To Be Frank
Twenty-five years after he went to Washington, and 15 years after he survived a sex scandal that it's hard to imagine any politician surviving today, this once-rumpled, still-gay congressman from Bayonne, New Jersey, is one of the most formidable and influential members of the House. Barney Frank's powerhouse role on Capitol Hill is a triumph both public and private.
Barney Frank's quarter century in Congress was interrupted by a scandal that would have buried other men. But this openly gay congressman, who has one of the fiercest wits and sharpest minds on Capitol Hill, remains a force to be reckoned with. (Photo / Chris Hartlove)
Even by the standards of Washington, D.C., this is an impressive gathering of expensive suits. The crowd jamming the committee room is dark and woollen. It makes the waitstaff at Waterman Funeral Home look like the Village People. An American city has drowned this week, and the Committee on Financial Services of the House of Representatives has gathered for a "briefing" - not a "hearing," there wasn't time for a hearing - and that has brought all the pinstripes and muted handkerchiefs into this room.
The fetid, diseased waters then only beginning to recede in New Orleans seem already to have filtered into every level of the government. Across the way, the House Energy Committee is meeting, and its room is so packed that they've had to engage an overflow room down the hall. The Financial Services Committee makes do with one room, but even here, you can feel the water seeping in. The previous week, for example, 800,000 Social Security checks were mailed out to homes along the Gulf Coast that simply were not there to receive them. As is so often the case in Washington, guilt is the great underground river running far beneath everything that's going on.
As the committee members slowly gather and take their seats, the crowd begins to stir. There are lobbyists and bankers, fund managers and bureaucrats, and they all talk in whispers. Everything in a room like this sounds conspiratorial, but what they're really doing is groping in their conversations for new metaphors to use. Nobody wants to be the person to talk about people "drowning in debt." Nobody wants to be the first person to talk about small banks "going under." The water, rank and pestilential, washes back and forth through the conversations of the powerful. Guilt is the river, and shame is the current that powers it.
Just to the right of congressman Michael Oxley, the Ohio Republican who chairs the committee, Representative Barney Frank is getting restless for the hearing to begin. He is quite tanned relative to most of this crowd, and, at 65, his hair is graying in the way that most legislators want their hair to gray. Most of the makeover he did on himself throughout the 1980s and 1990s has become reasonably permanent - gone is the rumpled gent who once won an election behind the slogan "Neatness Isn't Everything" - but one of the things that remains is the visible, tangible sense of energy.
He talks to staff, he talks to the chairman. He drums his fingers. He fusses with papers. And there you can see the person who many Boston political wise guys way back thought would have no future in elected office, and not just because he was Jewish, and from New Jersey, and, they would whisper, you know, like . . . gay. They also thought the pace - the endless hearings driving a glacial process fueled by embalmed ritual and desiccated courtesy - would drive him absolutely crazy. Instead, he has been in the Congress for a quarter century now, and he has thrived there.
If he isn't going to be the first Jewish speaker of the House, partly because of an astonishing act of self-destructive indulgence 20 years ago and partly because the Democratic Party isn't likely to have the chance to select a speaker any time soon, he has become one of that body's most formidable and influential members. "My first term in Congress," says Representative Robert Wexler, a Democrat from Florida who served with Frank on the House Judiciary Committee, "I was taken by Barney's leadership. From my perspective, he has the sharpest mind in the US Congress, House and Senate together."
The old pols missed the boat because they looked at him - a rumpled bundle of 1,000 ideas going in 100 different directions, a wiseass with a spark-gap wit - and they saw a wonk, and not one of their own. "I don't have the intellectual time and energy to come up with new policy ideas," Frank says. "My job is to be the mediator between people who have policy ideas and public policy. My strength is to be able to understand policy ideas and decide how best to implement them. I am about the political process. I know the rules of the House as much as anybody. I am a wonk about how to get things done, more than about what to do."
The committee comes to order, and it becomes plain that most of the people on the committee, and most of those appearing before it, will consider almost anything to cope with the financial aspects of the crises in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. How to get people access to their own money. How to get people access to loans. How to keep small local banks alive - nobody says "afloat" - when the houses on which those banks have issued mortgages are now in sticks and splinters, and, anyway, most of the people who took out the mortgages are God alone knows where. How to find housing for the biggest movement of displaced people within the United States since the end of the Civil War. It is a moment begging for ideas, and it just so happens that Barney Frank is ready to move on a bunch of them.
