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Franken missed an opportunity to be kind to a witness

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Carrie Daklin
Carrie Daklin
Courtesy of Carrie Daklin

A friend sent me the clip of Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., questioning Tom Minnery during last week's Senate hearings on the repeal of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. 

Minnery is senior vice president of government and public policy for Focus on the Family. Franken is a former comedian. I remember watching him on "Saturday Night Live." His timing is impeccable. He also appears to be a consummate politician, an excellent spinner of rhetoric and facts.

Don't get me wrong. The senator has been elected by the people of Minnesota to represent us -- albeit in an election that, sadly, was a poster child for the polarization in both our state and our nation. I voted for him. He deserves respect. You don't have to agree with him, you don't have to like his politics, but you do have to respect him. He has earned that privilege.

And he is a great speaker. Not long ago, I heard him talk at a function celebrating the legacy of Hubert Humphrey. He was a wonderful raconteur: self-deprecating and charming, warm, witty and funny.

And that was an appropriate forum for humor. A legal proceeding is not.

I have testified in a trial. It is not fun, it is not exciting. It is stressful. You are out of your element. Your adversary is salivating to get you to say something he can spin, some little something he can magnify out of proportion and use to his advantage. As an experienced paralegal I knew this when I testified, and I was in hyper-vigilant mode because I knew it. Imagine what it is like for someone who has no knowledge of the courtroom.

I have no knowledge of congressional hearings. I have never been to one. I can only hope that if I did have to testify before the Senate, whoever was questioning me would be kind, would recognize that this was his sandbox, not mine, and that, as a representative of our country, he would not embarrass me for his own purposes. 

Sadly, when Tom Minnery testified, that was not the kind of treatment he received from Al Franken.

Franken questioned Minnery about his citing a Department of Health and Human Services report that stated, in essence, that children do better in a two-parent household. I think most people would agree with the basic premise that two parents can provide more income, and more emotional support, to their children -- since, we hope, the spouses are supporting each other in kind. As a single parent, I know what it is like to be at the helm alone.

Still, Franken didn't end there, but baited Minnery about the report: "It says that nuclear families -- not opposite sex married families -- are associated with those positive outcomes. Isn't it true, Mr. Minnery, that a married same sex couple that has had or adopted kids would fall under the definition of a nuclear family in the study that you cite?"

Minnery replied, "I would think that the study, when it cites nuclear families, would mean a family headed by a husband and wife." 

"It doesn't," said Franken, getting a laugh from the audience.

Sen. Franken then chastised Minnery's assumption of the definition of nuclear families, and stated, essentially, that if Minnery had so misinterpreted the information in the HHS report, then all of his testimony was subject to question.

A fine performance, Sen. Franken, but here's the rub: In case you missed it in those DOMA hearings, the federal government doesn't recognize same-sex marriage. So I would think it might have been reasonable for Minnery to assume that a federal report had followed federal law. 

As of the date of the report (December 2010), only five states and the District of Columbia allowed same-sex marriage. That is a mere 10 percent of the states. Which leads me to conclude that, on average, 9 out of 10 people would assume "nuclear family" meant a household headed by one man and one woman.

In addition, Minnery looks to be in his late 60s or so -- a generation that grew up with the paradigm that a marriage was between a man and a woman. Is it too much to grant him generational deference? Is it too much to be gracious? The man is who he is, partly because he was raised when he was.

Humiliation and respect are mutually exclusive. I am afraid that in his zest for the issue at hand, Sen. Franken, wittingly or not, fostered humiliation instead of respect.

The point here is not where you fall on DOMA or gay marriage. The point is that Franken, sadly, did exactly what we as a nation are finding so frustrating in government today: He polarized the situation. He escalated it. And that is not an appropriate role for the powerful position he occupies.

Franken's response no doubt delighted supporters of same-sex marriage. But people who are on the fence may have had a very different reaction. Anyone who wanted to hear and understand the subject with an open mind likely would have been offended by Franken's dismissal of Minnery and would have had all the excuse they needed to walk away.

There is no need to be obsequious or to compromise your principles. But if Franken or any other politician hopes to effect change in this country, it has got to be with the understanding that everyone has a right to his beliefs, whether or not they are beliefs that you share. And one thing is certain: The hostility that we feel in this country is not likely to recede until both sides are willing to surrender their verbal weapons.

As my grandmother used to say, "You can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar."

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Carrie Daklin is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer and a source in MPR's Public Insight Network.