Interview: Barney Frank discusses his new memoir of a life in progressive politics | Arts

Interview: Barney Frank discusses his new memoir of a life in progressive politics

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Barney Frank
NCSU Hunt Library Auditorium
Monday, April 13, 7 p.m.


Former Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank is known primarily for three things: Being the first openly gay member of the House of Representatives, co-sponsoring the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act after the 2008 financial crisis, and wielding a candid, sometimes lacerating sense of humor to win debates. All three entwine in his new memoir of "a life in politics from the Great Society to same-sex marriage," which takes advantage of an irresistible double-meaning in its title, Frank.

Before he visits N.C. State on Monday for a conversation with Frank Stasio and a signing line (buying the book from Quail Ridge Books gets you into both; admission-only tickets are $5), we reached Frank by phone to learn about his perspective on the progress of various civil rights battles, the books that influenced him, the ways that his passionate faith in government might be restored throughout America, and the “bizarre” New York Times review of Frank, which seemed to suggest he should have dished about his sex life more.

INDY: It's standard for politicians to write memoirs, but yours is unique because of your coming-out story. What made this the right time to tell it?


BARNEY FRANK: Well, for starters, I wanted to put my voice down, but writing does not come as easily to me as talking, so there was no way I could've written the book while I was still in office. I couldn’t have focused, and I didn’t want to have it ghost-written. Secondly, I think it’s a critical moment. It’s interesting that news on the LGBT front continues to get better, and I’m struck by the fact that conservative Republicans are now having to apologize for doing things that they thought were going to be slam dunks in discrimination. But I am even more troubled by this lack of support for government, and I wanted to make the argument for those of us who believe in government to vindicate it.

You write about how you used to get praise for your faith in government and pushback for your sexual orientation, and now that’s kind of reversed.

My marriage to Jim appeared to be better received by the public than the Financial Reform Bill.

How do you think that faith in government can be restored at this point?

Well, I think you have a particular segment of people that I want to address—white working-class men. The kind of people who, years ago, because they're willing to work, even if they didn’t have any specialized skills they could earn a decent living. The way the economy has evolved internationally, especially in America, they're at an economic disadvantage if they don’t have advanced degrees or technical skills. So they’re angry. And paradoxically, I think it’s because they believe in government that they're so opposed to what's happening now. They think that if the government was interested in their welfare, it would show it.

So I believe we should be freeing up resources that we're now spending unwisely—particularly in military interventions, like in Iraq, and in protecting Western Europe long after they should have been protecting themselves, and in prosecuting people for their use of recreational drugs—and use some of that money to make it possible for children of working-class families to get a higher education without going deeply in debt, to put construction workers back to work building the roads, bridges and other infrastructure that we need.

And I would extend Medicare rather than cutting back. I think it’s been really good for people and I would extend it downward so people can get Medicare at 55 and not worry about paying medical bills, and heavy health insurance could diminish. So my view is, the way to make people be more supportive of government is to have the government do things that are good for them, particularly with that segment of the American economy that is suffering from increasing inequality. If we could alleviate that with the kind of things I talked about, you'd have people saying, “Gee I guess the government can work for me.”

You mentioned not punishing recreational drugs so harshly. There’s obviously still much to be done in terms of gay rights, but beyond that, is the drug war the next big civil rights battle for America to face?

I think you have to do them one at a time, and there are still some areas we need to deal with—obviously employment discrimination, with there being some LGBT people who want to come out and discrimination pushing them back. I do think that since white people first came here with slaves in the 17th century, the race situation is now tied up with the enforcement of the drug laws. I would say the major source of racial unfairness in America today stems from the unequal way that recreational drug laws are enforced.

I’m curious if you read a lot of political memoirs, any that influenced you?

I do read a lot of political books. There were two in particular that influenced me. A professor at Columbia named Charles Hamilton wrote a very interesting book, [Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.: The Political Biography of an American Dilemma.] Powell was the third black member of the House in the 20th century. He was the first to really challenge racism. When he got to the House in the ’40s, he was told that as a black man, he couldn’t use the House barbershop, the House gym or the House restaurant. He said, “the hell with it,” and he did. I kind of took [inspiration] from him, as the first openly gay member of the House with a partner, and how I want to be treated. Secondly, I read Robert Caro's chapters about Lyndon Johnson as Minority Leader just about the time that I was becoming the Minority Leader of the Financial Services Committee, ultimately to face a very hard job of trying to deal with the financial crisis.

Did you feel that telling the story of your coming out was important for America, or was it important for you personally?

Well, it was more important for the country, though I suppose it was a little bit of self-justification. I begin by saying, in effect, I was willing to be a coward but not a hypocrite. I didn’t think that I was going to be able to come out at first, and I didn’t for a while, but I never let that deter me from being a gay rights supporter. I wasn’t afraid of all the people saying, “Well, he wouldn’t do that if he weren’t gay himself,” and I’m very proud of that. Beyond that, I did want to give some encouragement to others who still have to weigh this, where prejudice in some parts of the country could still be a problem. Especially, I wanted to give some advice to younger gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender people entering politics

Did you grapple with how to balance the book between the political and the personal, how much you wanted to tell about your personal life?

Very simply, yes. I wanted it to be more political, my editor wanted it to be more personal, and we compromised. Neither one of us anticipated the bizarre review by Frank Bruni, in The New York Times, where he complained that I didn’t talk about how much sex I was having. Frankly, I just could not believe that he would say that. For a gay man to insist that another gay man … well, he must have wanted Fifty Shades of Frank. I was appalled. “How much sex are you having or how much do you want to have?” I don’t understand how the Times could allow that into a supposedly serious publication.

Do you worry that your personal story might overshadow legislative achievements such as Wall Street Reform?

Well, what’s to worry about? It is what it is.

When you were growing up in New Jersey, could you predict the America of today at all?

Absolutely not. It’s quite the opposite. I got into this fight in 1972 when I founded the first Gay Rights Movement in Massachusetts history, and over these past 40 years, I keep underestimating the rate of the progress. In 1954, I would have laughed if anybody told me that I would wind up being an influential member of Congress who was marrying a man while I was still in office.

If you were starting your political career in today’s climate, how do you think things would have been different?

In the areas in which I ran, I would have been open about being gay from the beginning.

And you may have been able to take on different kinds of political battles?

You know, I appreciate that I was too flippant when I talked about whether my sexual orientation overshadowed my career. Obviously, I was proud to be out, but I would not have wanted that to be the only thing I am. During the financial crisis, both in dealing with the crisis and working with the Bush administration to pass the bill, that impression of me became more clear to people. At that point, I was the one who would remind people from time to time that I was gay. What I said was, “Look, I’m a big shot now and that’s very nice, but I used to be a frightened 15-year-old, so I don’t want people to forget that I’m part of this group that you’ve been prejudiced against.”

The wit you're known for comes through in the book. That’s obviously useful for an author, but what about as a political tool?

Sure, first of all, it keeps me from getting bored, and I have a low threshold for boredom. And secondly, you are trying to get people to pay attention to what you say in a welter of information. If you can say something in a way that's funny, it’s going to be more memorable. It’s useful in debate, if you’re trying to win an argument and persuade people with your viewpoint over somebody else’s, to make fun of them. But I’ve always tried to focus on making fun of people's arguments, not their personalities.

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