"We have a very large number of people who, through no fault of their own, have lost everything they have," he begins. "Now, I'm a great believer in the free-market system, but I also believe that there are important values that can only be vindicated if we act together through government."
There is a barbed hook buried in that otherwise unremarkable statement. For nearly his entire time in Congress, he has operated within a context in which the role and importance of government were, at best, minimized and, at worst, ridiculed. This was true in 1980, when Republican President Ronald Reagan said that "government is the problem," and it was true in 1996, when Democratic President Bill Clinton announced that "the era of big government is over." It was true in 1994, when Newt Gingrich led the Republican revolution that may have locked Barney Frank into a permanent role as the ranking minority member on this very committee. But now, today, the water is seeping in from all sides, and Frank is talking about small banks and federal housing, and the suits are nodding a little. Because, more than most people, and certainly more than most of the people who serve in the Congress, Barney Frank knows how guilt is the river that runs under things, and that shame is the current you have to learn to navigate.
When Barney Frank went to Congress 25 years ago, Tip O'Neill was presiding over what seemed to be an unshakable Democratic majority in the House of Representatives waiting to greet Reagan, the newly elected president. The world seemed permanently affixed between the twin poles of the United States and the Soviet Union. A mysterious disease that had been killing gay men in the United States was just beginning to appear in the mainstream press, requiring that mainstream press, and the mainstream politicians who need that press like a fish needs water, to acknowledge that gay people existed and that they lived lives not wholly dissimilar to the American mean.
Today, a paunchy former wrestling coach named Dennis Hastert is presiding over what seems to be an unshakable Republican majority in the House of Representatives that operates at the service of Republican George W. Bush, who is rounding into the second year of his second term, his presidency defined by an attack on the United States. Russia is now one of more than a dozen nations carved out of the carcass of an empire. Gay people can get married in Massachusetts and be united civilly in places like Vermont, and the issue has become something of a national firestorm among the political class.
Frank has defended a president who was impeached over a lurid, if consensual, sexual affair.
A pope he never met helped begin his congressional career.
A male prostitute he knew all too well nearly ended it.
He has lived the Chinese curse. He has lived in interesting times.
"I helped change the rules. I came out publicly," he says. "At first, I thought my private life would keep me from having an elected career. Then I thought I could have an elected career but at the expense of a personal life, and then I realized that that was crazy. When you try to make your public career a substitute for your private life, you wind up screwing up both of them. The electorate becomes your lover, and that's not healthy.
"I'm senior Democrat on the Financial Services Committee. You saw that thing today. I'm the only one who still thinks of myself as gay, because I'm thinking of what I did last weekend in Provincetown. I have been pleasantly surprised in how little difference it has made for my constituents and my colleagues."
Oxley, Frank's chairman on the Financial Services Committee, says there's a simple reason for that. "He's got the seniority, and he `gets' it. I've seen too many members who are really popular at home, who get reelected all the time, but who don't really have a clue from the legislative standpoint. It's people like Barney who make the system work."
Frank hit the ground in Massachusetts running, an academic refugee from Harvard whose father ran a business along the New Jersey Turnpike. In 1967, Frank found himself chief of staff to Kevin White, who was then one of a handful of young big-city mayors (John Lindsay in New York was the prototype) who were seen as an important part of the future of American politics. At this time, White ran a policy shop full of young workaholics dedicated to shaking up city government simply by trying out as many new ideas as they could devise. Little City Halls. Summerthing. The ongoing battles over heedless highway construction. Frank was in the center of it all, the bridge between the ambitious plans of the assembled wonks and the political and personal ambitions of White.
"Barney was kind of the spark plug," recalls Fred Salvucci, an MIT professor who worked in the Little City Hall program and later became secretary of transportation under Governor Michael Dukakis. "That said, he was totally odd. . . . He would speak rapid-fire, and I could never understand him," he says. "If Department Y wouldn't respond, I'd go to Barney, and he'd get a response."
In 1972, local Democratic leaders went to Frank and asked him to run in a state legislative district that included Back Bay and Beacon Hill. At that point, he thought he was unelectable, because he was very Jewish, very Jersey, and very gay. The politicians knew about the first two. As to the third, Frank benefited from their assumption that nobody would agree to run if he were gay, so, therefore, he couldn't be gay. He built his own personal closet. The political world helped build him his professional one.
