Before Al Franken became a senator for Minnesota, he was best known as a comedy writer and sometimes actor on Saturday Night Live. During the second Iraq war, in 2006, Franken performed on a USO tour in Kuwait with radio host and former model Leeann Tweeden — who has now come forward to accuse him of kissing and groping her without her consent.
In a story for her LA radio station’s website, Tweeden recounted two incidents from the tour with Franken. The first happened while they were rehearsing for a portion of their USO show. Tweeden said that she was only expecting to be the host of the show, but that Franken had written her into one of his skits, which involved a bit where he would try to kiss her.
“‘We need to rehearse the kiss,'” Tweeden recalled Franken telling her. “I laughed and ignored him. Then he said it again. I said something like, ‘Relax Al, this isn’t SNL… we don’t need to rehearse the kiss.'” Although she was sure she would be able to dodge the actor while they were on stage, she said he insisted on rehearsing that portion of the show.
“I said ‘OK’ so he would stop badgering me,” Tweeden wrote in her article. “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 said that after escaping and heading to the washroom to “rinse the taste of him out of [her] mouth,” she composed herself and went on with the show as planned. At the time, she was afraid of saying anything, so she remained silent, even though Franken allegedly verbally harassed her by calling her names. But this was not her only encounter with the comedian, and the second was caught on camera.
Leaving Afghanistan on Christmas Eve, Tweeden fell asleep on their transport while still wearing her flak jacket and helmet. Once back home, she went through the photos the official cameraperson had snapped during the tour, and she came across one of her sleeping, with Franken standing over her, groping her over her kevlar vest.
“I wanted to shout my story to the world with a megaphone to anyone who would listen, but even as angry as I was, I was worried about the potential backlash and damage going public might have on my career as a broadcaster,” she wrote. Afraid no longer, Tweeden has now come forward, and Congress has been quick to condemn Senator Franken’s alleged actions.
Shortly after Tweeden published her story, Senator Franken released a statement about her claims. “I certainly don’t remember the rehearsal for the skit in the same way, but I send my sincerest apologies to Leeann. As to the photo, it was clearly intended to be funny but wasn’t. I shouldn’t have done it.”
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has since called for a Senate Ethics Committee investigation, and senators on both sides of the aisle agreed that an investigation would be prudent. Since his initial comment, Senator Franken has released a longer, clearer message, including a complete apology.
“The first thing I want to do is apologize: to Leanne, to everyone else who was part of that tour, to everyone who has worked for me, to everyone I represent and to everyone who counts on me to be an ally and supporter and champion of women,” he said in a statement.
“I respect women. I don’t respect men who don’t,” he continued. “But I want to say something else, too. Over the last few months, all of us — including and especially men who respect women — have been forced to take a good, hard look at our own actions and think (perhaps, shamefully, for the first time) about how those actions have affected women.”
“For instance, that picture. I don’t know what was in my head when I took that picture, and it doesn’t matter. There’s no excuse. I look at it now and I feel disgusted with myself. It isn’t funny. It’s completely inappropriate. It’s obvious how Leeann would feel violated by that picture. And, what’s more, I can see how millions of other women would feel violated by it — women who have had similar experiences in their own lives, women who fear having those experiences, women who look up to me, women who have counted on me.”
“Coming from the world of comedy, I’ve told and written a lot of jokes that I once thought were funny but later came to realize were just plain offensive. But the intentions behind my actions aren’t the point at all. It’s the impact these jokes had on others that matters. And I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to come to terms with that.”
The senator then asked that McConnell’s ethics investigation be undertaken and said he would fully cooperate.
“The truth is, what people think of me in light of this is far less important than what people think of women who continue to come forward to tell their stories. They deserve to be heard, and believed. And they deserve to know that I am their ally and supporter. I have let them down and am committed to making it up to them.”
(Photos via Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Sports Spectacular + Jessica Kourkounis/Getty)