Q&A with Barney Frank
On my left, standing tall amid a pile of children’s toys, is a miniature basketball hoop. On my right is a disheveled, stubbled 74-year-old in a Nautica sweatshirt and black Velcro shoes: Barney Frank, the post-Congress version, at his sister’s house in Newton, where he now spends about half of his days. The rest of the time, he’s up in Maine with his 45-year-old carpenter/welder/surfer husband, Jim Ready.
Frank isn’t completely retired. But unlike many of his ex-colleagues, he has spurned the dreaded lobbying route in favor of more edifying pursuits. Last fall, he taught at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. This month, he’s publishing a memoir, Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage. After an unsurprising Barney Frank–onian hiccup—the day our interview was originally scheduled, he was in an entirely different city—he and I linked up for a wide-ranging, occasionally contentious, consistently fascinating three-hour conversation. Barack Obama and Jon Stewart were not spared the rod. Penis euphemisms and 1960s pop songs were discussed. Barney Frank was, well, Barney Frank.
I want to ask about the book. Did you write it all on your own, or was there ghostwriting?
No, I wrote it. I had to fight with the editor because I told him he could tell me what not to write, but I resisted his attempt to write some of it himself. An editor does that, as you know.
Now that you’re out of Congress, have you ramped up your interest in local politics?
No, it’s actually less than it was.
But you got involved in the Martha Coakley–Charlie Baker gubernatorial election?
Yeah, I campaigned with Martha. I stayed out of the primary because I had too many friends. But the Sunday before the general election I spent with Coakley in New Bedford, Fall River, Taunton, and the cities that I represented.
Did you think she had improved at all as a politician?
Oh yes, very, very much. No question. In fact, that Sunday night, when I was walking around shaking hands, they said, “How was she?” and I said, “She’s a lot better than I ever was.” I hated it, and I wasn’t good. But I wasn’t terrible.
So why did she lose?
Well, it was 2014 in America.
Here’s the deal. There is, in Massachusetts, this perception that the legislature is corrupt and run by Democrats and therefore the Republicans win more often than not for governor. I will concede this—and I should have said this—I think Martha was a very good candidate this time, but the perception of her being a bad candidate stuck with her.
I thought it was bizarre that the Globe endorsed Baker, given the ideological divide between the two candidates.
It doesn’t surprise me at all. The Globe has this problem that a lot of middle-class, respectable liberals have, which is a fear of being seen as partisan. There is this worship of nonpartisanship. It’s why I didn’t join in the great praise for Jon Stewart, because I think Stewart was guilty of that. You watch Stewart, there were never any good guys. Unlike Bill Maher, who I think much more intelligently differentiates, Stewart almost never referred to any politician except to show what a fool she was, or he was. And I actually think that’s devastating to try to get people involved.
I want to go back to a question that you brought up at the beginning of your book, which was: Why has the American public become so much more tolerant of gays and lesbians, for example, but so much less trusting of government intervention?
Well, the first is reality. The prejudice against us turned out to have no basis in reality. So as people have learned that, and learned who we are, that’s just faded away. And then a variety of things in the world eroded the position of Americans who were not highly educated. OPEC starts this, but then it’s just technology and international trade. But another thing that happens is this: The critical element we have are middle- and working-class white people, who actually do believe in government as a force for good, and are very bitterly disappointed that the government has done nothing to improve their economic situation. At the same time they see the Democrats and liberals caring about gay people, caring about black people. So we’re now in a vicious cycle. The more disappointed they get in government, the more they vote in people who don’t like the government. The more they vote for people who don’t like the government, the less the government does. That’s why I want to break out of this by cutting military spending and legalizing drugs and freeing up hundreds of billions of dollars that we could then use to show them how government can be in their interest.
So you don’t see the civil-libertarian attitude toward gays and lesbians as being connected to the lack of faith in government in general?
You know what just occurred to me? You know the song “Winchester Cathedral”?
“Winchester Cathedral, you’re letting me down/You didn’t do nothing when my baby left town.” [Ed. note: Close enough.]
Who sang the song?
I forget. [Ed. note: New Vaudeville Band, in 1966. Won a Grammy.] “You could have done something, but you did nothing when my baby went away.” These are people who grew up with FDR, Truman, even JFK—these are people who grew up thinking government was on their side to help them. And now they find that they’re fucked.
