Guess what name produces an explosion of outrage if dropped in a conversation with many New York Democrats? Donald Trump? Mitch McConnell? Paul Ryan? Guess again. It’s Kirsten Gillibrand, the political assassin of Al Franken, widely seen as an opportunist who has so sharply changed some of her positions that it’s a wonder she’s not in traction from ideological whiplash.
Gillibrand was the first Democratic senator to call for Franken’s resignation after he was accused by several women last December of sexual misconduct — including posing for a goofy photograph appearing to grope a sleeping woman, a joke intended at her expense. If a picture is worth a thousand words, this one proved that Franken is a comedian who knows a sight gag when he sees one. The joke, however, turned out to be at Franken’s expense.
Gillibrand, leading the way, called for his head. The Senate minority leader, Charles Schumer, rendering the term “leader” meaningless, seconded the call — and Franken resigned from the Senate.
What, exactly, had Franken done? We may never know. Was he just kidding around or was he truly menacing? He denied some of the incidents and said he remembers others “very differently.” An ethics committee investigation might have determined the facts, but it was aborted by Gillibrand and Schumer; they had no patience with due process. They needed to show that the Democrats and the #MeToo movement were in alignment and immunized themselves from charges of hypocrisy. So, for the sake of what used to be called the collective, a mere person was sacrificed — no show trial, but an execution anyway.
Almost instantly, some of Gillibrand’s own supporters let her have it. Franken might have been a senator from Minnesota, but he was a revered figure among New York liberals. One Gillibrand fundraiser I spoke with said Gillibrand conceded her denunciation of Franken had cost her some support, mostly from older women. Younger women, Gillibrand told her, were on her side.
I have found the same generational divide. Older women undoubtedly had it worse in the workplace than younger women do now. Not only were jobs scarcer for women, but sexual harassment was much more common and sometimes needed to be suffered for the sake of a job. Thankfully, younger women have no need to abide harassment as a condition of employment. An era has ended. A round of applause, please.
But I do not applaud Gillibrand. In just a decade, she has wended her way from a traditional upstate moderate as a congresswoman to a statewide liberal as senator. Her once-harsh immigration policy and calls for English to be the country’s official language have gone populist. She was once a darling of Wall Street. Now she’s a tough critic. Changing positions is hardly admirable, but it is not disqualifying, either. Her constituency changed. So did her views. This is politics, after all.
But the hit on Franken showed a willingness to even betray a friend — and a good man — to advance a career. She was Franken’s pal, and had to know that he was respectful of women and admired by those who worked for him. She knew, too, that he was a good, conscientious, senator. None of that stopped her.
I, too, know Franken a bit. (He has never discussed Gillibrand with me.) We met years ago when he was doing his radio talk show and turning out best-selling books. One day he told me he was going to run for the Senate from Minnesota. I scoffed. I thought he would probably lose and, even if he won, he’d be just another junior senator. He’d have to spend his off hours on the phone raising money and all his weekends trudging through the snow visiting firehouses and senior centers. He had a good life, I told him. Sit tight. Sit pretty.
I was unprepared for his response. With an intensity I can still feel, he said he believed in public service. He believed in the liberal issues he had been promoting on radio and in his books. He wanted to do good. He said it with such force and conviction that I felt ashamed of my cynicism.
Gillibrand’s betrayal of Franken continues to haunt her. As reported by Politico, HuffPost and others, many on the left refuse to forgive her. She is now all-but-officially running for President, stalked by a reputation as an opportunist. If she wants to remedy that, she ought to concede she acted precipitously with Franken and denied him due process. For that, an apology is in order. That would show true leadership.