"When I went to work for Kevin White in '68, '69, and '70, I worked with liberals," he says. "There wasn't a gay-rights movement in Boston. If there had been, I would have [joined it]."
HE WAS ELECTED to the Massachusetts House and then reelected three times. He became known as a quick and savage wit - most famously when he explained that antiabortion legislators "believe that life begins at conception and ends at birth" - but for all his strengths as a legislator, he was a curious kind of pol. His wit could sparkle, but it could also hurt. Reporters found him off-putting and arrogant. Some female journalists wondered if his advocacy of women's issues could make up for what they sensed as a tendency to dismiss them that bordered on misogyny. More than anything, Frank was manifestly uncomfortable with the glad-handing that came along with his new career.
"He was more anxious back then - a bit brittler," says Thaleia Tsongas Schlesinger, a longtime Democratic activist and friend of Frank's and twin sister of the late US Senator Paul Tsongas. "I think that's not unusual for someone who is lying to themselves or lying to the world."
Still, he was part of another generation of rising Democratic politicians in very much the same way that he had been central to the young policy mavens in White's City Hall. "I sat in Seat 67 and he sat in Seat 68 on the House floor," recalls Edward Markey, who entered the state Legislature on the same day Frank did and now sits with him in Congress. "He was so well known throughout the city that for him to run in a Back Bay district, that was almost being elected by acclamation. I think that, perhaps, he'd seen himself primarily as a staffer, but those voters, given the opportunity, saw it as a kind of honor to vote for him."
In 1980, in an attempt to rein in the clergy in Latin America, particularly those who ascribed to what was called "liberation theology" and who had taken prominent public political positions in places like Nicaragua, Pope John Paul II ordered that any Roman Catholic priest who held such a political office should surrender it. The Rev. Robert Drinan, a Jesuit who represented the Fourth Congressional District in Massachusetts, was forced to retire. A number of Drinan's supporters urged Frank to run.
Ironically, given the circumstances of Drinan's retirement, Cardinal Humberto Medeiros, the Boston archbishop, involved himself heavily in the primary contest between Frank and the Waltham mayor, Arthur Clark, a staunch antiabortion candidate. In a uniquely Massachusetts turn of events, then, a pope had forced a priest out of office - and a Jewish politician from Jersey was running for the seat against the expressed wishes of the local presiding prelate. (As a further complication, Drinan himself endorsed Frank.) And, of course, the real punch line of the story was the one that Barney Frank was keeping to himself.
He won and went to Washington at the same time as Ronald Reagan, who had swept out Democrat Jimmy Carter and a Democratic-controlled Senate along with him. The political plates beneath Washington were shifting, and Frank confounded expectations. His wit was still quick and his skills as a debater formidable, but he demonstrated a respect for the House rules that warmed the hearts of the congressional old guard and a kind of pragmatism that seemed to belie his reputation as someone whose knee jerked reliably to the left on every issue. For example, when, in Frank's first year in the House, the FBI's Abscam sting caught six of his fellow congressmen taking cash bribes from a fake sheik in return for political favors and they pleaded entrapment, Frank was one of the least sympathetic people in Congress.
In 1982, in Frank's first try at reelection, the Massachusetts Legislature threw Frank and another incumbent, Republican Margaret Heckler, into a reconfigured district that included not only Frank's liberal strongholds in Newton and Brookline but also the blue-collar city of Fall River. To survive, Frank had to learn how to campaign among people he'd never really represented. He threw himself into the race; he shook all the hands he had to shake, ate flocks of fried chicken. Still, it was inconceivable to some of his new prospective constituents that a closeted gay man would ask for their votes. Once, while Frank was campaigning, a man told him he had heard that the congressman was a friend of "the boys from Providence." Pretty clearly, the man had heard "Provincetown" and disbelieved his ears, preferring to believe that Frank had the support of the Rhode Island mob.
The campaign humanized him. In a famous television commercial, Frank was shown hitting what appeared to be a line-drive double into the right-center-field gap and running the bases while a narrator recited his legislative accomplishments. The ad ended with Frank sliding in ungainly fashion into home plate. He learned to schmooze, to take some of the edge off his wit. He defeated Heckler, sweeping the southern city along the way, and he's been unbeatable ever since.