While we’re on the topic of gay rights, sort of, I want to talk about your personal history. In the book you made it seem as if you only really began having a romantic life in the ’80s. But if I’m correct, you dated when you were much younger in Boston. You dated women, in fact.
I had one…it sort of…I was about to use a very inapt expression.
I was about to say it “petered out.”
Why is that inapt? I don’t understand the etymology of that word. Explain it to me.
Well, your penis is a peter. You’ve never heard “penis” as a peter?
That’s where “petered out” comes from?
No, it’s not that. But a penis is a peter. One of the words for penis, in fact—there was a song called “Purple People Eater,” and disc jockeys were terribly afraid they were going to say Purple Peter Eater. That was back—
When disc jockeys were afraid to say things.
Exactly, that’s true, that’s a very good point. A very good cultural note.
This girlfriend would have been Kathleen Sullivan, who ran in the same Boston political circles you did?
Yeah, I dated Kathleen for a little while, then ended it.
At this point you knew you were gay?
So why did you date Kathleen?
One, she was a very attractive, vibrant woman who was fun to be with. And two, it was probably because I thought that was expected of me. But I realized it was very unfair to her.
She didn’t know.
I don’t know. I don’t think she did. She may have figured it out. She was a very smart woman. At that point, I ended it.
And so this was the only serious relationship you had with a woman?
Yeah. From the time I left college.
What was Boston’s gay scene like in the ’70s?
There was a very quiet one. There was a bar called the Punch Bowl over by Park Square, over by where the 57 Restaurant used to be, and the movie theater at the beginning of Bay Village. There were people who knew each other, there were gay men and lesbians, but it was very quiet and very hidden and very oppressed by the police. And there was no organizational activity.
What do you mean by organizational activity?
There were no gay rights groups. I know because I would have liked to have found them.
And gay Washington?
By the time I got to Washington in 1980, it was a thriving, vigorous gay community. I could participate, I could go to the parties. But it was hard for me to find a partner, a boyfriend. Because it’s hard to have someone when you’re hiding, or he’s hiding.
Was it out of this that you began a relationship with Stephen Gobie, the prostitute at the center of your 1989 scandal?
I could not find a satisfactory emotional relationship, physical and emotional, while I was in the closet. I had met him in ’85. I broke things off with him in ’87 because I was out and I didn’t need him anymore. He stewed about it for a while, because the normal response would have been to out me, but I had outed myself. And finally, two years and three months later, he broke the story. But that’s why he embellished it with all kinds of things—which the House Ethics Committee found were not true—because there wasn’t enough juice in saying I was just gay. [Ed. note: Gobie claimed he was running a prostitution ring out of Frank’s apartment.]
You wrote in the book that one of the things that distressed you was that early on the general public often learned about gay people through scandal.
Yes. I really felt that I had done a terrible disservice. I felt terrible about that. It was almost worse in a sense that I was, at that point, one of the most prominent gay people in America, and then I did this. I was very ashamed.
A disservice because you paid for sex? Or because this guy ended up being seedy?
Yeah, not just that I paid for sex, but that he had been running a prostitution service in my apartment. Never true. The landlady, who lived in the basement, wrote a letter saying, “This is ridiculous.” But it took a while for that to catch up.
I imagine you’re frustrated that people—mostly on the right, though some on the left—continue to link you, in your advocacy for government mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, to the collapse of the housing market in 2007.
Yes, that was a great mistake we made, and of course—
What was the great mistake?
Not taking that [argument against me] seriously, because we knew how silly it was.
What’s more important: not having combatted that argument, or not taking Fannie and Freddie’s issues seriously earlier?
I was in the minority. What should I have done differently on Fannie and Freddie? What should I have done?
Pushed for greater oversight?
When I was in the minority?
Even when you’re in the minority, why not? As an advocate, as a voice, as someone calling for alarm and churning up political support?
First place, because it would not have had any real impact. But secondly: We did, beginning in that period, go after the subprime loans. The argument is that Fannie and Freddie were the vehicle to making all these loans to poor people, correct?
Well, me and some others were going after the loans to poor people.
You’ve been quoted in the past saying, “I wish I had seen this coming sooner, I wish I had seen the bubble coming sooner.”
Yeah, in 2003…I was one of those in 2003 who didn’t see it. Unlike the others, though, I did see the subprime issue. We were trying to block subprime. And in 2003 I did not realize that this was more than just a subprime issue. But in 2004, I did. In 2004, when Bush ordered [Fannie and Freddie] to buy more loans from low-income people, below the median, I objected. And then in 2005 when they first brought up a bill [to reform Fannie and Freddie], I supported that bill in committee. I voted against it on the floor because they diluted my affordable-housing [plan]. So how am I culpable here?
