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Monday, January 21 , 2019, 9:29 pm | A Few Clouds 53º


Jamie Stiehm: Al Franken First Senator to Fall in Cultural Fires

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said he’d step down within weeks, under intense pressure. A secret past of sexually accosting and mocking women came to claim his future. But the truth is, it’s not a tragedy.

In a flat farewell floor speech, Franken said he is a “champion of women.” He said he was innocent of some charges. After, he exchanged silent hugs with about 20 Democrats. Only one Republican, Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, clasped Franken’s hand to wish him well. Relief permeated the chamber.

Ironically, Senate Democrats cleared a cloud of sexual harassment allegations just as Senate Republicans may add a notorious man accused of sexually harassing and assaulting girls, Roy Moore of Alabama, to their ranks. (The election is Tuesday.)

In a rare rush to get rid of a colleague, 32 Senate Democrats (out of 48) publicly urged Franken to resign Wednesday as the number of accusers mounted to seven.

Pointedly, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said the rising number of women coming forward made the difference.

“Democrats take this (sexual misconduct) very seriously,” she told me. “I wish Republican colleagues did as well. I wish the White House did as well.”

A lead voice was Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., but after several Democratic women spoke out against Franken, a crashing wave of men senators joined the call. When the respected Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., made clear he thought Franken should go, Franken had few friends left, not even Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

The Senate is personal that way. It can be coldblooded.

Sexual misconduct rapidly became a cultural flash point, like a raging river, this fall. Still, you may wonder why these “Silence Breakers” defined the times, according to Time magazine’s Person of the Year.

The answer is: simply, an answer.

Angry white men remain President Donald Trump’s loyal base, despite his admission of preying on women. As a collective counterpoint, women are speaking out of an anger of their own to answer abuse in the workplace by powerful men.

The dangerous blazes burning large swaths of California are an apt metaphor for the larger conversation. Some say a “reckoning.”

Franken is the first senator to be counted a casualty of that flash fire.

Days earlier, a powerful congressman, Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., announced he’d retire under similar circumstances, a pattern of accusers. Conyers, 88, considered a civil rights beacon, was the oldest member of the House of Representatives. Angering the Congressional Black Caucus, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., reluctantly called for him to step down.

When Conyers did resign, speaking from a hospital bed, the riptides of the House and Senate produced such a political fusion that Franken ran out of time to take his case to a Senate Ethics Committee investigation. Conyers’ stature in the House was greater than Franken’s in the Senate. Once Conyers fell, Franken’s fate was a matter of time.

By losing these two visible lawmakers, Democrats can say they “get” an incendiary issue that really matters to voters.

Contrary to his book, Al Franken, Giant of the Senate, Franken is no giant. Modesty is not his strong suit. His brash manner suggests Harvard (his alma mater) and New York, not the Minnesota state fair.

Now, at 66, the former Saturday Night Live comedian’s presidential aims were no news to anyone. He was dead serious about it, aside from an occasional cackle on the ceremonious floor.

Playing on a new stage, the Senate since 2009, Franken cultivated a new image. The entertainer was gone and in his place was an earnest lawmaker who prided himself on doing his homework, especially for the Senate Judiciary Committee.

One shining moment as a senator was when he grilled then-Sen. Jefferson Sessions, R-Ala., about any Russian contacts during Sessions’ confirmation hearing for his nomination as attorney general. This testimony later caught Sessions in a bind.

Yet the faintly misogynist tone of Saturday Night Live proved hard to shake. The jokes he wrote involved rape, and in his last book, Franken refused to express regret, saying that was his job.

But lo and behold, a political presidential star is born. Now it’s Gillibrand, on the floor to bid Franken a gracious goodbye.

Jamie Stiehm writes about politics, culture and history as a weekly Creators Syndicate columnist and regular contributor to U.S. News & World Report. Follow her on Twitter: @jamiestiehm. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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