An accusation that Minnesota Sen. Al Franken kissed another entertainer on a USO tour without her consent and a photo that shows him groping her while she was asleep will be a test of how much the rules have changed in the last few weeks.
On Thursday morning, KABC news talk radio host Leeann Tweeden wrote that Franken forcibly kissed her during rehearsals for a sketch on a USO tour in the Middle East in 2006, then retaliated against her when she criticized him and later took a photo mockingly grabbing her breasts while she was asleep.
“We did the line leading up to the kiss and then he came at me, put his hand on the back of my head, mashed his lips against mine and aggressively stuck his tongue in my mouth,” Tweeden wrote. “I immediately pushed him away with both of my hands against his chest and told him if he ever did that to me again I wouldn’t be so nice about it the next time.”
Within an hour, Franken issued a formal statement of apology, though he denied her version of events.
“I certainly don’t remember the rehearsal for the skit in the same way, but I send my sincerest apologies to Leeann,” he said in a statement emailed to reporters. “As to the photo, it was clearly intended to be funny but wasn’t. I shouldn’t have done it.”
As a former comedian, actor and “Saturday Night Live” cast member, Franken has long benefited from a loophole in how politicians are treated by the public. While a career politician might have faced tough questions over the fact that they wrote a book calling someone “a big fat idiot,” as Franken did of conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh in 1999, it was understood that the Minnesota Democrat was being playful. The same went for his most recent book, in which he mockingly refers to himself as a “Giant of the Senate.”
But while voters tend to judge politicians harshly over their personal conduct, they’ve been more forgiving of entertainers. So when entertainers move into politics, things that might have been a scandal tend to get overlooked.
Take Ronald Reagan, a former actor who became the first president to have been divorced by winning over social conservatives. Or Arnold Schwarzenegger, a former bodybuilder-turned-actor who overcame allegations that he groped women and once praised Hitler in an interview to serve two terms as governor of California. Or Jesse Ventura, a former pro-wrestler turned actor who overcame an eccentric public image and a penchant for saying outrageous things to serve as governor of Minnesota.
“In October, only a week or so before the election, Jesse gives a speech and says he’s in favor of legalizing drugs and prostitution — and he went up in the polls,” campaign strategist Dean Barkley recalled years later. “Who else could do that?”
Or take Donald J. Trump, the real estate magnate turned tabloid bold name turned product pitchman turned reality TV actor who overcame a lawsuit that he misled students at Trump University, multiple accusations that he sexually harassed and improperly touched women and a tape in which he told a reporter that he fondles women.
“And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything,” Trump said in the video with NBC’s Billy Bush, then of “Access Hollywood.” “Grab them by the p—y,” he continued. “You can do anything.”
Those comments were a perfect distillation of how the celebrity loophole worked. While entertainers and other celebrities may have behaved poorly, their behavior rarely led to consequences for their careers. And once they had survived — and even thrived — after that surfaced, they were able to move into politics without facing repercussions.
But something may have changed in the last few weeks. The revelations that Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein systematically harassed and allegedly even assaulted women working with him led to his ouster. Other celebrities have seen their career prospects dimmed in the wake of similar claims. America may have reached a turning point in what kinds of behavior it will accept from its celebrities.
And if that’s true, then celebrity politicians may be next.