In 2008 you endorsed Hillary Clinton. Having seen almost two terms of Obama, do you still think that was a good endorsement?
Oh, yeah. I’m not as big as you might have inferred on people’s “I’m for change, and I’m for new, and I’m for post-partisan.” I mean I want reality, I want facts, and on healthcare and in a couple other areas, Hillary was substantively to Obama’s left. I was wholly skeptical of this “I am a transformative figure who will rise above the political battle.” When he said he was going to be post-partisan—I said this in the book—he gave me post-partisan depression.
You’ve said Obama’s main weakness is the strength you think that Hillary possessed, which was working the halls of Congress.
Understanding the nature of the opposition as a political process.
Meaning he was too naïve?
Too self-confident about his ability to get people to come together with him. Like he could talk anybody into anything.
The bigger accomplishments of the Obama era occurred mostly in the first two years of his first term. The auto bailout, the stimulus, the healthcare package, your financial reform bill [Dodd-Frank]. What do you think the Clinton administration would have looked like? Do you think those same things would have gotten accomplished?
Yeah, I think it would have looked pretty similar. What I would’ve done is—and I don’t know if Hillary would’ve done this or not—I think we should’ve reversed the order. I think we should’ve begun with financial reform and done healthcare second, in the same two years. And maybe that’s part of what I thought about being partisan. It was to start out by saying, “Look at these people, and we had to bail them out, but now we’re going to nail them.” And then do healthcare. I think financial reform had more general appeal and I think healthcare turned out to be very partisan. I think he didn’t expect it to be so bad.
Let’s talk about 2016. What do you make right now of the Republican field as it begins to coalesce?
Well, I’m beginning to think Scott Walker has a good chance, and is probably the one plausible Republican, the one I would be worried about as a Democrat.
I think they have a hard time picking someone who’s not the result of a bloody war, and who does not have a seriously divided party behind him. If Jeb Bush wins, I think it’s very bloody…. But I think it’s too early to tell. I think they have a terrible problem, as I think Bush is very vulnerable and—
Just because of his last name?
The family, because he was too moderate for too long, and the immigration. And one of the ones that I have to think is going to blow up in his face is the NRA. The guy the NRA hates the most in the whole world is [Michael] Bloomberg. I was shocked to read that among the things that Bush did to clear the way was to resign from the Bloomberg Family Foundation. I guarantee you that’s going to come back and bite him in the ass.
You haven’t mentioned Marco Rubio.
I’m skeptical. Not for great reasons. You know, I think, you know I was in some ways surprised that Obama won. I think there is an alienness about him that is not—that he’s too foreign. I wish I didn’t feel that way about the country.
You think Republicans are not ready for a Hispanic in the White House?
I think there’s a distrust.
Elizabeth Warren. It doesn’t look like she’s going to run for president.
Certainly not, why would she run for president?
If she were to run, do you think it would have a counterproductive effect on Hillary with regard to the Democratic nomination?
Of course. Let me ask you, what do you think the effect was, in 2012, on Mitt Romney—that nominating process?
It dragged it out. I don’t know if it substantially weakened him, but yeah, I see what you’re getting at.
Should we reproduce that process?
There was an aura of inevitability with Clinton in 2008, which didn’t help her, and I wonder if an aura of inevitability in 2016 ends up failing her again.
I don’t think that means anything. I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know what that means. I think that’s zeitgeist talk of a sort that has no real function. Barack Obama was a very good and new candidate.
Why couldn’t Warren, in your estimation, be an Obama?
One, because the mood of the country is different. I think there is frankly less naiveté across the country, the belief that one person can be transformative in that way. In defense of Warren, she doesn’t make those kinds of claims; she’s much more substantive that Obama. She’s actually very different. But Obama did not claim to be the champion of the dispossessed; he was not the leader of the faction. That also makes it harder for her to win the nomination.
One last question, about Boston: What do you think of the idea of the Olympics coming to town in 2024?
Oh, terrible idea. Where are you going to put it? I would say this: If we can’t find a place for snow, where are we going to find a place for the Olympics?
Barney Frank will discuss his new memoir, Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage, at First Parish Church hosted by Harvard Book Store Tuesday, March 24, at 7 p.m. For tickets and details, visit harvard.com.