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The politics of sexual harassment

Senator Al Franken in March. Al Drago/New York Times/File

I always thought Harvard had standards. Then they gave me a fellowship.

One of the best things about a Harvard fellowship is you get to sit around and shoot the breeze with other fellows from other fellowships. Fourteen years ago, one of those other fellows was Al Franken.

This was when Al Franken was a comedian, not a politician, though sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish between the two occupations.

We were sitting in a stately white Greek Revival house in Cambridge and Franken was explaining how he had assembled a team of graduate students as researchers for a book that would expose the hypocrisy of right-wing bloviators.


At some point, a woman asked Franken about Ann Coulter. His response was to call Coulter an “anorexic [expletive].” The specific expletive begins with the letter “c” and is arguably the most vile epithet you can call a woman.

Now, I had always heard the phrase, “the air went out of the room,” but I didn’t know what it meant until that moment.

When the woman who asked the question rebuked him for using such degrading language, Franken doubled down, repeated his profane put-down, and added a few more choice words for good measure. It wasn’t funny. It was mean-spirited. He came across as an arrogant jerk.

I suppose there are some people, maybe many people, who would not be bothered by Franken or anybody else using that kind of language to describe Ann Coulter. Coulter, after all, has made millions while insulting and degrading others. That’s her stock-in-trade.

She accused 9/11 widows of being selfish, saying, “I’ve never seen people enjoying their husbands’ death so much.”

During a speech, Coulter defended her belief that Muslims should not be allowed on airplanes, and, in reply to a Muslim student who objected, Coulter said: “Take a camel.”


Coulter said her only regret regarding Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh is that McVeigh didn’t bomb The New York Times building instead.

So, no, Ann Coulter is not a nice person. But speaking about her the way Franken did that day made him no better.

Now Franken stands accused of sexually harassing, at last count, two women. His detractors want him to resign from the Senate. His defenders say what he did is not as bad as what Roy Moore, the Republican Senate nominee from Alabama, and President Trump are accused of doing to women. Heck, you could throw in that what Franken is accused of doing is not as bad as what Bill Clinton was accused of doing to women.

Hyperpartisanship is a symptom of the diseased state of American democracy. The national conversation about sexual abuse and harassment that has been prompted by revelations over the last couple of years about the right-wing frat house that was Fox News and, more recently, the Hollywood-enabled depravity of producer and liberal icon Harvey Weinstein has highlighted how so many people minimize the indecent and even illegal actions of those whose politics they share and obsess about the transgressions of political opposites.

Powerful people often evade accountability. All that the victims and survivors of sexual abuse and harassment have are their stories, their truths.


White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders spoke more truth than she probably intended when defending Trump’s shameless hypocrisy in attacking Franken.

“Senator Franken has admitted wrongdoing and the president hasn’t,” she said.

There you have it. Just deny it. Simple.

I’m not surprised that fundamentalist Christians will still vote for Moore. They want to live in a theocracy, not a democracy. I’m not surprised by the rank hypocrisy of Trump supporters who don’t believe any of the women who have accused Trump while believing all of the women who accused Bill Clinton.

But even while Franken’s politics are often mine, and he deserves credit for being forthright, I’m uncomfortable with his defenders pointing at others’ behavior to minimize his. He owns what he’s said and done.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.