What I’ve Learned: Barney Frank Is Still Speaking Frankly

The retiring Massachusetts congressman opens up about fighting with Republicans, finding love, and why he’s leaving.

By: Susan Milligan

One doesn’t often hear lukewarm descriptions of Barney Frank. The 16-term Massachusetts congressman is known as brilliant, witty, and a relentless worker. He’s also cranky, verging on rude, and impatient with people who ask ill-informed or deliberately provocative questions. Divergent as these characterizations are, they are all true.

As former chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, Frank has held one of the most powerful positions in Congress. But he’s utterly unpretentious, retaining the demeanor he acquired in his Bayonne, New Jersey, birthplace and while chatting with the fishermen in his coastal New England district.

When I showed up at his office, Frank was on the phone attending to a housing matter that sounded as if it easily could have been passed off to a staffer. Next to his desk were three low tables filled with awards, etched with thanks from everything from gay-rights organizations to fishing groups.

Yet many of Frank’s detractors see him as a supervillain. He’s liberal, openly gay, and a prime target of Tea Party activists, who tried to oust him in the 2010 elections. Much of that has to do with Frank’s left-leaning views, but it’s the 72-year-old’s sexual orientation that has driven conservative animus and complicated his political career.

In 1985, he hired Stephen Gobie as an aide and engaged in a personal relationship with him. Frank fired Gobie after learning he was running a gay prostitution ring out of the congressman’s apartment. An Ethics Committee investigation cleared Frank of everything but fixing Gobie’s parking tickets and attempting to influence the terms of his probation.

When Frank entered Congress in 1981, he was in the closet. He has announced he’ll retire at the end of this term, and this month he’s marrying his partner, Jim Ready. But while Frank is a loyal supporter of gay rights, he hates being classified as “the gay congressman” when his policy interests have been focused heavily on housing, his district’s fishing industry, and finance.

After 31 years in Washington, Frank sat down to reflect on a Congress and a country that have moved, albeit slowly, toward a more tolerant view of gays and lesbians.

You’ve got power and seniority, and you survived one of the toughest races of your career in 2010, when conservative Republicans targeted you as a villain in the subprime-mortgage crisis. Why leave now?

I always figured I would serve here until I was 75. I was ready to run for one more term. But I’ve gotten tired, emotionally drained. The four years I spent as chairman of the House Financial Services Committee were very demanding. I found myself in the middle of this financial crisis with material that was intellectually difficult, politically difficult, with enormous consequences if you made a mistake. It’s kind of like driving down a curving road at a high speed.

Then the redistricting came. They changed the district so drastically that I would have been spending this year introducing myself to 325,000 new people.

And there are other things I want to do, particularly write. Pat Moynihan, who was an incredibly gifted man, was able to write serious books while he was a senator. I’m too easily distracted. I can only write if I’ve got nothing else as an excuse not to write, and I want to get out of here while I’m still sentient and able to do that.

How has Congress changed in your time here?

It has become more partisan in both good and bad ways. When I got here, you had very conservative Democrats and some liberal Republicans. I don’t think that was healthy; I do think parties should stand for something.

Then Newt Gingrich came along and had a major impact in saying this is not a debate between two groups of people of good will. This is the good guys versus the bad guys, the immoral guys, the treasonous guys, the corrupt guys. That introduced a great deal of anger. Even then, though, you could cooperate some.

Was it really all Gingrich’s fault?

No, it’s now also the nature of the media.

The media has been totally fractured, so the most active people, right and left, live in parallel media universes. They only hear what they agree with. When you try to compromise, you are not criticized because of the specifics of the compromise but because you decided to compromise at all.

Veteran senator Dick Lugar was recently ousted in his primary by a Tea Party candidate, who criticized him for selling his Indiana home and basically living in DC. What does that say about what’s happening to Congress?

First, I think Lugar’s been somewhat overpraised. For one thing, this business of voting from a house in Indiana that he sold 35 years ago and staying at a hotel when he visited—those are things that shouldn’t have been done. He gave seniority a bad name with that.

Second, he was prepared to save his seat by embracing the right wing, so it would not have been a great victory for compromise and moderation if he won.

In 2009 you were named by your GOP colleagues, surveyed by the Hill newspaper, as being among both the most partisan members of Congress and the most bipartisan. How did you manage that?

I’m very proud of that. I think that’s the way to be. Partisanship is very important. You need parties to make things work. The problem with partisanship is not that it exists and not that people divide along ideological lines, but that people have allowed differences along partisan lines to become so personally embittering that they can’t work together.

I work very hard at legislating. I enjoy it. It is the most important thing I can do because it’s a chance to make the world fairer. And I think I can show that you can make it fairer without making it less efficient. But you don’t fight in a way that makes it harder to work together.

You’ve said you hate having to be nice to people you don’t like. In your last campaign, your website had ads of you sounding like Mr. Nice Guy. Is that part of why you chose to make 2010 your last campaign?

I’ve always believed I’m a much better legislator than a candidate. I’m not a great candidate. And this campaign came upon me while I was in the midst of trying to get the financial-reform bill through. I wasn’t really able to put my mind to the campaign until July. And then I did a lousy job. I didn’t hire the right people, I lost control of it. I ran a terrible campaign.

Did you worry about losing?

I did, but I often think I’m going to lose. You have to understand, I was an ultimate outsider for much of my life because I was a closeted gay man, socially awkward, overweight.

It was never close, but I’m very insecure.

So you’re a good legislator and a bad candidate. What else?

