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Analysis: Franken resignation sounded strikingly similar to 2008 apology

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., shown during a committee meeting in March 2017, says he's ashamed and embarrassed by allegations he groped women. Melina Mara / Washington Post

ST. PAUL -- Al Franken apologized about how he treated women.

"I've had some tough conversations this week," Franken said, adding that "it kills me" that Minnesotans could not count on him to champion women.

"I'm sorry for that, because that's not who I am," Franken said.

That was in June of 2008 when Franken's apology for comedy writings that offended women made the difference among Democratic activists who then endorsed him to run for Senate.

Nine years later, he sounded remarkably the same as he resigned from the Senate after eight women accused him of sexual misconduct. They said he forced kisses on them and otherwise touched them inappropriately.

They may have sounded similar in some ways, but his 2008 and 2017 apologies were different. In the first case, he offered a broad apology and said he was sorry for offending women. In 2017, he apologized for some events, but more often said he did not recall the incidents of sexual misconduct or that he remembered them differently than his women accusers.

In his resignation speech Thursday, Dec. 7, he said: "Some of the allegations against me are simply not true.  Others, I remember very differently."

Franken struggled to get enough support initially after his high-profile "Saturday Night Live"career when he first ran for office in 2008. He finally did after lots of work that included toning down his well-known personality.

Many delegates to the 2008 Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party convention in Rochester told reporters at the time that Franken did not have their support until after he apologized in a speech they felt was sincere.

"It kills me that things I said and wrote sent a message to some of my friends in this room and the people in this state that they can't count on me to be a champion for women and for all people of Minnesota, in this campaign and in the Senate," he said at the Rochester convention. "I'm sorry for that."

Democrat Franken's offenses included a 2000 Playboy magazine article about the joys of pornography and a 1995 magazine story that quoted him making a joke about rape.

There were other such examples that Republicans, in particular, dug up at the time from his years as "Saturday Night LIve" writer and star.

He narrowly beat sitting Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, but only after a drawn-out recount process that left Franken waiting more than six months to take his Senate seat.

Coleman's campaign manager, Cullen Sheehan, said as the 2008 campaign began that the GOP would attack Franken's record of crass comedy.

"His 30-year record in satire and comedy is one we’re going to be talking about," Sheehan said. "It's one that makes him unqualified, unprepared and unfit to be in the United States Senate."

Voters disagreed with Sheehan narrowly in 2008, but in his re-election bid in 2014 he won more easily.

In his first six-year term, Franken was quiet and seldom talked to national media. It was an effort to walk away from his brash comedy days. (He usually answered Minnesota reporters' questions.)

After his 2014 re-election, Franken began to go in front of reporters more often and this year became an outspoken voice against many of the stands taken by President Donald Trump.

Although he denied interest, Franken's name was tossed around as a potential presidential candidate.

That ended on Nov. 16 when Los Angeles radio host Leeann Tweeden went public with a story in which she said Franken forcibly kissed her while the two were part of a 2006 USO tour. She also posted online a photo of Franken holding his hands over her breasts as she slept on a military airplane flight on the tour.

After that, more than a half dozen other women have come forward with stories of his sexual misconduct

Franken specifically apologized for the USO photo, and said he was sorry if other women felt disrespected, but he often said he did not recall the incidents.

His apologies were more direct in 2008.

Franken said then that "for 35 years, I was a writer. I wrote a lot of jokes. Some of them weren't funny. Some of them weren't appropriate. Some of them were downright offensive."

The future senator said he understood voters' concerns. "And I understand that the people of Minnesota deserve a senator who won't say things that will make them feel uncomfortable."

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.