Being in politics means never having to say you’re sorry — at least not until it’s way, way too late.
That’s one conclusion to draw from the mea culpas issued last week by Illinois U.S. Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin. Two years after U.S. Senate Democrats ran former Minnesota U.S. Sen. Al Franken out of that 100-member body, Duckworth and Durbin joined many of them to express regrets over their rush to judgment.
The Franken chapter in American politics is old news. It was brought to the fore recently by a New Yorker magazine article that revisited the peculiar events of late 2017.
That’s when Franken, the one-time comedian on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” was accused of sexual harassment by Leeann Tweeden, a female performer who, along with Franken, participated in a 2006 USO tour to entertain members of the military. (That tour preceded Franken’s election to the Senate.)
A picture of a leering Franken preparing to grope a sleeping Tweeden highlighted her accusations of mistreatment at Franken’s hands.
Coming in the middle of a controversy involving sexual misconduct allegations against movie producer Harvey Weinstein, the accusation against Franken generated a media frenzy that only grew stronger after six other women subsequently complained about Franken either groping or trying to kiss them.
There was one other hugely complicating factor.
The Franken controversy broke out at the same time that former Judge Roy Moore was running, ultimately unsuccessfully, as a Republican against Democrat Doug Jones for the Alabama U.S. Senate seat vacated by then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Fearing that maintaining silence about Franken while they condemned Moore for dating underage girls would undermine their credibility, Democrats decided that Franken had to go.
Leading the demand for Franken’s immediate resignation was U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, a Democratic presidential candidate. She was quickly joined by Illinois’ Duckworth.
“I am deeply disappointed by Sen. Franken’s behavior. He must step aside,” said Duckworth.
Durbin didn’t take long to join her.
“Sen. Franken’s behavior was wrong. He has admitted to what he did. He should resign from the Senate,” Durbin said.
These days, they are singing a different tune as they acknowledge ignoring Franken’s request for a Senate inquiry that would have allowed him an opportunity to dispute the allegations.
“We needed more facts. That due process didn’t happen is not good for our democracy,” said Duckworth.
Speaking to The Washington Post, Durbin acknowledged what he should have done, but did not do.
“I certainly would have said that we should turn to due process. He deserved his day before the Ethics Committee, and his accuser the same,” Durbin said.
But the Springfield Democrat noted that politics of the moment motivated Democrats to force Franken out.
“You’ve got to put it in that context,” Durbin told the Post.
The context, of course, was that the Democrats wanted to flip the Alabama Senate from Republican to Democrat. They believed forcing Franken’s resignation would help them gain a seat (Alabama) at no cost because Minnesota’s Democratic governor would appoint another Democrat to fill the Franken vacancy.
That, in fact, is exactly what happened. The plan worked beautifully for Senate Democrats, but at a heavy cost to Franken.
Today, the New Yorker article explains, Franken remains a shaken and bitter man, one who sees a therapist and takes anti-depressant medication. He deeply regrets his decision to resign from the Senate and holds former colleagues who turned against him responsible.
“I’m angry at my colleagues who did this. I think they were just trying to get past one bad news cycle,” he said.
At the same time, Franken keeps his self-pity mostly to himself because he fears making it too public it would not be well-received.
“I don’t think people who have been sexually assaulted, and those kinds of things want to hear from people who’ve been #MeToo’d that they’re victims,” he said.
Franken’s expressed regret about resignation is surely sincere.
He could have clung desperately to his post in face of widespread condemnation, just as Virginia’s Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam did after old pictures of him in blackface were published.
But, just like the regrets expressed by his Democratic Senate colleagues, it’s far too late to worry about what he “coulda, woulda and shoulda” done two years ago.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at email@example.com or by phone at 217-351-5369.