When Washington Politicians Kept One Another’s Secrets

What three decades as Washington's most powerful gay man taught Barney Frank about our city.
When Washington Politicians Kept One Another’s Secrets
Barney Frank at the Oak Room in New York’s Plaza hotel earlier this year. Photograph by Christopher Lane.

When Barney Frank entered Congress in 1981, the 40-year-old Democrat already had an exit plan: He would leave his seat at age 75. That alone made him a rarity on Capitol Hill—a career legislator with no designs on executive office or interest in cashing out as a lobbyist. When he declared his homosexuality to voters and the media in 1987, Frank—only the second openly gay member of Congress—became another kind of outlier. “I’m used to being in a minority,” he quipped after the 1994 Republican takeover of the House. “I’m a left-handed, gay Jew.”

The city Frank arrived in was very different for gays and lesbians than today’s Washington. It was a place whose bygone rules and rituals Frank describes in his memoir, Frank: A Life in Politics From the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage, published this month. But his status never held him back. By the time he retired in 2013—two years early—he was the top Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee and had his name on the primary regulatory response to the 2008 financial collapse.

Frank was also a formidable voice on gay issues. If anything, his remove from the power culture granted him license to be himself: an outspoken, often sarcastic critic of entrenched interests, political and cultural. “Even if this bill becomes law tomorrow, it will still be legal to call me a fag,” he once said in a caucus meeting about hate-crimes legislation. “I just wouldn’t recommend it to anyone in the banking business.”

Here Frank talks about his memoir and navigating Washington as an insider and an outsider.

Frank kisses his husband, Jim Ready, at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Photograph by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

You write that it was easier to be a gay elected official in Washington than in your years as a state legislator in Boston.

When I got to Washington, it was a safe place for a lot of gay men because so many people—particularly in the political world—were away temporarily from their homes. It was very common for men in Washington not to have spouses with them.

So there was less suspicion about you?

The political culture was similar to what Switzerland must have been like during World War II—a lot of spies who were enemies elsewhere but who understood they needed a resting place. In Washington, we all held each other hostage. There were gay people, people cheating on their spouses, people who drank too much—Washington was a place where politicians kept each other’s secrets out of mutual interest.

Tom Foley. Courtesy of Wikicommons.

Do you see a difference between those who came out as sitting congressmen, as you did, and politicians who have been openly gay their entire careers?

In many ways, we were angrier. We had led lives of self-denial and self-deprivation. We were more isolated, maybe more distrustful of the broader community. Those who didn’t go through this closeted adult period feel more comfortable dealing with others in a friendly way rather than in an adversarial way.

You threatened to out closeted colleagues, first in 1989 when the Republican National Committee seemed to insinuate that Democratic House speaker Tom Foley was gay. (1)

I threatened to do it twice, in cases where the Republicans were using “gay” as a weapon. But I had a dual role: I was a gay advocate but also a member of that institution, and I needed to have good relations.

You write that as a gay advocate, you were sometimes dismissed as “too culturally restrained to be a gay leader.” You tell the story of trying to stop a provocative performance at the 1993 March on Washington. (2) Now gay politics seems to have moved in the other direction. You call its priorities “incorrigibly bourgeois.”

The agenda has always been very unradical. We wanted the same legal rights as every other American. But even on behalf of the mainstream agenda items—get married, join the military, et cetera—there was a tendency to use self-defeating tactics.

There is a left/right difference here: People on the right tend to be grateful to be Americans. When they think things are going well, they say, “America is a good country that has gotten it straight.” On the left, there is more of a tendency to be critical of the whole structure. That’s why when the Tea Party gets angry, they all go out and vote. When Occupy gets angry, they don’t.

Frank’s memoir is out this month.

A criticism of lefty activism in general runs through the book. At times it reads like a psychological diagnosis, that liberals too often want to do what makes them feel good.

What I was saying is if you are feeling too good about it entirely, that’s probably a sign you’re not engaging the enemy enough.

How about the financial-reform legislation that bears your name—the Dodd-Frank Act? Do you think the big banks will be successful in undoing parts of it they don’t like?

I’m fairly optimistic. They only succeed when they go below the radar, and now they’re in full view. They are being correctly blamed—although not exclusively in our society—for the financial crisis. The public is angrier at them than I can ever remember the public being angry at a sector of American business.

Do the banks wield influence in Washington differently than other industries?

What is different is there’s no organized opposition to them. We had a crisis because their lobbying was so successful that we went 20 to 30 years without adopting new rules. The financial situation began to change in the 1970s and ’80s, with new money coming in and technology. In a healthy situation, new rules would have been adopted for securitization and derivatives in the ’90s.

They have been less powerful recently because we got rules, and now they’re trying to fight their way back.

Have you been approached to become a lobbyist?

No, I made it pretty clear that I wouldn’t. I get paid to make speeches, including to some financial institutions, but I have not gotten paid to do anything on behalf of any private entity. I lobby the administration, and some in Congress, on behalf of policy positions I’ve always had.

Do you think you would be a good lobbyist?

I couldn’t do that. I’m incapable of doing things I don’t believe in or arguing things I don’t believe in. And I get impatient with people. I’m a very good strategist and tactician, but if I had to be nice to people all day in trying to get them to do me favors, I’d suck.

Your impatience sometimes expresses itself as humor. You cite an example where one of your quips was taken out of context by Fox News. (3) Has it become more complicated for politicians to use wit or humor?

In some ways, there’s more of a market for it, because it’s easier to get in the press by being very unfair to somebody else than by being talked to thoughtfully. And humor is often unfair.

Your book demonstrates your consciousness of the press. There are a few instances where you disclose private exchanges—but, you note, only because they had already been reported elsewhere.

There is an implicit promise when you engage in private negotiations that you won’t reveal them. Legislating cannot happen without privacy—you cannot have negotiations in public. So there was a sense of obligation to other people, but also I don’t want to destroy the capacity to achieve results.

So your publisher knew you wouldn’t be delivering a tell-all?

It’s a tell-some. I’m a firm believer that your moral obligation is to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. But nobody tells the whole truth all the time.

Sasha Issenberg (sashaissenberg@gmail.com) is working on a history of gay marriage.

Interview, annotated: 1. In 1989, the Republican National Committee put out a memo titled “Tom Foley: Out of the Liberal Closet,” which Frank called a “seedy” campaign to insinuate the then House speaker was gay. When Frank threatened to retaliate by outing closeted gay Republicans in Congress, the Foley rumors ended.

2. Frank was scolded by a group of soldiers after he interceded to stop them from performing a campy kick line at the gay-rights march. In his memoir, Frank writes: “Nothing could have been more devastating to our argument that LGBT people would blend comfortably into the military than a photo—or worse, a video—of these guys lined up not to march but to emulate the Rockettes.”

3. At a 2009 town-hall meeting in his district, a woman upbraided Frank for supporting what she called a “Nazi” health-care-reform bill. “On what planet do you spend most of your time?” he blustered back. “Ma’am, trying to having a conversation with you would be like trying to argue with a dining-room table.” Fox News played clips of Frank’s rejoinder but deemphasized the woman’s sign showing Obama with a Hitler mustache.

This article appears in the March 2015 issue of Washingtonian.

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