However, as the 1980s came to an end, Frank was still trying to walk a line between his public and private lives that was growing increasingly narrow.
HE BEGAN TO TELL close friends that he was gay not long before he ran for Congress. However, he did not come out publicly until 1987. The announcement was a national event - Frank was by far the most prominent American politician to announce he was gay - but it was greeted with a humorous shrug back home, where he had long been accepted as one of the state's most exotic examples of political fauna anyway. "It just never came up when we were working together," Salvucci says. "He told me when he was coming out because I was one of about 5,000 people in his Rolodex." Most memorable was the reaction of Tip O'Neill, who was still the speaker of the House at that point, albeit a bit behind the curve on certain new social realities. As recounted in John Aloysius Farrell's biography of O'Neill, the speaker asked his friends if they'd heard that "Barney's coming out of the room."
Soon, Frank was in a stable - and very public - romance with an economist named Herb Moses, and he seemed to all of his longtime acquaintances to be at peace with himself for the first time, his personal and professional lives soundly integrated. And it was about here that the roof caved in.
Back in 1985, Frank had engaged the services of a male escort named Stephen Gobie, who had advertised his "hot bottom" in a personal ad. Over the next two years, while Frank was trying to decide whether to come out, he and Gobie carried on a clandestine affair, during which time Frank hired Gobie as a driver despite knowing Gobie was on probation for drug possession and for possession of child pornography. Frank used his House privileges to fix Gobie's parking tickets. He wrote a memo trying to clear Gobie from probation that was disingenuous at best and an outright deception at worst. Gobie repaid Frank by running a prostitution service out of Frank's Capitol Hill apartment. When Frank discovered this, he fired Gobie and ended their relationship. Then, in 1989, just two years after Frank's announcement that he was gay, Gobie told his story to the conservative Washington Times.
There was an immediate public outcry. Frank confirmed the basic details of his relationship with Gobie and the financial and other favors he'd done, but he angrily denied he'd been aware that Gobie had gone into business for himself in Frank's apartment. Even so, it was an astonishing act of indiscreet self-indulgence, especially for the stiff-necked ethics scold who'd shown no pity for the various Abscam defendants. Even Frank's closest Massachusetts friends were shaken. And The Boston Globe called for Frank to resign, so as to spare the voters the pain of having to confront his sex life in the voting booth.
Instead, Frank admitted what he'd done, denied what he hadn't, and took his case to the House ethics committee, which recommended a reprimand by the full House, a lesser penalty than the censure that had been requested in a motion by a notorious back-bench bomb thrower named Newt Gingrich. The punishment was handed down in 1990.
Frank set out to rehabilitate himself. He declined the Globe's invitation and ran ferociously for reelection in 1990, winning with 66 percent of the vote. He worked doggedly at legislation. Moreover, he found a kind of power in his unique position. When Republican aides began circulating rumors that then Speaker Thomas Foley was gay, Frank called in the press and said that, if the whispers didn't stop, he would publicly out any Republican member whom he knew to be gay. The whispers stopped.
"I honestly don't know if I'd have done it," he says, citing a moment in Gore Vidal's political drama, The Best Man, in which two politicians talk about blackmailing someone who's gay. Frank recalls one of them saying: " `I wasn't telling you to do it, you stupid bastard. I was telling you to threaten to do it.'"
Frank also watched as Gingrich rose in power until, in 1994, the Georgian orchestrated a Republican takeover in the House that gave the GOP control of both chambers of Congress for the first time in 40 years. In a way, Gingrich, who became speaker, and his revolution completed Frank's political rehabilitation. His essential gifts suited a politician in opposition.
Almost from the start, Frank perceived a schism in the personality of the new speaker, who fancied himself not only a gifted political partisan but also a towering cultural and sociological visionary. The two sides were not compatible, and Frank, who was uniquely attuned to the problems of living any kind of a double life, sensed an advantage and tormented Gingrich almost from the moment that the latter picked up the speaker's gavel. This eventually prompted some decidedly unvisionary whining from Gingrich, who, Frank decided, was what is called in the fight game "a bleeder."
