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.
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.
No, it’s actually less than it was.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.]
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.
I had one…it sort of…I was about to use a very inapt expression.
I was about to say it “petered out.”
Well, your penis is a peter. You’ve never heard “penis” as a peter?
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—
Exactly, that’s true, that’s a very good point. A very good cultural note.
Yeah, I dated Kathleen for a little while, then ended it.
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.
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.
Yeah. From the time I left college.
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.
There were no gay rights groups. I know because I would have liked to have found them.
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.
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.]
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.
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.
Yes, that was a great mistake we made, and of course—
Not taking that [argument against me] seriously, because we knew how silly it was.
I was in the minority. What should I have done differently on Fannie and Freddie? What should I have done?
When I was in the minority?
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.
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?
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.
Understanding the nature of the opposition as a political process.
Too self-confident about his ability to get people to come together with him. Like he could talk anybody into anything.
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.
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—
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.
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.
I think there’s a distrust.
Certainly not, why would she run for president?
Of course. Let me ask you, what do you think the effect was, in 2012, on Mitt Romney—that nominating process?
Should we reproduce that process?
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.
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.
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.
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