and Leeann Tweeden’s account of a “rehearsal” of a skit he wrote and performed with her on a USO tour in 2006. Mediate.com posted a video of the 2003 skit yesterday evening, but misidentified it as the one Franken did with Tweeden in 2006.
Franken wrote, in the 2004 article: “I acted as co-emcee with Karri Turner, the attractive blond star of the popular CBS show JAG, which I’d never seen, but which is carried by the armed forces network and is very popular with the soldiers.”
And here’s how Franken described the skit he performed with Turner:
“AL: So, anyway, I’ve taken the liberty of writing a little audition piece to show my range. [Handing Karri the script.] I play a prosecutor sent in by the Pentagon to shake things up around the JAG office.
“KARRI: You wrote this?
“AL: Yeah. I’m a writer, comedian, dramatic actor. [Beat.] It’s your line.
“KARRI: Oh. [Reading from script.] Lieutenant Hardgrove, what are you doing here in JAG OPS?
“AL: I told you, Harriet. Call me Lance.
“KARRI: Lieutenant Hardgrove, this is JAG OPS. It’s all business here.
“AL: Is it? Then why are you wearing that negligee?
“KARRI: [Off-script.] Al, my character would never wear a negligee to the office!
“AL: You would if you were madly in love with Lieutenant Lance Hardgrove.
“KARRI: Al, I’m married in the show! I have two kids—
“AL: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Keep reading.
“KARRI: [Reading script.] Lance, I’m wearing this negligee because I want tonight to be very special. I want to give myself to you completely. Now kiss me! [Al grabs Karri and kisses her. Karri fights him off.]
“KARRI: Now, wait a minute! You just wrote this so you could kiss me! If I was gonna kiss anybody, it’d be a real soldier. Like one of these brave men…or women. Who wants to help me out? You, soldier. [Karri points to soldier in front.]
“AL: Okay. I guess we are here to entertain the troops.
“[The soldier comes up. Al hands him script. Improvise name, rank, where you from, etc. Karri and the soldier do the script….]
“KARRI: Lieutenant Hardgrove, this is JAG OPS. It’s all business here.
“SOLDIER: Is it? Then why are you wearing that negligee?
“KARRI: Lance, I’m wearing this negligee because I want tonight to be very special. I want to give myself to you completely. Now kiss me! [They kiss a long, deep kiss. Cheers, etc. After kiss…]
“AL: Wait! It’s not over. There’s another line.
“KARRI: There is?
“[Al points out line to soldier.]
“AL: Go ahead. Read it.
“SOLDIER: [Reading.] You know, Harriet, a woman your age should have a thorough breast examination every year. Lucky for you, Dr. Al Franken is here.
“[Al approaches Karri.]
“KARRI: Al!!! At ease!
“AL: [Looking down at his crotch.] Too late for that now.
“KARRI: Oh! Ewww. Let’s just bring out our first guest.”
Franken continued: “This Hope-style bit never failed to get huge laughs and giant cheers. Each time the soldier kissed Karri, it was as if every soldier had kissed her. Sex, in general, seemed a safe bet as a subject for sure laughs.”
Of course, it did. But, wait, there’s more . . .
“I met with the cheerleaders and one of the girls from No Illusion to run through and choreograph the Taliban Cheerleader number.
“I had borrowed some burkas from Saturday Night Live, and the idea was to introduce them saying, All the way from Kabul, please welcome the Taliban Cheerleaders!’ The girls enter in burkas, and I ask them to do a number. Through her burka, the lead Taliban Cheerleader whispers in my ear. I act puzzled. ‘You’re not allowed to dance?’ I ask. ‘Or even listen to music?’ She shakes her head, no. ‘But,’ I point out, ‘we liberated Afghanistan from the Taliban. Certainly you can do one number? Whatta ya say, guys?’ The troops cheer. The cheerleaders consult, and the leader nods—okay, one.
“’All right!’ I say. ‘Hit it!’ and we blast ‘Gonna Make You Sweat!’ by C+C Music Factory. The girls do a bump-and-grind dance in their tearaway burkas, then peel them off and continue in their Redskins cheerleader outfits as the guys go nuts.
“Worked like a charm every time.”
Because, really, the only thing better than sexism, for getting some laughs, is sexism plus cultural chauvinism plus a racist sports logo.
Although Franken has apologized to Tweeden, others are still defending his actions. Daily Kos published photos from the 2006 tour purporting to discredit Tweeden’s account because she’s shown clearly enjoying herself in Franken’s company. The New York Times reported today that “Mr. Franken has received support from his female aides; 14 women who have worked for him have issued a statement saying he treated them with the ‘utmost respect’ and ‘valued our work and our opinions’.”
And some have dismissed the photo of Franken groping, or pretend-groping, Tweeden’s breasts as she slept on the flight home from the 2006 tour by saying that he didn’t actually touch her breasts. As if anything short of actually groping her couldn’t be a way of humiliating her. Because sticks and stones and all that.
Sometimes, though, words speak even louder than actions. It’s important to remember that Franken wrote plenty of things that were demeaning to women, before and after his account of his 2003 USO tour. Check out his 2000 Playboy article, his February 2006 Playboy interview, and his rape jokes.
Although much has been made of Tweeden’s accusation that Franken stuck his tongue in her mouth when “rehearsing” the USO skit, what I find most disconcerting about that skit is that he used his position as writer and comedian to put words in women’s mouths—from 2003 to 2006—that were demeaning to them, that made them go “Ewww.” They had to laugh at their own humiliation, because it would have been rude—unprofessional, even—not to. There’s been no indication that, to this day, Franken sees anything wrong with that.
In fact, in a book published earlier this year, Franken wrote that he regretted having apologized for his late-night writers’-room joke about raping Lesley Stahl and for his 2000 Playboy article. (He never did, as far as I know, apologize for his 2004 Mother Jones piece, because, really, what was there to apologize for?)
According to a May 2017 New York Times Book Review article, in his book, Giant of the Senate, “[Franken] recalls that during the 2008 campaign, he was attacked for such transgressions as a late-night writers’-room joke about raping Lesley Stahl, and a 2000 Playboy article entitled ‘Porn-o-Rama’. Franken didn’t think he should have to apologize for the cracks, which his opponents were taking out of context. ‘To say I was sorry for writing a joke was to sell out my career, to sell out who I’d been my entire life’, he writes. ‘And I wasn’t sorry that I had written Porn-o-Rama or pitched that stupid Lesley Stahl joke at 2 in the morning. I was just doing my job’.”
This gives the I-was-just-doing-my-job excuse of moral scoundrels a whole new meaning. Although we still have a proud sexual predator in the White House, I’m hoping we’ve reached a tipping point in the national conversation about women’s rights such that sexual abuse will no longer be seen as an employment perk for some and an occupational hazard for others.