What Al Franken’s Sad Resignation Can Teach Joe Biden

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Al Franken. Photograph by Geordie Wood for The New Yorker

President Joe Biden is one of many elected officials who faced the tough decision of resigning from public office.

These decisions are massive blows to their egos, legacy, lifestyle, and craving for the benefits of being an influential person.

Biden, however, can learn from an earlier example that forced a rising star in the Democratic Party, the eloquent, popular, and rising Democratic senator Al Franken.

Franken’s political and entertainment career was exceptional.  He attended Harvard and worked for SNL as a writer and performer until 1980, again during 1985–95, and briefly in 2008.  He shared four Emmy Awards for writing on the show and received nine additional nominations.  He was the author of three books and a radio host. 

He then entered politics and represented Minnesota in the U.S. Senate from 2009 to 2018.  As a political novice and former comedian, like the Ukrainian president Vladimir Zelinsky, Franken was articulate, championed liberal and progressive legislation, was popular with constituents, was a fluid, eloquent speaker, and asked penetrating questions to people who appeared before senate committees. 

Al Franken on SNL

But Franken was also in office at the height of political correctness, during the #MeToo movement’s peak, and the emerging case against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and the late sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein.  This ignited the public and called for close examinations of individual business operations, executive behavior,  and a re-examination of human resources discrimination and sexual harassment policies.  This corporate introspection extended from the main street to corporate heads and elected officials in many parts of the nation. 

This re-examination excavated old social media posts, televised and radio interviews, anecdotes, and photos. It was both a witch hunt and a legitimate re-examination of how men and women interact in the workplace. 

Franken was a victim in this environment.  As a public official, he was a visible target, a talented speaker, and someone with positive name recognition.  As a comedian, he had a rich past pushing the boundaries of comedy and taste in comedy clubs and comedy tours, and as a Saturday Night Live cast member during what many regard as its best periods. 

In a May 2018 Vox article about the Franken case, Laura McGann wrote that “liberals have embraced #MeToo as an extension of their commitment to women’s equality. But practically, when the accused is one of their own, many liberals feel turning on him (Franken) unfairly holds Democrats to a higher standard than Republicans. Democrats must resolve this dilemma to move forward on Franken and cases like his.”

Then, according to the VOX article, “In the fall of 2017, a conservative radio personality, Leeann Tweeden, released an 11-year-old photo of Franken smiling with his hands over her breasts as she slept wearing a flak jacket on a flight home from a USO tour in Afghanistan. Seven more women accused Franken of strikingly similar and disturbing conduct. They described specific, detailed incidents in which he put his hands on their behinds or breasts during photos. Others recalled him trying to kiss them forcibly.”  Tweeden was later identified as a Trump supporter, and Tom Arnold said Republican dirty tricks man Roger Stone coached her about how to frame Arnold. 

In the rising #MeToo environment, a fellow senator, Kirsten Gillibrand(D-NY), jumped into the fray to ask Franken to resign.  At the same time, a special Senate election race in Alabama, where the Republican candidate had much more severe sexual allegation charges against him, was running for election against a Democrat.  Trump endorsed the Republican, and other Congressional Republicans failed to criticize his sexual allegation history. The Republican won, but Franken resigned even before a Senate Ethics Committee reviewed the entire matter.

However, the question remains whether Franken could have weathered the quick reaction. Did he resign for the party’s benefit or self-preservation?

When he resigned, Franken was 68 years old and would have had a promising political career ahead of him.  Who knows?  He could have been a possible VP candidate by now.

After Franken resigned, Democrats who voted to oust him had second thoughts.  Those who said Franken was unfairly treated were Senator Joe Manchin, Norman Ornstein, actor Tom Arnold, and journalist Jonathan Alter. 

In a July 2019 interview, Franken said he regretted his resignation. (See the video at the top of the article.)

The Biden-Franken Dilemma Comparison

So, what does this have to do with Biden’s decision to stay in the 2024 presidential race?

Biden and Franken have been the objects of very emotional and politically motivated responses to their actions.  Biden’s public debate performance was heavily criticized, and Franken’s resignation was triggered by a photo and verbal accusations, underscoring the situation’s intensity.

Both politicians face/faced a political reckoning.  Franken walked the plank and resigned.  Biden is pondering his next move.

Both men will face regrets, whatever their decisions are.

Both men have/had strong backers, supporters, and detractors.

When Franken resigned, he was just 68-years-old.  But he saw that he would have difficulty restoring his reputation quickly.  Third-party presidential candidate Robert Kennedy also has a history of sexual accusations and even admitted to not being a “choir boy” when he was younger.  That history does not bother him or his supporters.  Trump’s pathetic sexual predator history is well known, and it does not bother his supporters at all.

Biden’s decision will make or break his political legacy.  Franken resigned to save his party from looking hypocritical in the passion of the #Metoo movement.  He was a martyr for that cause, even though he was the most visible victim in a movement that never addressed the hypocrisy of the Republicans.  Senator Kristin Gillibrand should still be considered a politician who was situationally ethical with a very short-term focus.  She was a shorter-term hero to the #Metoo people, but she deprived the Democrats of a rising star, a politician who outshone her in his time in the Senate. 

Biden must consider the concept of aging. Unfortunately, we don’t know about the Fountain of Youth, Shangri-La, or the instance of Benjamin Button (the film character who goes through a reverse aging process). Franken’s rising political career was cut short when he was ousted from the Senate at 68. Biden faces the age fitness question at age xx.

Biden is asking voters to make a big political bet on the pace of his aging and how it would or would not impair his abilities. To the voters, this is a question that King Solomon could not answer.

Worse, it comes at the worst time in U.S. history when voters, whether they know it or not, will be deciding electing its first fascist president.  This is not unprecedented.  Dictators have been elected in democracies and near democracies before in South America, Asia, and Nazi Germany. 

If Trump wins, his election may mean it’s time for a mass re-education of the American electorate. Due to his announced economic policies alone, a Trump presidency will ignite inflation and unemployment and destroy most Americans’ wealth, which could take two years to recover. But if that’s the MAGA goal, the voters will decide.  

If Biden wants to bet he is getting younger by the day, it will be a medical first.  But if the Democrats want to re-invigorate the whole party, an open convention will attract and energize millions into the political process.  And that will do the exact opposite of what the current Democrat leaders are doing today.  Who knows?  Maybe Al Franken will be nominated?

Photograph by Geordie Wood for The New Yorker

 

 

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