There are a lot of things I’m terrible at. I have not handled my personal life well until a few years ago, and now I’m doing a good job with Jimmy. I’m very proud of that. He’s been a great influence.

On your wall is the cover of a 1950s Senate report on hiring gays. The title is “Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts in Government.” At the time you were closeted, and now you’re engaged to Jim. That’s quite a trajectory.

I will be the first same-sex married member of the US Congress. I called Massachusetts chief justice Margaret Marshall, who’s now retired, because she wrote the opinion and I thought it would be great if she married us. I left a message on her voice mail: “Margaret, will you marry me?” She called right back and said, “Oh, I would love to.” But she’s going to be out of town.

What was it like being a gay lawmaker when all these changes were happening?

I became the leader of the gay-rights movement in Massachusetts by the process of elimination. In ’72, gay groups wrote to everybody running for the legislature and said, “Will you introduce gay-rights legislation?” I was the only one who said yes. So I became their leader. I had to think: Should I do it? Will they think I’m gay or will they think, “He wouldn’t if he was.” I was terrified of being found out.

I thought if I wanted a career in politics, I’d have to conceal my sexuality. But it would have been despicable to oppose gay rights. I can’t live one way and allow other people to be penalized for it. I thought, okay, I’ll live part in, part out. That wasn’t working. The strains were terrible. I couldn’t do it. I was not able to have a healthy social and sexual life. I’m proud that I came out voluntarily.

Did you think you’d ever want to get married?

No. Ten years ago it never seemed possible, so why even think about it?

You never seemed like the marrying kind. Now you’re almost goo-goo eyed.

I’m very happy. Jimmy and I complement each other very well. We have a lot of differences, but it’s the companionship. And it’s love. How did colleagues react when you came out?

People were very supportive, very generous—including a couple of Republicans. [Former Wyoming senator] Al Simpson called me and said, “Barney I am so embarrassed. I think I may have made a couple of anti-gay jokes when I was around you. And I feel so terrible—I admire you so much.” I was in Roland’s, the convenience store, shortly after I had come out, and [former New Hampshire senator] Warren Rudman was leaving, and quite deliberately he said, across the length of the store, “Hey, Barney, I’m proud of you.”

If I weren’t gay, I might have tried to get into leadership. I don’t know how it would have worked out. I do believe if John Kerry had been elected President I probably would have won his Senate seat.

But you don’t think you could have been in leadership as a gay man?

No, I don’t. But I became the ranking member of this important committee, and nobody voted against me. We have a secret ballot. And then I get to be the chairman of that committee, and because of the financial crisis, I become one of the most important members of Congress—not personally, just institutionally. The fact that I was gay was of zero impact.

Did the Gobie episode lead you to reassess things?

I felt terrible about it, but fortunately I had come out beforehand. If that was the occasion of my coming-out, it would have been bad. And my colleagues were very generous. Shortly after that, [then-California congressman] Leon Panetta called me. He wanted me to be on the Budget Committee.

Some people thought that when you became chairman of Financial Services, you’d act more like Chairman Mao. Do you think you surprised them?

I’ve always been a free-market guy. I think you can make the free market work for liberal purposes. I want to make the capitalist system work and take a good chunk of that money and provide for the disadvantaged.

You’ve been blamed for the mortgage meltdown. Why do you think that was?

This was a crisis of non-regulation. Republicans tried to prove it wasn’t that the private sector was under-regulated by the federal government but that the federal government made the private sector do bad things. They needed to shift the blame for the crisis from the irresponsibility of the financial sector and the absence of government regulation to saying the government made everybody do it. It was not a theory that had much economic support. But that’s why I became the culprit.

But was it partly your fault? Are there things you would have done differently?

I underestimated how bad the housing crisis would be. But I’ve been critical of mortgages for very poor people. I’ve been saying for a long time, no, rent them housing. Up to 2003, I was too resistant to more regulation of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but in the area where they got into the worst trouble, I was for more regulation.

Also, I was in the minority. All this bad stuff happened before [former senator] Chris Dodd and I became the chairs.

You supported Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2008. How’s President Obama doing?

I’ve been very happy with him, but he overestimated his ability to charm the savage beast. He said he was going to be post-partisan. Knowing how far right the Republicans are, I said that he was giving me post-partisan depression. I think he made a mistake by being too conciliatory at first.

What was your reaction to the President’s endorsement of gay marriage?

I was happy. But for me, the big moment was when he came out against DOMA [the Defense of Marriage Act, which says no state is required to recognize gay marriages performed in other states]. It has much more of a federal impact. And once he said that, it was clear he was going to have to come out for gay marriage.

Now that you’re leaving, are there things you’re disappointed you weren’t able to get done?

The biggest is rental housing. We didn’t get a low-income-housing trust fund established. The other is the Employment Non-Discrimination bill [to prohibit discrimination by civilian, non-religious employers on the basis of sexual or gender identification]. I really think we could have had an Employment Non-Discrimination Act if we hadn’t included the transgender issue. I think we should include it, but it would have been better to do it in two steps.

Your partner, Jim, got a hug from the President at the inauguration, right? And you took a picture of it up to the White House for Obama to sign. What did he write?

“Sending you love for keeping Barney under control.”

Are you going to miss this place?

Parts of it.

With that, Frank said, “Okay, I gotta go,” and picked up the phone again. I stuck out my hand to shake his, and he looked at it as if it were a two-headed fish.

“Bye, Barney,” I said.

“Oh,” he said. “I’ll be around awhile.”

This article appears in the July 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.