A Crash Course in Crisis Economics*

*Starring (to the extent, for good or for ill, that any of this can come down to one person, which as we'll see is only so much) Barney Frank.

II. Understanding the Upside to Maximum Personal Transparency

In interviews, Frank has generally traced the realization that he was homosexual to age 13. He knew about gays because three years earlier, in 1950, the State Department had fired 91 of them in an episode that touched off a mass government purge of men the newspapers then dubbed “perverts,” on the grounds that gays were disproportionately susceptible to blackmail and therefore posed a greater security risk. The rationale was irrational: In communities in which homosexuality is considered taboo, a gay person, by the laws of moral hazard, should have strong disincentive to engage in activity that could invite extortion. In fact, the discretion required to have any sort of homosexual affair in that era meant gays were perhaps better suited to hold sensitive positions (which may help explain why McCarthy employed a closeted gay man, Roy Cohn, as his chief counsel).

Frank, a garrulous slob who loses his cell phone every few weeks (an early campaign slogan: “Neatness Isn’t Everything”), has never been a naturally discreet guy. At the same time, as he entered politics in the 1970s as a young state representative, his pragmatic side could not have seen much benefit to being openly homosexual. His choice of career had been inspired by the civil rights movement, the lessons of which made Frank keenly aware of the cultural sensitivities and unarticulated fears that could turn decent people away from just causes. (During his college days at Harvard, when Frank spent a summer in Mississippi with the Freedom Riders, a reporter asked him whether he thought blacks were the vanguard of a new American Revolution. “No!” he said. “They just want to sit back and relax and have a house in the suburbs like everyone else.”) Given the options, he dealt with his sexuality mostly by not dealing with it.

Frank graduated to Congress in 1980; in his first term, about the only thing he earned a reputation for was promise. His colleagues voted him “Best New Congressman.” The legendary Tip O’Neill dubbed him a shoo-in for first Jewish speaker of the House.

Then came AIDS.

When the disease emerged as a public health epidemic in 1981, the prevailing conservative wisdom considered it the Almighty’s own purge of homosexuals and heroin addicts; a more apocalyptic-minded contingent saw it as a pox visited on all of America for decades of godless rock ‘n’ roll–enabled permissiveness. Among the latter was California Congressman Bill Dannemeyer, who introduced numerous measures to quarantine AIDS patients. To highlight the unhealthiness of the gay “lifestyle,” he read aloud on the House floor graphic descriptions of homosexual sex.

In 1986, the Justice Department wrote an opinion arguing in favor of allowing employers to fire people with AIDS if they feared the disease to be contagious in the workplace. The following year, Connecticut Congressman Stewart McKinney died of AIDS he’d gotten, his doctor said, from a blood transfusion. The next day the Washington Post produced accounts that McKinney, a married Republican, had slept with men. At the funeral, Frank decided he had no choice. It was already well known among his friends that he was gay; rumors had also started to circulate about his relationship with his “houseboy,” a sometime escort he paid to drive him around and run errands. Frank chose to come out (“of the room,” as O’Neill memorably mis-announced to his staff) to the Globe with a gruff “Yes, so what?”

Two months later, Frank’s landlady called to tell him the houseboy—Steve Gobie was his name — had been hosting a suspicious number of visitors while he’d been away. It was a prelude to a bombshell: Two years later, Gobie (whom Frank had fired shortly after hearing of his extracurricular activities) went public with their affair in a Washington Times story. In a press conference, the rattled congressman said he had perceived their relationship as something akin to My Fair Lady‘s Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle. Gobie’s version was decidedly less sweet: In recounting it later to Penthouse (for which he reportedly earned upward of $40,000), he said he had entertained a number of high-profile clients at Frank’s apartment, and moreover, that Frank had known about it. Though Gobie’s claims lacked evidence, Frank was willing to endure the endless rounds of public introspection in the media required to parse fact from fiction. Another Gobie client, an elementary school principal — who told the Washington Times Gobie reminded him of the son he’d just lost to drugs — resigned. A Republican lobbyist Gobie had serviced committed suicide.

The ensuing ethics investigation concluded in July 1990. Most of Gobie’s stories seemed fabricated, and whatever prostitution may have taken place at Frank’s apartment, it was judged highly doubtful Frank had known about it. But Dannemeyer introduced a resolution to expel Frank anyway, intoning ominously that “the House is on trial today.” By that point, though, sympathies were trending Frank’s way. Dannemeyer’s resolution got only 38 votes. Frank, after being reprimanded, was reelected to the House with 66 percent of the vote.
From practically his first day in Congress, Frank was widely considered its smartest member, and possibly its funniest. Though the scandal curtailed his prospects for higher office, it also humanized him, forcing him to articulate the loneliness and emotional underdevelopment that had led him into such a colossally dysfunctional relationship. Having now proven himself eminently fallible, he could — and would — stake out positions that other politicians would shy away from for fear of looking like fools. The truth had set Frank free.