A Washington First: The Amazing Life of Barney Frank
Not for nothing did Barney Frank inspire a biography called The Story of America’s Only Left-Handed, Gay, Jewish Congressman. A singular politician, he talks about political power-play, a hardly-quiet retirement—and defending Alec Baldwin from accusations of homophobia.
When retired Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank takes the Tribeca Film Festival’s stage later this month for the premiere of Compared to What—a documentary chronicling his life as a liberal lightning rod, influential lawmaker, and the country’s first sitting House member to celebrate his own same-sex marriage—he will be interviewed by Alec Baldwin.
The actor has been on a grudging apology tour since various gay rights groups and celebrities slammed him for homophobic tweets and angry outbursts at paparazzi in recent months, while he blamed “the fundamentalist wing of gay advocacy” for the cancellation last November of his short-lived MSNBC show.
Baldwin, an outspoken Democrat with an ugly temper, belatedly signed on as one of the documentary’s executive producers. “Barney Frank is a personal hero of mine,” he explained in a statement, in which he praised Frank’s “historic importance as the first openly gay and married congressman.”
The 74-year-old Frank apparently doesn’t mind being used, and he’s willing to give Baldwin the benefit of the doubt. “One of the things this does for him,” Frank tells me, “is give him a chance to reinforce his argument that he is not homophobic and in fact has had a pretty good record on LGBT issues…I will say that agreeing to be interviewed by someone is not a mark of approval. I’ve been interviewed from time to time by Bill O’Reilly. But in Alec’s case, I think he is, in fact, very supportive.”
Stating the obvious, the former congressman adds that Baldwin “could use a governor on what he says. He lashes out like many of us want to do, but most of us restrain it.”
Frank, who opted not to run for reelection in 2012 after 32 years in Congress—four of them as the powerful chairman of the House Financial Services Committee during the worst financial and economic crisis in modern history—isn’t known for lashing out so much as wittily eviscerating. As the film amply demonstrates, he is a formidable, even lethal, opponent in debate—even if his manner of speech is a devilish scramble of mush-mouthed fast-talking that sometimes presents a challenge to comprehension.
The film, which traces his childhood in Bayonne, N.J., and his early races for public office (“Neatness isn’t everything,” was a memorable Barney Frank campaign slogan) focuses on his four decades as a professional politician and his early anguish over keeping his sexual identity secret and his ultimate relief at coming out in 1987—a circumstance that did nothing to damage him with voters in suburban Boston’s 4th Congressional District. It is actually the second documentary to star Frank, who also inspired a biography, Barney Frank: The Story of America’s Only Left-Handed, Gay, Jewish Congressman.
Can a Hollywood biopic be far behind? And if that happens, who should play him? “I don’t claim to have infallible political judgment, but there are some questions I am smart enough not to answer,” Frank demurs, adding that “I don’t think this is something that 14-year-old boys would want to watch—which, as I understand it, is the optimal demographic for Hollywood these days.”
Even though he formally retired as of January 2013, Frank made no secret that he would have wanted Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick—who officiated at Frank’s wedding to his longtime boyfriend, Jim Ready—to appoint him to the United States Senate as an interim replacement for John Kerry, who was confirmed that month as President Obama’s new secretary of state. Frank says there were important issues being debated, including budgetary priorities, the runup to the fiscal cliff and the debt ceiling, and he believed he could have had an impact.
“I’m not sure whether I would have been seen as a disruptive force by some, and it didn’t surprise me that he [the governor] had someone else in mind,” Frank says, referring to Patrick’s friend and former chief of staff Mo Cowan, who ultimately got the temporary job. “I was taken aback that he seemed to think that it was somehow effrontery for me to request the appointment like it was interfering with his prerogative. How very bumptious to ask to be a senator! Well, some people spend $20 million to ask to be a senator.”
Contrary to his prickly public image—stoked by countless combative cable television appearances—Frank prides himself on his skills as a legislator who was willing to reach across the aisle and compromise to accomplish things for the people. “I think I was seen as a very constructive legislator,” he says. “I worked very well with Republicans until the wackos came to power.”
He is perhaps best known as the primary author, with former Connecticut senator Christopher Dodd, of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which Obama signed into law in July 2010. It was a regulatory response to the taxpayer-funded bailout of the nation’s biggest financial institutions after the catastrophic meltdown of the economy and the loss of millions of jobs, along with the collapse of the stock market and more millions of defaulted subprime mortgages and home foreclosures, caused largely by wildly risky and possibly criminal behavior by those same institutions.
“I would have liked to have seen criminal prosecutions,” Frank says. “The argument that you couldn’t do criminal prosecutions because you would endanger institutions—I never understood that. Especially when Roberts and Scalia”—as in Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Antonin Scalia—“think corporations are people…No corporation can do anything without the human element being involved. And I am disappointed that they [the Justice Department] did not have criminal prosecutions.”
Why didn’t they?
“I’m baffled by it. I don’t know. I think it might probably be the cultural thing: ‘Well, you know, everybody was doing it, and this [the economic turmoil] will stop them from doing it again, and they weren’t really bad people.’ I’m speculating.”
While some left-leaning critics of Dodd-Frank claim the law doesn’t go far enough to prevent greedy banks from engaging in the same sort of perilous conduct that reaped disaster five years ago, its coauthor begs to differ. “Most importantly, they can’t make terrible loans to people who can’t repay them. We just ended that—the irresponsible subprime loans,” Frank argues. “Secondly, the financial institutions have to be much better capitalized. Third, more and more derivative transactions are now being conducted openly.”
He mentions the insurance behemoth AIG, whose executives back in 2007 and 2008 didn’t keep adequate account of the company’s liabilities and initially didn’t realize that they were in the hole for $170 billion and then desperately pleaded for emergency government help. “That’s impossible today,” Frank says. “Banks could not get so indebted because they would have to keep track and they would have to have set-asides for money to make good on what they did.”
Frank’s so-called retirement has hardly been relaxing. He has been spending his golden years writing his memoir (to be published by Farrar Straus Giroux) and is scheduled to teach courses in the fall on LGBT issues and Congress at his alma mater, Harvard. He also has been campaigning and raising money for Democrats trying to hold onto their House seats in the 2014 midterm elections.
“I think there won’t be much change,” he says, disagreeing with predictions of Republican gains, not only in the House but also in the Senate, which, according to some pundits, could slip out of Democratic hands.
“I think the Ryan Budget is going to cut down their majority, and I think it’s a budget that’s easily campaigned against,” Frank says, referring to the arguably draconian document named for Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s running mate and chairman of the House Budget Committee. “I mean, you’re gonna cut Pell Grants and Medicare and raise military spending? There are very few congressional districts where doing those things is popular…I think it neutralizes to some extent the negatives from the bad rollout of the health care bill.”
Like his big sister, former Bill Clinton White House official Ann Lewis, Frank says he’ll back Hillary if she runs for president. “I supported Hillary against Obama” in 2008, he points out, adding that Massachusetts’s senior senator, Elizabeth Warren, “would be a serious candidate” if the former secretary of state “decided she wasn’t running.”
In the meantime, it is apparent from his recent television appearances that Frank has cultivated a full beard. “My husband thinks I look better,” he says. “He wanted me to grow one and he lobbied for it. It was the last issue on which I have apparently been lobbied in my career.”