Barney Frank has a new memoir, Frank: A Life in Politics From the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage. In the book, which was published this week, he writes about his 40-year career in politics and the societal changes that allowed him to survive and eventually thrive as a gay man.
Eleanor Clift interviewed him in Washington this week. He spoke candidly about Hillary Clinton’s chances in the 2016 presidential race, the resignation of Representative Aaron Schock over ethics charges and amid rumors that he is gay, and reflected on the sex scandal that resulted in Congress reprimanding him in 1987, killing his chances of ever becoming the first Jewish Speaker of the House.
Q: In your book, you write about the fear of exposure [as a formerly closeted gay man]. We have a current example with Representative Aaron Schock—there seems to be a lot of vitriol against him in the gay community.
A: Here’s the deal, I don’t know if he’s gay or not, but I admit I did say if he’s not gay he spends an awful lot of time in the gym. I don’t know a lot of straight guys who go to the gym and parade around with their shirts off. Generally gay men do that to attract other men. There is a principle that I take credit for enunciating a long time ago: There is a right to privacy but not a right to hypocrisy. You have every right to privacy but you do not have a right to go into public office or any other office and enforce rules that are against your own behavior. During Prohibition the media would hide the fact that prohibitioners were drinkers. What I would say to people is, if a leading anti-abortionist had an abortion, you’d write about it. If Sarah Brady owned an Uzi, you’d write about it—especially now. Maybe 40 years ago—coming out, what a terrible thing. But there is no justification now if you’re gay punishing other gay people for what you’re doing. I don’t know if he is, but that’s the basis for the anger.
All the clues you look for in guessing whether someone is gay—press accounts noted he flew his photographer to India, It’s kind of the modern version of the confirmed bachelor.
Here’s the deal: Your horror is based on the idea that being gay is so horrible, you can’t mention it. Let’s stop treating gay as though we’re accusing him of being a mass murderer.
What’s so odd is, he’s a young man—millenials and gen-exers don’t see any big deal about this.
The only problem he’s got—if he’s gay—is that in the Republican Party you get punished. Even Jim Kolbe, an honorable guy—Jim retired from Congress at 62 well before he would have wanted to because he had a tough primary fight every year. He’s chairman of an appropriations subcommittee and he’s fighting off primaries where they’re getting 40 percent and more against him. Being an openly gay politician in the Republican Party is still very, very difficult.
Schock fancied himself having a significant political career. He talked about becoming Speaker, running for governor.
Which makes his indulgence all the weirder.
Why do you think Shock resigned? Is it the ethical issues?
Well, the money is a part of it. It seems like the whole picture made him look odd, ridiculous. It does look like there was some misspending of public money, and it’s true that once you resign, the ethics committee has no further jurisdiction. So it’s either a criminal prosecution or nothing. He’s now avoided any possibility that he will be reprimanded or censured.
There’s some analogy to your experience—Tip O’Neill thought you would be the first Jewish Speaker of the House, and you worried for many years about the impact on your political career.
When I first thought about politics in 1954, being gay was so universally despised, it was something I was going to have to try to repress. As I went forward, I discovered that repression actually worked and I got into a couple jobs, chief assistant to the mayor and then the legislature. I did make this conscious choice: I won’t be honest. I want very much to be in politics. I’ll have to not act on being gay, I would have to keep it quiet. But I will always be an advocate. I may be a coward, but I will always be a supporter. And because nobody else wanted to do it, I wound up being a primary supporter of the gay rights bill, not something I wanted, but I could not walk away from that.
Then things have moved in this country much more rapidly on gay issues than anybody thought, and it became clear that I could come out and have a very good career. I would have been a Harvard Law School graduate who’d had 10 years in the state legislature, which would have made me as a political gay man pretty high up in the experience thing. So I started coming out to Ann and my other siblings, and other people, and then the Pope said Father Drinan couldn’t be a congressman. So I slammed the door on that, because if I came out I never would have been elected to Congress—and reelected. Once in 1983, I think about coming out, and the next thing that happens, Gary Studds gets into trouble with the page. So Gary’s got to defend that. He’s much more honest. Every other gay man who had gotten in trouble who was a congressman denied it or said, I was too drunk to know what I was doing. I always said, you know what, if you’re too drunk to know what you’re doing, you’re not doing anything because you’re too drunk.
So at that point I had to hold back not to complicate Gary’s life—he got reelected in 1984—so in 1985 I started thinking about it again, and finally I did it in ’87.
I remember the episode/scandal with your ex-boyfriend—how do you think that would play today if it came out?
That came two and a half years later, 1989. I had met him in 1985 when I was still closeted—that was a function of my still being closeted. When I came out, I said this is not the kind of life I want. He was furious at me and thought of what he could do—he couldn’t do anything because I had outed myself. My problem was, he made up all this weird stuff about the House gym, which the ethics committee repudiated. The ethics committee found that I lied to a probation officer when I said I met him at a party; I met him through a sex ad—and I let him use my car to avoid parking tickets. I think once people knew it was just prostitution—David Vitter of Louisiana survived it, got reelected despite being involved in a prostitution ring.