GINGRICH, HOWEVER, had fashioned an authentic political revolution, and he'd brought into the House with him young conservatives who believed they had changed the world. Almost from the first day in 1995, there was loose talk about impeaching Bill Clinton over one of the multifarious "scandals" that had refused to die. From his seat on the House Judiciary Committee, Frank was the Democratic point man on these debates. One of his staunchest opponents on the committee was another Georgia Republican, Bob Barr, who would write the foreword to Emmett Tyrrell Jr.'s fictional 1997 book The Impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton.
"One of the things about Barney," Barr says now, "is that some of the members on that committee were just loud. Others just talked and talked. What makes Barney stronger than them, and more formidable, is that there's substance behind what he's saying. He has the credibility. When he says something, you can take to the bank that he knows his stuff."
Finally, in 1998, the Republicans looking to take Clinton down found themselves blessed with Monica Lewinsky. The impeachment process began. At the start, Frank found it hard to believe the Republicans would take the case the full distance. Gingrich threatened to talk about the scandal every day. On October 27, in advance of the midterm congressional elections, the Republicans began to run campaign ads about the scandal. They lost five seats in the House and nearly lost several more. Frank thought that might stop the momentum, or at least prompt a search for some sort of facesaving compromise - a censure resolution, perhaps. Then, shortly after the election, his party in open revolt against his leadership, Gingrich announced he would step down as speaker. He left the House, and his second divorce, this one involving an affair with a staffer, shortly ensued. Gingrich's putative successor, Bob Livingston, never assumed the chair because his adulterous past was exposed by pornographer Larry Flynt. It was a mad time. Even all of this incredibly garish publicity didn't slow the Republicans down.
"I underestimated the self-delusion," Frank muses. "Frankly, I kept thinking, `OK, they know this is a bad idea, and they're going to stop it.'. . . They knew it was a bad idea, and they just kept going." He adds, "They could have had a vote censuring Bill Clinton, 420-10."
Of all the scandals on which to impeach a president, a sex scandal and its attendant issues would be the ground on which Frank could argue not just from intellect but also from experience. That he was confident enough to do so in public was a measure of how far he'd come since his own scandal had exploded. Moreover, since impeachment was essentially being used as a political act, requiring in this case only a disciplined majority party, Frank helped make the larger case in the country that resulted in Clinton's having a 73 percent job approval rating on the day after the full House impeached him.
"This was never a battle just in the Judiciary Committee or even in the full House," says Robert Wexler, the Florida Democrat who served on the committee with Frank. "We were engaged for a battle for the hearts and souls of the American public, and that's where Barney plays his finest role." The impeachment died in the Senate.
Overreach still astonishes the politician in him, for whom compromise is far more second nature than his opponents might believe. "Since 1992, the best we've done in the House elections was when they were pursuing" impeachment, Frank says. "The membership demanded [it], even though it was against their interest."
THE AFTERNOON has lengthened, and you can still feel the waters seeping north, all the way up onto Capitol Hill. "I was talking to some Republicans," Barney Frank is saying, "and they were talking about [low-income] Section 8 [housing] vouchers, and I said, `Well, what about the people who already are in those cities, waiting on a list? Are you going to bump them for someone who's just moved to town?' I said, `I think it's time for us to get into the construction business again.'"
It was a Democratic president who announced almost 10 years ago that "the era of big government is over," back in Barney Frank's 16th year in Congress. Now, though, the governing philosophy that replaced it looks threadbare and impotent against a national catastrophe. "This is the fourth thing" for the Republicans, Frank says. "First was Social Security, then the war, then the whole [Terri] Schiavo thing, and now this. It gives us the chance to make the opportunity that we've been making - that these people undervalue government. Government and the private sector have to coexist, but they've shrunk the government, until now it's not there at all. In American politics, the side that says don't politicize something is the side that's losing the argument."
His career is a triumph, first and foremost, of navigation, both within himself and in his work, which it took him so damnably long to disentangle. As always, in this and so many other things, in government as well as in life, guilt is the great underground river, and shame the current that powers it. If you try to go upstream, you make no progress. If you try to go across it, you capsize and drown. But if you go with it, as Barney Frank has learned, you can navigate the current until you're out of one river and into another, floating down, of all things, the mainstream.
Charles P. Pierce is a staff writer for the Globe Magazine. E-mail him at CPierce@globe.com.