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Opinion: Al Franken and the Long Goodbye

Minnesota Democrat handled difficult speech about as well as he could

Minnesota Sen. Al Franken and his wife, Franni, leave the Capitol on Thursday after he announced on the Senate floor that he will resign his seat “in the coming weeks.” (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Minnesota Sen. Al Franken and his wife, Franni, leave the Capitol on Thursday after he announced on the Senate floor that he will resign his seat “in the coming weeks.” (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Claiming the distinction of being, at 6 feet 9 inches, the tallest senator in history and ignoring the pesky detail of having lost an Alabama Republican primary to Roy Moore, Luther Strange delivered his farewell address Thursday morning.

It was a good-humored speech filled with predictable references to “this hallowed institution” that was in keeping with Strange’s short-lived Capitol Hill career as the appointed fill-in for Jeff Sessions, now the attorney general.

There was one memorable aspect to Strange’s 25-minute attempt to bid adieu to a Senate he barely knew.

Explaining the roots of his interest in public service, Strange harked back to how fascinated he became with the Watergate hearings as a basketball-playing Tulane undergraduate in 1973. The bipartisan hearings chaired by Sam Ervin raised for Strange the question: “What are the responsibilities of citizens in a republic when that republic’s institutions are tested?”

It is a question as relevant today with Donald Trump in the White House as it was in the days when Richard Nixon was proving that the cover-up is worse than the crime.

The last farewell 

The senator most likely to have seen the comic irony in Strange invoking Watergate as Republicans cheerfully looked on was otherwise preoccupied Thursday morning. Al Franken was preparing a farewell address of his own.

A month ago, Franken was promoting his comic memoir, “Giant of the Senate,” and musing on a 2020 race for president. Now, after most of his Democratic colleagues urged him to resign over sexual harassment charges, Franken faced the abrupt end of his political career.

In composing his farewell address overnight, Franken undoubtedly understood the dramatic requirements of the rhetorical form. The comedian-turned-politician might have bowed out with abject apologies and a tearful confession. Or he might have wallowed in self-pity as he railed against the lynch mob atmosphere driving him out of the Senate.

Instead, Franken tried something difficult that opened himself up to charges of hypocrisy.

The beleaguered Minnesota Democrat began his 11-minute speech by stressing that “all women deserve to be heard and their experiences taken seriously.” But Franken quickly pivoted to restating his innocence: “Some of the allegations against me are simply not true. Others I remember very differently.”

Maybe Franken was doomed from the moment that former model Leeann Tweeden released a picture from a 2006 USO tour that appeared to show Franken groping her (or pretending to) as she slept on a military plane. Or maybe the senator could have ridden out the storm if Politico this week had not run a story about Franken trying to kiss an unnamed congressional aide at a radio taping. This attempted kiss allegedly took place in 2006 — three years before Franken entered the Senate.

In Franken’s defense, he was under no obligation to offer a confession that might have been borrowed from a Soviet show trial if he sincerely believed that his actions have been misconstrued.

There was no contradiction between Franken’s claim that he would have been vindicated by the Senate Ethics Committee and his decision to resign his seat. Spending months and even years under a legal cloud was a distasteful form of limbo that would have rendered Franken a Capitol Hill circus act rather than an effective senator.

One of the hardest things in journalism is to regard any political act at face value. It is so much safer to take refuge in cynicism and believe that there are dark forces lurking beneath the surface of all public events.

Exit left

That said, I believe Franken handled the most difficult speech of his career about as well as he could. No one in Congress expects that he or she will have to sum up an entire career in a short speech on less than 24 hours notice.

As the former “Saturday Night Live” comic spoke on the Senate floor, often with a small smile on his face, he referred three times to the patron saint of Minnesota liberal politics, Paul Wellstone. A former college professor-turned-senator, Wellstone died in a 2002 plane crash as he ran for a third term after defiantly voting against authorizing the use of force in the Iraq War.

Wellstone — probably my favorite of all the political figures I’ve covered — combined a devotion to principle (hence, the brave Iraq vote when other Democrats were panicking) with a puckish joy in campaigning. Summoning the ghost of Wellstone was Franken’s way of reminding Minnesotans (and maybe himself) of the kind of senator that he aspired to be.

In forcing Franken from the Senate, his Democratic colleagues are gambling that the added chances of defeating Roy Moore in Alabama are worth the risk of losing Franken’s seat in a November 2018 special election. Eliminating Franken — and the lesser-known John Conyers in the House — erase most Republican “what about?” talking points on sexual harassment.

That is probably why Franken allowed himself to mix in a little political mischief in his final Senate speech: “I, of all people, am aware that there is some irony in the fact that I am leaving, while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office and a man who has repeatedly preyed on young girls campaigns for the Senate.”

Franken’s career in elective office is over. In his statement, he insisted, “I may be resigning my seat, but I’m not giving up my voice.” What role Franken can play when — fairly or not — he is seen as the punch line to someone else’s joke remains unclear.

But if he is remembered for one thing in his farewell address, it should be this line: “What I want you to know is that even today, even on the worst day of my political life, I feel like it’s all been worth it.” 

Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.  

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