But that was men and women.
I understand that, but today the gay part is not any problem at all. In 2012, the year Jim and I got married, when I was still in Congress, a poll in my district gave me a much higher approval rating for being married than for passing a major bill out of the House Financial Services Committee, which I chaired. So I think the fact that it was same sex today would have no impact.
I was with Newsweek and I did an interview with you where you came out, and they put it on the cover, and you were very angry with me. Why did that upset you so much?
Because it enhanced the importance of it. It was not world-shaking news. It literally blew it out of proportion.
Your belief in working within the system comes through in your book. And your belief that if you’re having too much fun, you’re not helping.
We’re fighting to repeal the ban against gays in the military, and a lot of the guys who’ve been kicked out, and they’re lined up behind the stage and some photographer is going to take their picture doing a Rockettes-type kick line. What a terrible way to make our point—that these are soldiers—and to stir up prejudice. It just would have been the wrong image. And then there was the comedienne on stage saying wouldn’t it be nice to have a First Lady to fuck. Can you imagine if Redd Foxx had said that about Jackie Kennedy, what would have happened to him? Many people in the LGBT movement like to say, we’re like the African Americans, but they were much more disciplined and much more strategic. … Standing up to your enemies brings in campaign contributions; the test of integrity in politics is when you stand up to your friends.
You’ve taken on your own community while you’ve been advocating. I think some of the readers of this book will be surprised to learn that you you worked on behalf of DADT (Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell).
I wanted a compromise. Les Aspin tried to sell a better compromise that was better than Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Colin Powell said, I’ll support it if I can get one other of the Joint Chiefs, and he couldn’t get one, so that did it. I was prepared to take some kind of compromise. The first lawsuits the NAACP Legal Defense Fund brought were not to get rid of segregation, but OK, you say separate but equal, then make it equal. Because they knew that would undermine it.
What were the markers along the way that signaled the change in attitudes?
The big one to me was in 1981 when the District of Columbia repealed its sodomy statute. And at that point either house of Congress could veto a change in the District’s criminal law. The House voted 300 and something to 100 and something to cancel that. Sodomy, private consenting sex, you have to be pretty bigoted to do that. Then there was a series of votes on AIDs-related issues with anti-gay amendments that said basically if you accept any money under this program for research or for care, you must agree that you will not promote homosexuality. We called them the no-promo-homo amendments, and we had to beat those because they would have been terrible, they would have stopped the money from being spent.
And those were the first votes we won. This was not some unenforced sodomy statute; this was people’s lives. Because the stakes in the AIDS voting were so high, people gritted their teeth and they voted against anti-gay amendments. That was the first sign that the public was moving.
The other marker for me was when Tom Kiley and John Marttila did a poll after I came out. It turns out twice as many people thought I would be hurt than were angry themselves, and the people who were angry themselves—22 percent—they wouldn’t vote for me no matter what, so I could ignore them.
You write about how the growing acceptance of the gay community parallels the growing distrust of government. Do they ever intersect, and does one have anything to do with the other?
No, they really have not. Two groups of white men are left voting Democratic: gays and Jews. God knows what’s going to happen after the Netanyahu thing, what a disaster. On the gay thing, what gays wanted from the government was to be left alone, we wanted the government to enforce that we would not be discriminated against. What white guys want is some active intervention on their behalf economically, which I’m all for, but it’s a different kind of thing.
That’s why I think Thomas Frank turned out to be wrong. It’s not God, it’s not gays, it is guns a little bit. On abortion, I don’t know anyone who’s been beaten because they’re pro-choice; there is a friction on some environmental issues, like Keystone, but I think it’s fundamentally that white guys—these are the guys who think Franklin Roosevelt was a great guy, Harry Truman was a great guy, Kennedy, Johnson—why? Because they stood up for the working guy and helped us, and since then the liberals aren’t doing anything and we’re getting pounded. They’re too busy with women and gays and blacks.
That’s the same challenge Clinton had in ’92.
Clinton, and Carter somewhat. Clinton was the first Democratic president and Obama is the second to take office when those negative economic trends were fully set. From 1945 to 1975, America dominated the world. In the ’70s, with OPEC, that’s when things start to change, when the rest of the world starts to catch up with us. Thomas Piketty’s book about capitalism talks a lot about l’détente glorieaux—the glorious 30 years—it was just beginning to happen under Carter, but by the time Clinton came to power, the position of the white working middle class had eroded. And they’re angry at that. They’re not angry at government because they think government is inherently bad, but they think government could help if they wanted to. Remember the song from our youth—most young people haven’t heard it—“Winchester Cathedral, you’re letting me down. You didn’t do nothing when my baby left town. You could have done something, you didn’t do nothing.” You could have stopped this erosion, and you didn’t do it.
