Al Franken, satirist turned senator, resigns amid sexual misconduct allegations


WASHINGTON, DC – MARCH 28: Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) speaks during a Senate Energy Subcommittee hearing discussing cybersecurity threats to the U.S. electrical grid and technology advancements to maximize such threats on Capitol Hill on March 28, 2017 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

May 04 2021 05:30 pm

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., the former “Saturday Night Live” comic who made an improbable journey to become a leading liberal voice in the Senate, announced on Thursday that he will leave office in the coming weeks, after a string of allegations of sexual misconduct and mounting pressure from Democratic lawmakers to step down.

“Today I am announcing that in the coming weeks, I will be resigning as a member of the United States Senate,” Franken said during an emotional speech from the Senate floor.

His announcement comes a day after 35 Democratic senators called on their embattled colleague to step down. On Monday, Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, also accused of sexual misconduct, announced he was resigning following calls from leaders in his own party to quit.

“Enough is enough,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand wrote of the allegations against Franken in a Facebook post Wednesday. “The women who have come forward are brave and I believe them.”

In November, the two-term senator was swept up in the fast-moving avalanche of sexual misconduct and harassment allegations that have led to high-profile firings and resignations of a number of powerful men in Hollywood and the media. Minnesota’s Democratic governor, Mark Dayton, has the power to appoint Franken’s replacement, who would serve until the next statewide general election in November 2018.

Leeann Tweeden, a Los Angeles radio news anchor, was the first woman to come forward in mid-November. She claimed that during a 2006 USO tour Franken — who was not yet elected to the Senate — forcibly kissed her while they rehearsed a skit together and later groped her on a plane. An alarming photograph backed up her accusation.

After Tweeden told her story, several more women come forward to allege that Franken had groped them in public settings, prompting Franken to issue an apology as well as support a Senate Ethics Committee inquiry into his behavior.

“I’ve learned from recent stories that in some of those encounters, I crossed a line for some women — and I know that any number is too many. Some women have found my greetings or embraces for a hug or photo inappropriate, and I respect their feelings about that,” he said.

But a Politico report published Wednesday morning marked the beginning of the end for Franken’s colleagues. In it, a former congressional aide to the senator said he tried to forcibly kiss her in 2006, saying, “It’s my right as an entertainer.” Franken forcefully denied the account, which has not been verified by NBC News, but by the end of the day, 35 senators, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, had issued statements calling for his ouster.

Democratic strategists told NBC News that by pushing Franken to resign, Democrats believed they could regain the moral high ground and go after the GOP candidate for Senate in Alabama, Roy Moore, with a clean slate — drawing a sharper contrast with Republicans. Moore has been accused of sexual assault and pursuing girls as young as 14, allegations that he has denied.

From parodies to politics

Franken was elected to the Senate in 2008 in one of the closest elections in the history of the Senate, one that triggered a recount and was eventually decided by the Minnesota Supreme Court. He won by 312 votes.

He was re-elected to the Senate in 2014, winning 53 percent of the vote.

“It’s the story of a Midwestern Jewish boy of humble roots (the first in his family to own a pasta maker) who, after a thirty-five-year career in comedy, moved back home to challenge an incumbent senator,” Franken wrote in his 2017 political memoir “Al Franken, Giant of the Senate.”

“It’s the story of how, after spending a lifetime learning to be funny, I learned how not to be funny.”

Before entering the Senate, he hosted “The Al Franken Show” on Air America, the now-defunct liberal talk-radio network, from 2004 until 2007, when he announced he would run for office.

His career began as one of the early stars of “Saturday Night Live” in 1975.

He was born in New York City in 1951 but grew up in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, after his parents relocated there when he was 4. Franken began performing stand-up routines in Minneapolis clubs while he was in high school.

He graduated from Harvard in 1973, where he met his wife, Franni, with whom he has two kids. After Franken graduated, he signed on with SNL.

The first sketch he helped write lampooned President Gerald Ford, suggesting a new campaign slogan: “If he’s so dumb, why is he President?”

On SNL, Franken devised several impersonations, including TV preacher Pat Robertson and former Sen. Paul Tsongas.

He is perhaps best known for his SNL character Stuart Smalley, a satirical parody of a self-help guru who hosted “Daily Affirmation With Stuart Smalley,” which later became the subject of a film.

Smalley was best known for his catchphrase: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”

Franken told The New York Times Magazine that the character was borne out of going through a 12-step program with his wife during her battle with alcoholism.

“I was trying to explain recovery through a character,” Franken told the magazine. “He is a character that, at first blush, looks like kind of an idiot, but actually a lot of the stuff he’s trying to talk about is true.”

“I’m trying to express that you can learn things from people who you think aren’t smarter than you,” he added. “I’m embarrassed by how late in life I learned that.”

Franken left SNL in 1995 after being passed over for the Weekend Update anchor slot, which was given to Norm Macdonald.

Franken’s comedy ambitions, however, began in the second grade. He told People Magazine in a 1992 profile that he wrote what amounted to his first comedy sketch after he watched the girls in his second-grade class perform an “insipid” version of “I’m a Little Teapot.”

“I sat down and wrote a scathing parody,” he told the magazine. “I got the other boys together, and we dressed in drag [and staged it]. The girls were in tears.”

His political interests developed at that time, too.

He watched the 1960 conventions with his dad, Joe, who was a salesman and supported the Republican presidential candidate, Richard Nixon, he told People. Phoebe, his mother, who was a real estate agent, supported the Democrat, John F. Kennedy. At that young age, he told People, he sided with his father, but eventually sided with Democrats.

Franken’s political profile only grew after President Donald Trump’s historic election.

He sat on three Senate committees, including the powerful Judiciary Committee that is investigating allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, which helped elevate his profile among progressives by grilling Trump’s nominees and castigating the president.

He called Trump’s inauguration “perhaps the most depressing moment I’ve had since I entered politics, though that record has been repeatedly surpassed since Jan. 20,” according to Rolling Stone.

He sparred with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, with his interactions often drawing praise from progressives and ire from conservatives — and occasionally going viral on social media.

“I had a career in identifying absurdity, and I know it when I see it and it makes me question your judgment,” he told Neil Gorsuch, the president’s Supreme Court pick, during his confirmation hearing.

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