In Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage, Barney Frank delves into his life’s great balance: that of being a gay man and being a congressional Democratic representative of Massachusetts. Over the course of his forty years in office, Rep. Frank fought for housing for low-income people, equal rights for the LGBT community, and financial reform. The latter came to a head when he became chairman of the House Financial Services Committee — responsible for overseeing the insurance, banking, and housing industries — just as the financial crisis struck in 2007. His headline victories include passing the Dodd-Frank Act, improving accountability and transparency on Wall Street, and fighting tirelessly for 2011’s repeal of the army’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy.
Frank explains the author’s attitude toward his sexuality growing up (“I accepted the widespread contempt for homosexuals as an indelible fact of life”); the nuances of legislating in Congress (“There is a mistaken notion that legislators often trade specific favors with each other. That is very rarely the case. . . . Rather, I tried to do as many favors as I could and to respond to requests. Then, when I did have to ask colleagues to cast a vote that might be politically difficult, I hoped they would at least think about it in the context of their interest in maintaining their ongoing rapport with me”); and the difficult task of affecting change among hundreds of people equally passionate and strong-willed as he. His language thick with political reference — those serving in various positions and branches, committee names, bills — Frank’s points remain clear, including his central thesis: that as popular opinion of the LGBT community has soared, that of the federal government has plummeted.
Rep. Frank took some time to talk with us about his memoir, life in Congress, and how to be a young, politically minded individual today. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation. — Gili Malinsky
The Barnes & Noble Review: The political memoir, of course, is not new. Lots of politicians write books. How did you strive to make yours unique?
Barney Frank: Well, I think the story has some uniqueness. I was the first member of Congress, voluntarily, to come out as gay. And I do think that perspective of starting out thinking that I was never going to be able to be influential on this great thing called government, this powerful societal force, because I was gay, and ending up being influential in what had no longer been a powerful source… I think that perspective is somewhat unusual.
And there was one totally serendipitous piece. You know, you tend to have prominent reputations, for good or for ill, when there are crises. I succeeded to be the senior Democrat on the Financial Services Committee — not through any merit of my own but because one guy died and another guy got thrown out by his own legislature. So I happened to be in this very powerful position, it turns out, when its jurisdiction became the center of the universe (beginning in 2007 and 2008, with the crisis going on). So that’s another thing that gave me this unique perspective.
BNR: You talk a lot about how seemingly random events influence your life in politics more than anything.
BF: Yes, and other people’s as well. This notion people have of the dedicated — it’s generally a man — the young man who knows he wants to be the president. He plans and plots and he does this and he does that — but there’s a lot more accident involved. Almost every important politician has that job because of some decision made by somebody else that he or she couldn’t influence. What you have to do is be able to take advantage of those opportunities. But you can’t create them.
BNR: In the book, you mentioned counsel Joseph Welch’s use of terms like “pixie” and “fairy” during the Army-McCarthy hearings, making it clear that public opinion toward gays was not favorable. Why, knowing what the general sentiment about homosexuality was, including in government, did you still decide to serve?
BF: Because it was very important to me to try to make the world a better place. I really was motivated by that. You mentioned one of two formative events. The other was the murder of Emmett Till [in which there were no consequences for the murderers]. I was just outraged that in my country that could happen. The other factor is, I knew by the time I was fourteen that I’d been good at debating and arguing. I watched the Army-McCarthy hearings, and it wasn’t just a fascinating spectacle to me. I said, you know, I could do that. I’d be good at that. So government, it seemed to me, was a place where I could use my strengths to accomplish the things I thought were most important.
BNR: Which trumped the fact that the agency, the government, might not necessarily accept you.
BF: Well, that canceled out. No place in America was a good place for homosexuals in 1954. You weren’t welcome at restaurants, you weren’t welcome in a factory. There was universal prejudice.
We have made so much progress. This notion, when I was fourteen, that I would someday marry a man as a member of Congress, was just totally bizarre. And even fifteen years ago, if I’d said I’m gonna marry a guy when I’m in Congress, people would have said, “Boy that’s gonna be pretty controversial.” Well, in the end, when Jim and I did get married, it was very controversial. A lot of my colleagues were very angry that I couldn’t invite them.
BNR: Haha! That’s great. So, as a young person who considers activism to be choices made in daily life, where to buy certain products, what language to use . . .
BF: Well, that’s an important part of it. I’m wearing a suit made in New Bedford by union workers.
BNR: Right, and that’s a decision you made very consciously. And I think, within my generation, there’s a general feeling of our own empowerment as it pertains to the choices that we make. I wondered how government can empower us even further.
BF: Well, government is not an entity that stands apart. The government is the result of the collective decisions. And what people can do is to vote and make the government a better instrument for that empowerment. Part of the problem is that younger people don’t vote now. Frankly, I think that’s kind of fashionable: “Oh, [politicians] are all bums. They’re all under the influence of money. They’re corrupt . . . ” I think Jon Stewart’s approach contributes to that. Jon Stewart is very funny, and everything he says is true. But it’s a partial truth. Nobody watching Jon Stewart would think that any politician did anything useful or that government ever got anything right. If you get enough of that diet, you may think, Well, what’s the point of trying?
