Franken, Murray and our overdue evolution

During better days, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., speaks about student loan legislation at a Capitol Hill news conference with fellow Democratic senators Patty Murray, Richard Durbin and Chales Schumer.
During better days, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., speaks about student loan legislation at a Capitol Hill news conference with fellow Democratic senators Patty Murray, Richard Durbin and Chales Schumer. AP file photo, 2014

For Al Franken, his inevitable exit from the U.S. Senate did not reach a tipping point this week so much as it did a shoving point. By midweek, the gathering storm of Franken’s colleagues, led by women from his party demanding he resign, moved faster than a southern California wildfire.

New allegations of sexual misconduct involving the Minnesota Democrat led to a swift rebuke from Washington senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, among many others.

“I’m shocked and appalled by Sen. Franken’s behavior,” Murray said in a statement Wednesday. “It’s clear to me that this has been a deeply harmful, persistent problem and a clear pattern over a long period of time.

“It’s time for him to step aside.”

Franken announced Thursday he would resign, while denying some of the claims against him.

As America’s sex harassment awakening shines a light on sexual improprieties and abuse of power, and as our state and U.S. capitols are unsettled by women who finally feel comfortable coming forward with their sobering stories, let’s reflect a moment on how the mindset of our leaders has evolved over a generation.

It’s an evolution that has progressed much more slowly, much more subtly, than the #metoo revolution convulsing our country these last few months.

And it’s an evolution that took regrettably long even for influential women to fully undergo — women who would seem most sympathetic to the problem, and most responsive to purging its perpetrators.

Women like Patty Murray, one of the country’s top three senators by rank.

Washington’s self-styled “mom in tennis shoes” was a freshman senator when Sen. Ted Kennedy, the formidable Massachusetts Democrat, faced a challenge from Mitt Romney. Murray, propelled to office during 1992’s “year of the woman,” campaigned for Kennedy in 1993.

Today, Kennedy’s reputation for chasing women and drinking excessively would likely draw condemnation and perhaps a Franken-esque push to step aside. Back then, Kennedy was re-elected with support from Murray and other Democratic women. “We’re going to be here for Ted because Ted has always been there for us,” Sen. Barbara Mikulski said.

Murray had more mileage on her tennis shoes in 1999 when she helped save President Bill Clinton from conviction in the Senate after his impeachment in the House. Reports of sexual indiscretion swirled around Clinton, but the Senate acquitted him of lying under oath and obstructing justice.

Today, a president might not survive the scandal. Back then, Clinton was free to serve out his second term with support from Murray and other Democratic women.

“This President’s behavior was reprehensible, but it does not threaten our nation,” Murray said in her floor speech explaining her “not guilty” vote on two articles of impeachment. “It is my hope that we can now turn the page on this sad part of America’s history and put an end to the recriminations.”

Today, the only things being put to an end are the tainted political careers of men like Al Franken and Rep. John Conyers. And there is no talk of turning the page on the #metoo movement; it has made landfall, and the landscape will never be the same. (Or at least one can hope.)

Turning against a powerful lecher in one’s own party is a lot safer now than it was a generation ago. It’s even become politically compulsory to do so, a reversal from the era of Bill and Ted’s (not so excellent) misadventures.

The fact that Murray, Cantwell and their colleagues are calling for Franken to step down is proof that evolution is not an individual effort; it takes a weather system of resistance. Murray said as much in Wednesday’s statement about Franken.

“This current evolution is long overdue,” she said. “It’s time for us as elected representatives to hold ourselves to a higher standard, to set an example, and to live a set of values that is truly representative and worthy of the Congress, our democracy, and our great country.”

Her use of the word “us” was well chosen.