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.
“I figured I’d serve until I was 75,” Frank says. “But I’ve gotten tired, emotionally drained.” Photograph by Vincent Ricardel.
“I figured I’d serve until I was 75,” Frank says. “But I’ve gotten tired, emotionally drained.” Photograph by Vincent Ricardel.

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.

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