So I think there are certain things you can do personally, as an individual. Beyond that, you probably need to make some rules, and the way to do that is for people to get out there, vote, and take over the government.
I contrast Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party. The Tea Party was very politically effective. I regret that, because I disagree with them. I was once sort of arguing with someone from Occupy, and I said I was disappointed that I never saw a voter registration table at an Occupy site. He said, “That’s not what we we’re into.” Well, that’s too bad, because that’s the most influential thing you can do.
BNR: If you really want to make change, there’s a whole body that’s dedicated to doing that on your behalf.
BF: Yeah. You see this in Ferguson right now. One of the things that’s happening is that people are getting registered to vote. And I think you’re gonna see a town with a black majority, with generally white officials, now with black officials.
BNR: In the book, you mention the influence that money can have on politics and conclude, ultimately, that real power comes from our votes. I want to talk more about the influence of money. How did your loyal list of campaign contributors affect your work in Congress, and what kind of sway do these people or organizations have?
BF: I was very lucky in that sense — my contributors were pretty much people who ideologically agreed with me. I got a lot of money from unions. I got money from people who were trying to build affordable housing. They were supporting me because I was agreeing with them, but I wasn’t agreeing with them because they supported me. In other words, the members decide how to vote. And even there I don’t think the money so much influences people after they are elected. The more devious problem, the more serious problem, is that money decides who gets elected in the first place. And, frankly, some of these people have enough money and they contribute enough to campaigns, that they don’t have to worry about how the person’s gonna vote. They helped elect somebody who’s gonna vote the way they want.
BNR: So it comes from the campaigns. . . . One issue that you mentioned in the book, which I was really glad to read was pushed in Congress, was that of free trade, or regulation on imports and exports (as it pertains to buying from countries with lax child labor laws, etc.). You talk about, during the Clinton administration, demanding that Mexico establish acceptable minimum standards on workers’ rights and the environment, etc. Can you talk a little bit about that?
BF: That’s very much an issue where president Obama is running into a lot of opposition from Democrats. He’s moved beyond where Clinton was — he does agree to put in worker rights, etc. But the problem is that trade, inherently, for a country like ours, helps the wealthier and hurts the lower-income people. So what we need, before I would support the trade, would be an agreement that the lower end, the working people, would get some compensation. That some of the money that wealthier people are gonna make would be used in various programs, to help people at the low end who are getting hurt.
BNR: Are you talking domestically or internationally?
BNR: What about when it comes to something like fair trade, ensuring that workers abroad get fair compensation and work in sustainable ways?
BF: President Obama is doing better than Clinton in insisting on those fair trade things. He is insisting on a binding requirement [regarding] worker and environmental standards before we allow those goods in. That’s important. All I’m saying is that’s not enough. We also have to worry about what happens in the country. But I do give Obama credit on those fair trade related issues. He’s been pretty good.
One other thing — in the bill that we passed, I worked with Bono, who’s a big crusader for poor people internationally, and we included a section that said that if you are an American company and you are extracting a mineral from some other country, gold, oil, etc., you must publish every dollar you have paid the people in that country. Which is very helpful, because what happens is corrupt rulers in countries sell off the right to mine stuff and then keep the money. So if you’re an American company and you don’t report everything you paid, you could be prosecuted in America. They tell me that has been helpful.
BNR: I saw the picture of you and Jim with Bono in the book!
BF: Yeah, we’ve been very close with him.
BNR: I hope that you got free tickets to a show.
BF: Jim did. I’m not a big fan.
BNR: You mentioned congressmen Allard Lowenstein and Tip O’Neill as examples of politicians you appreciated for their passionate advocacy, sophistication, and insightfulness. What makes a good leader?
BF: Recognition that leadership is a two-way street. That you are only a good leader if you can depend on people to follow you and that you have to give them incentives to do that. It’s not enough just to be right. If you want to lead people you have to make sure that you are as supportive of their needs, so that in those areas where you’re gonna lead, they have an interest in following.
BNR: Why are people entering politics today?
BF: Oh, the same reasons. I don’t think there’s any generational difference. I think it’s a combination of varying degrees. It’s ideology. It’s a sense of you would like to make the world a better place from your perspective.
BNR: So people are generally doing it for the greater good.
BF: Oh yeah, most of the people most of the time are, yes.
BNR: Or at least what they perceive of as the greater good. Obviously there are differences on that.
BF: Oh yes, I was just gonna add that. That’s correct.
BNR: What’s your favorite victory in politics?
BF: Because of the way that it happened, I felt pretty good about the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” I think we made a real difference.
BNR: What advice do you offer the youngest members of Congress?
BF: Learn the rules. Rules are very important when you have large numbers of people. People make fun of parliamentary procedure — it’s essential to get things done and if you know it well, you have an advantage in getting your goals. And, two, you have to pick out several things to concentrate on. You can’t do everything all the time. And, three, recognize that you’re gonna have to get ahead by your colleagues’ voluntary support. So, yes, you should push hard. But remember, you are dependent for success on the volunteered cooperation of a lot of other very strong-minded people.