He might have been hauled out into the light by the media like a surprised, blinking raccoon tugged by the tail out of a trashcan. That’s happened to a lot of powerful men lately. But Garrison Keillor, the creator of “A Prairie Home Companion,” the radio show that made a mythical, small town in Minnesota famous, is public-relations savvy. He got out in front of his scandal with a carefully crafted apology/excuse/denial.
Minnesota Public Radio and National Public Radio were firing him because of a “story.” He was, Keillor claimed, just comforting an unhappy colleague when his hand accidentally slid up under her blouse. When she recoiled, he apologized, and so it was all innocent. They were friendly friends thereafter, until his friend surprisingly hired a lawyer. His friend had betrayed their friendship.
It’s hard to believe MPR and NPR would fire a fellow who had earned them millions over a kindly hand going astray. But let’s be just as kindly as Keillor claims his wandering appendage of comfort was. We will recall another radio star’s tag line, and reserve judgment until we hear “the rest of the story.”
But we don’t have to hold fire on something he did just before his firing was made public. In a bizarre piece written for the Washington Post, Keillor made an apologia for the actions of U.S. Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.).
Franken, it has been charged, while on a 2006 USO tour with Leeann Tweeden, a radio news anchor on KABC and a former Playboy model, got the urge to kiss her. Such is natural and the continuation of the species relies on men and women finding each other beguiling. In civilized circles, one waits, often employing dinner, a movie, and sweet talk to coax along events, ‘til the object of the desire evinces some signal that they will appreciate a kiss.
Sometimes, an unwanted kiss can get a slap in return or a put-down that hurts worse. Charles Boyer, the French screen star of the 1930s and ’40s, who set hearts fluttering around the world with his steamy romantic scenes (they inspired the creation of the amorous cartoon skunk Pepé Le Pew), was once asked about his first kiss. He said that as a schoolboy he had fallen in love with his teacher. He managed to approach her alone and steal a kiss. The surprised teacher had been amused and laughed. Boyer, the suave ladies man, said that he had never kissed a woman after that without expecting laughter. It’s a rueful, romantic story from a more innocent age. Franken’s pursuit of a kiss involved no romance and it wasn’t innocent.
When Tweeden showed no interest in him, Franken took advantage of his position as the star of the tour to write a skit for the show that included a kiss scene. He then insisted on rehearsing it. When Tweeden expressed reluctance, he apparently got annoyed. Franken is known to have a short fuse and to angrily confront those who don’t find him delightful. He insisted on the kiss. Tweeden finally agreed. She says, “[Franken] put his hand on the back of my head, mashed his lips against mine and aggressively stuck his tongue in my mouth.” She has also said, “His mouth is just wet and slimy and to this day I call him ‘Fish Lips.'” She says that she immediately went to a bathroom to wash out her mouth. When the time came for the kiss on stage, Tweeden turned her head so Franken could only kiss her cheek.
During the rest of the tour, Tweeden says Franken took every opportunity for petty revenge. He, for example, drew devil horns on a photo of her she had autographed for a soldier. The worst of these vindictive slights occurred while she was asleep on the aircraft flying them home. Franken had himself photographed leering and groping her breasts. She didn’t learn of this “joke” until the tour was over and the participants received a memorial CD of photos taken during it. The picture, Tweeden believes, like the other childish acts, was meant to put her in her place.
Tweeden kept quiet, fearing her career would suffer, until the Weinstein scandal made it easier for women to come forward. Other women joined her in reporting bad behavior by Franken. They said he had cupped their bottoms when being photographed with him. Franken made an apology in which he said he had “hugged” thousands of women during photos because he was a hugging kind of guy. He said many of these photos had been taken in close confines, which apparently meant his hand could only find room for itself on the buttocks of the women. He said he couldn’t remember doing anything wrong, and said he would learn from that which he couldn’t remember.
Franken also “welcomed” a Senate ethics committee investigation of his behavior. It was a bit like what happened when Saddam Hussein was hauled out of his underground hidey-hole (rather like a raccoon, come to think of it) after the defeat of Iraq and he declared he was prepared to negotiate.
On the other hand, Franken may have little to worry about, for the committee is notorious for taking months to investigate bad behavior and then issuing gentle slaps on the wrist that get reported on the pages next to the classified ads for yard sales and offers of free kittens. Franken has proclaimed he is going back to work and has, for some unknown reason, been pounding away at causes women like championed.
This brings us to Keillor’s Post commentary, in which he excused Franken’s behavior. Keillor doesn’t mention the forced kiss. Instead, he pompously informs us that Franken was a comedian and linked his harassment to the history of comedy. It’s true that back in the days of old when knights were bold, a glib fellow in a belled hat could caper around a tavern with a five-foot fake phallus, also belled, goosing this bar wench and that and everyone had a good laugh before dying from some pox.
“Low” comedy has gotten laughs through the ages, and USO tours famously include suggestive jokes to amuse their primarily male audiences. Pretty girls are also traditional. They’re included to remind the boys “of what you’re fighting for.” But Keillor should know there’s a big difference between a girl passing suggestive remarks on stage and being expected to provide sexual favors offstage.
Keillor shares Franken’s progressive politics and his column digresses to attack President Trump for his “playboy blather, the smirk of privilege, the stunning contempt for factual truth.” Actually, Keillor’s insistence that “Miss Tweeden knew what the game was” when she went on the USO tour is playboy blather that Hugh Hefner, himself, would have shied away from blathering. Franken was smirking in the infamous photo, confident that he could obscure his revenge as a joke. His smirk doesn’t bother Keillor. A-list celebrities, like him and Franken, get the privilege of using those further down the alphabet. Finally, Keillor showed his own contempt for truth when he wrote the column without telling the Post that he was about to get the chop for exactly the kind of behavior he was defending. They fired him for lack of “transparency.”
Keillor’s fall brought an immediate storm of protest. His fans insisted he was a kind, gracious humanitarian that would never do such things. Weren’t his warm-hearted stories proof that he was himself warm hearted? He was polite at book signings, not foaming at the mouth, grunting obscenities, and ravaging the women who asked for his autograph.
Fans often confuse a performer with his role, imagining the soap opera’s devious diva really is a husband stealer and that the a fella who mellifluously regaled them about the humble pleasure of sipping lemonade on a summer evening on a porch while watching fireflies flicker would never be a crude groper.
But would a nice guy tell a woman performing in a USO tour, or any other kind of show or, indeed, holding any kind of job, that she should tolerate sexual abuse?