All weekend I read about Al Franken and pondered whether the 2006 groping incident for which he has apologized was severe enough to cause him to resign his U.S. Senate seat from Minnesota.
I woke up yesterday morning convinced that this particular punishment did not fit that particular crime.
Then, later in the morning, another woman accused him of touching her inappropriately, this time when he was already in public office.
And now, I am not so sure.
Until yesterday, the debate over Franken’s future by those inclined to support the comedian-turned-U.S. senator seemed to center on politics rather than on behavior. Even before the second charge, columnist Michelle Goldberg argued in The New York Times that Franken should resign for essentially symbolic and partisan reasons. Symbolic: to show the world that sexual harassment won’t be tolerated. Partisan: to show the world that sexual harassment won’t be tolerated by at least one political party.
“The question isn’t about what’s fair to Franken, but what’s fair to the rest of us,” Goldberg wrote.
Feminist author Kate Harding cited the same reasons to make the opposing case in The Washington Post, contending that women will be harmed if every Democratic man who acted as Franken did is driven from office. “If we set this precedent in the interest of demonstrating our party’s solidarity with harassed and abused women, we’re only going to drain the swamp of people who, however flawed, still regularly vote to protect women’s rights and freedoms,” she wrote.
I remember echoes of this debate decades ago, when President Clinton was embroiled in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Many liberals contended that even if Clinton had a wildly inappropriate relationship in the Oval Office with an intern, even if it appeared that he lied under oath, he should not resign, because he was subject to a Republican witch hunt that, if successful, would damage his agenda and his party.
I resisted that argument then, when I was the editorial page editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer and the newspaper called for him to resign. And I think that’s the wrong argument today.
Franken, like Clinton before him, like Roy Moore and Donald Trump and the seemingly endless stream of men in public office whose behavior has grabbed the headlines, should be judged on what they did and when they did it, rather than on the political consequences of their possible removal. If not, we turn this wrenching issue into a partisan one rather than the moral challenge that it is.
We need the courage to ask the serious, defining questions: Was the behavior illegal? Was it an abuse of public trust? Was it part of a pattern? Did the accused express genuine remorse?
As the ever smart Ruth Marcus wrote in the Post: “Not all crimes deserve the death penalty. Not all bad behavior warrants expulsion, firing or resignation.”
Women intuitively know the difference in degrees, since so many of us have been subject to them. A stranger once grabbed me inappropriately on a Jerusalem street. As upsetting as that was, it did not compare to the ongoing sexual harassment I suffered in a job years ago.
For me, the jury is still out on Franken, but I find myself cringing as I anxiously wait for another headline to land. Until the latest revelation, I did not think he should resign, given the timing and context of his misdeed, and his genuine apology. If a pattern emerges of his continuing bad behavior while a senator, that alters the equation.
I am trying, as we all should, to apply the correct criteria neutrally. Was his behavior illegal? Probably not. An abuse of public trust? Maybe. Part of a pattern? Maybe that, too.
Did he express genuine remorse? Yes, especially in comparison with Moore, Trump and, for that matter, Clinton. But those are low bars, indeed, and apologies, even the most sincere, may no longer be enough.
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Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, became editor-in-chief of the Forward in 2008, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward readership has grown significantly and has won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.