The middle-class tax cut was Clinton’s big thing. You were at odds with Clinton’s statement that “the era of big government is over,” but then you were a strong defender during impeachment. What is the impact on trust in government of their return—Hillary’s return—to power—good, bad, indifferent?
Indifferent. It depends on whether or not she can produce results. What we’re really seeing is a reaction to reality. It’s the economy, stupid. Trust in government among the people we’re talking about will come back once they see government helping them go to college and helping with jobs.
Do you have any confidence Hillary Clinton is going to be able to find this formula, or vision?
I’m hopeful. I’m trying to sell it. It begins with a substantial reduction in the military budget. Because if you don’t have the resources, there are things you can do to make people happy, but you need the resources. Legalize drugs and cut the military, and you can expand public construction, and you can provide better child care for working families, and subsidize their health care costs.
Is the core of the trust issue this failure to deliver on substantive issues?
Yes, which is why the only way it can be resolved is if we make people happy with what government is doing.
Clinton tried to do it with investments in programs; Obama tried to do it with Obamacare.
Problem with Obamacare is this: They were in a situation where there was not enough money to expand health care without finding savings in the system. And the problem both Clinton and Obama faced—and I’m glad you linked them—Clinton raised taxes and put it all into deficit reduction; Obama couldn’t raise taxes at all. They had to expand health care to citizens without it, and the average Joe figured that was coming at his or her expense. That was a problem. If either Clinton or Obama had $50 million to throw into the system, it could have been very popular—we can expand this, and you’re not going to lose anything.
He couldn’t keep the promise that you can keep your own doctor.
That made me angry. He never should have said that. They had to know better. That bothered me.
On the question of Obama and a post-partisan administration—
He said in his campaign he was going to govern in a post-partisan way, and he kind of used that to criticize the Clintons. He was going to be above the battle. I said it gave me post-partisan depression. I resented the argument that with the Clintons it was kind of a two-way squabble. I was on the House impeachment committee, and I got to ask two great questions when Ken Starr appeared after the congressional election, and he presented his report. Before the election, he said Clinton should be impeached. After the election, he said, Oh, by the way, there was nothing bad in Whitewater or Filegate or the travel office, nothing bad happened in all those. And I said, why’d you wait until after the election to tell us that? He gave us the bad news before, and there was nothing—one oral sex act. Ken Starr’s 11 articles of impeachment were 11 different ways of saying blow job. They were after Clinton; Clinton did not pick that fight. They decided they were going to drive him out of office because they wanted the presidency back.
Looking back at that episode, it looks like the country lost its mind.
Temporarily, but you know what? It got it back. I chronicle that in my book. If you look at the votes—when he had to go on television in August and admit they had oral sex, guys were saying he’s gone—350 to 60—he kept California, Massachusetts, and blacks. Even Gephardt and Bonior voted against him. Then what happened, the country shifted. I remember the day his grand jury testimony was released, I was home and I was checking with my office. The calls were, is that all this is about? The public basically said to the pollsters, you’re going to turn the government over because of consensual sex? I mean, the country shifted, and the Republican Congress was caught in a time warp.
One other substantive issue: the banks. The left thinks Obama betrayed them; the bankers think he’s one step short of being a socialist. Which is it? You negotiated the legislation, you dealt with the administration directly, where is Obama on this?
People who say Obama is much closer to the right don’t know what they’re talking about. Elizabeth Warren lobbied for the bill. When Russell Feingold said he would vote against the bill because it didn’t go far enough, Elizabeth got very angry and called him up. There is more she would have liked to have gotten done, but it’s a more than significant improvement over where we were. Some people on the left didn’t understand it very well. The left did better on that bill than the bankers.
One other thing I’ve heard you say about the left hankering for a serious primary challenge to Hillary.
They want to do to Hillary Clinton what happened to Romney, there’s no point to that.
In the book, you have nice things to say about a number of Republicans, and people looking for you to dish will be disappointed.
Read the blurbs: Elizabeth Warren, Hank Paulson—when’s the last time you saw the two of them together?
You’ve gotten good reviews, except Frank Bruni wants you to bare your soul.
He wants me to bare my genitals.
He says he wanted to know if you were getting sex.
And if I wanted more. The point is whether he was getting sex or not, did he want more? Who doesn’t want more? I was just appalled by that. Bruni is a Republican, and as a gay man he’s conflicted that way. To come out and say I didn’t talk about the sex I was having in a book about politics …
I think you’re pretty candid about the shame you felt.
The book is called Frank. He thought the title was too short, it should have been 50 Shades of Frank.
I still have my tape recorder on, but I probably shouldn’t use that…
Oh, no, I’m looking to get that out …
Correction: An earlier version claimed Frank supported DOMA when in fact he opposed it in committee and on the floor.