Lili Loofbourow is typically excellent on the topic of Jane Mayer’s attempted exculpation of Al Franken. The opening alone is a work of art.
Former Sen. Al Franken has gotten his revenge on Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. The former Saturday Night Live star, bestselling author, and senator came out of seclusion to tell the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer his side of the story about one of the eight allegations of improper conduct that accrued over a period of three weeks in 2017 and led to his resignation. He remembers Leeann Tweeden, the conservative talk radio host who was the first to go public with allegations, but not seven other women who accused him of unwanted touching or attempted kissing. Mayer’s story is sympathetic; it plays up Franken’s account of his haplessness, dejection, decency, and ineptitude. So successfully does Franken convey this sad sack impression of himself that you might almost miss the way he knifed his one-time squash partner’s flailing presidential candidacy. This wasn’t strictly necessary. Gillibrand’s campaign was already underwater, partly because so many Democrats blame her specifically for his resignation from the Senate. But no casual reader of this story could suspect him of anything like revenge. He is a “clumsy” guy, as a former colleague says; he’s a guy who falls backward off chairs because his backpack is too heavy. A guy who doesn’t even chew right, who has so little sense of how he comes across that his staffers have to monitor him so he doesn’t accidentally offend. A man whose large hands might explain inadvertent extra touching. A backturtle. A bumbler.
I’ve gotten so used to seeing the formulation that Gillibrand stabbed Franken in the back that it’s a palpable relief to be reminded that she had skin in the game too, and that she too has been damaged by the narrative that she did anything wrong (which, unlike Franken, she didn’t). But wait, it gets better.
Jane Mayer, one of the nation’s greatest investigative reporters, isn’t anyone’s puppet. But she also makes clear that what she found through her investigations has put her firmly on the ex-senator’s side. “How @alfranken got railroaded,” she tweeted when she shared the story. One can admire her investigative work without necessarily agreeing with the implied conclusions. Franken’s self-presentation as an ineffectual schlub, for instance, struck me as more than a little theatrical. A gifted politician in search of redemption doesn’t fail to plan for a famous investigative reporter’s visit, even if, as he says, he needed medication for clinical depression after his resignation. That Franken hadn’t even opened the blinds or put on shoes made me wonder; depending on his needs, even a sincerely depressed performer is capable of choreographing the spectacle of his abjection. But the portrait that emerges by consensus in the piece doesn’t credit him as being capable of any such calculus. Everyone agrees that Franken—a 68-year-old politician, author, and gifted performer—is well-meaning but shockingly inept and socially unskilled. “Franken could be physically obtuse,” Mayer writes. “Staffers had told him not to swing his arms so much when he walked, and to close his mouth when he chewed.” Equivalences are made between clumsiness and thoughtlessness—Franken leaving the house with an untucked shirt is equated with not picking up his own wet towels as a guest in friends’ homes. This slow progression of things shoved under the umbrella of “clumsiness” even comes to include a tendency “to hug many people, and kiss some, even on the mouth.” (A risky move, but Sarah Silverman saves him by describing him as “a social—not a sexual—‘lip-kisser.’ ”)
Gillibrand—a senator and friend of Franken’s who was repeatedly grilled about her colleague’s conduct as eight allegations against him mounted—gets no equivalent presumption of well-meaning awkwardness. Her positions are qualified with quotation marks, calling the sincerity of certain claims into question (“donors sympathetic to Franken have stunted her fund-raising and, Gillibrand says, tried to ‘intimidate’ her ‘into silence,’ ” for instance, or “Gillibrand has cast herself as a feminist champion of ‘zero tolerance’ toward sexual impropriety”). Things Gillibrand does are coded as not merely insincere but calculating and cruel: She “added insult to injury” by sponsoring that bill Franken asked her to sponsor. A former donor calls her “opportunistic.”
By contrast, Franken—an intelligent man—is widely understood to have no intentionality whatsoever. Gillibrand may “cast” herself as a feminist, but Franken is so regretful and confused and upset and supportive of #MeToo that it seems impossible to imagine him “casting” himself as anything at all. That’s a little weird considering he literally cast himself as a creep in the sketch the first allegation is about, so he presumably has some grasp of how self-presentation works (and doesn’t). His defenders cast him as well-meaning and lacking anything like guile or political cunning or even pride. His successes aren’t omitted, but they don’t register as hubris because others narrate them for him (feminists liked him, he was “talked up” as “a possible challenger to President Donald Trump in 2020,” etc.).
We’re all familiar with the way that privileged people get the presumption not just of innocence, but of guilelessness. Of being completely incapable of calculation, of being innately sincere and unrehearsed. This is particularly important when it comes to conflicts between men and women, because women never get the presumption of sincerity. Guile is assumed to be baked in to our every action and choice. We’ve seen that in the way that Gillibrand’s decision to call for Franken’s resignation has been painted as calculated, a stab in the back. More importantly, we’ve seen it in the assumption that being calculated and career-oriented is wrong, even if you’re a career politician. But as Loofbourow points out, calculation and rehearsed behavior are part and parcel of the toolkit of both politicians and performers, both of which Franken has been. The question is, who gets away with being rehearsed, and who gets castigated for it?
Comics and politicians may be weird, but they’re rarely oblivious. They calibrate and fine-tune their images and acts by measuring audience response at a level of granularity most of us aren’t capable of. Franken is so acutely aware of how things look that he steers people into the best possible light for photographs—in Mayer’s piece this is evidence of his thoughtfulness, but it’s also evidence of situational awareness, and of how he looks. As a senator, Franken’s interrogations were well-prepared, witty, and incisive enough to become viral YouTube clips—a history that doesn’t quite square with the image-obliviousness he sells in this piece. “He can be very aggressive interpersonally. He can say mean things, or use other people as props,” SNLwriter James Downey said, immediately adding that Franken couldn’t possibly be a sexual predator. These are the remarkable effects the bumbler alibi can achieve: A consummate politician and performer with an axe to grind has done a formidable job of coming across as a clownish but well-meaning oaf. The question is: Should we buy the portrayal? Or fact-check it?