Commentary: Al Franken's calculated strategy of non-denial
Sen. Al Franken has a strategy for getting out of his current mess. You can see it in action in an interview he gave this week to Esme Murphy, a reporter for CBS affiliate WCCO.
The Minnesota Democrat has been accused of groping several unwilling women and forcibly kissing another. There are two obvious responses to such accusations: Either admit them, apologize and ask for forgiveness, or deny them. Franken is refusing to do either.
You can see why he balks. If he admits it, especially in this moment of righteous anger against male sexual entitlement, pressure to resign will mount. Allies who are standing by him in the presence of doubt about what he did will desert him if that doubt dissolves to his disfavor. So he isn't going to admit anything unless there's photographic evidence.
If he denies the accusations, on the other hand, he will be at least implicitly attacking his accusers. An aggressive posture would go over badly, again especially in this moment of heightened awareness of how many women have struggled to get their accurate testimony about male misbehavior believed. Denials could even draw forth more accusations.
Like Buridan's ass, he cannot choose.
In the interview, then, Franken gives a master class in how a politician can try to wriggle out of answering a question. Unfortunately for him, Murphy gives a master class in how a journalist can try to pin a politician down.
Murphy begins by asking Franken whether he indeed groped and forced kisses on women. Franken's response is worth quoting at length:
"Some women, and any is too many, have felt that I have crossed a line and I am terribly sorry about that. They feel that in these interactions I've done something to disrespect them and that's not my intention but what I know is that intention doesn't matter. What matters is we listen to women's experience and so I've been trying to think about -- you know, I feel terrible that they have felt this way. And I've been trying to think of how this could have happened and I know very well that I have to be much more careful and much more sensitive and --"
Murphy interrupts: "But, senator, these women are all using very similar language to describe basically their butt cheek being cupped or grabbed." She quotes Lindsay Menz, who says that when she met Franken at the 2010 Minnesota State Fair and posed for a photo with him, he put his hand "tightly around my butt cheek." The reporter asks, "When you grab somebody's butt, don't you know it?"
Franken then offers 140 or so words, starting with, "I understand that. And I again I am going to have to do everything I can going forward to be enormously sensitive."
Again Murphy breaks in: "I guess, you know, just going back to the specific allegations though, are they mistaken that their butt was grabbed? Is that what you're saying?"
"I am not saying that," Franken responds, adding that he does not remember these events. Murphy asks whether he thinks "this happened unintentionally." Franken says he never had the intent to make anyone "uncomfortable" and repeats his line that his intent didn't matter.
On and on it goes. He says he respects women's feelings. Murphy says that Menz "feels that you molested her." Franken says he feels very bad about it. Murphy keeps asking Franken specific, factual questions about what took place.
Franken keeps responding by talking about feelings: his feelings, the women's feelings, and his feelings about their feelings. At every turn he redirects attention away from the realm of objective fact to the more nebulous zone of emotion (or, in the case of Leeann Tweeden, a model who says he "forcibly kissed" and groped her during a 2006 USO tour, the haze of conflicting memories). He is very sorry, he says, that women felt "disrespected." What the women say they felt was his hand on their butt cheeks: words Murphy keeps having to use.
This isn't a he-said, she-said story. The women are giving their stories, and he's just emitting vapor. "What matters is we listen to women's experience," he says.
Listen, without believing, or disbelieving. Without, that is, taking their claims seriously. It is a rhetorical strategy as clever as it is shameless. At the moment it appears to be working.
- Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.