Politics, Banking and Gridlock: A Q&A with Barney Frank

Rep. Barney Frank once figured he would be "involved in politics as a volunteer, a helper, etc." Photo: Michael Chu.

Rep. Barney Frank, the retiring lead Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee, has always been known for speaking his mind.

But in a more than one-hour interview at his office in Massachusetts earlier this year, he was also surprisingly open, discussing what motivated him to get into politics, his sexual orientation, and the cause of political gridlock in Congress.

While a handful of these remarks were included in an earlier article on Frank's legacy, much of the conversation was left on the cutting room floor. As Frank prepares to leave Congress, we offer an edited transcript of the full interview:

How did you get into politics?
I was fascinated by the [Joe] McCarthy hearings—I couldn't wait to get home and watch them.

Secondly, I was reading about a kid my age named Emmett Till. A black kid from Chicago—he whistled at or looked at the wrong way a white woman and they killed him. I was outraged. This was my first look into what was going on in America in the south. At that point I became very interested in the '54 elections and thereafter.

I was outraged by racism, outraged about the interference with free speech. I feel strongly about ending discrimination and people being free to express themselves. The economic piece of it evolved but those are the first things that come to mind.

What made you run for office?
I decided I wanted to be in politics and would follow it. For two reasons at that time, I assumed I would never be an elected official

One, I realized I was gay when I was 13—I didn't tell anybody. This notion that it's a choice. At 13, realizing I was gay was just devastating. I carried on, I didn't dwell on it a lot, but it was not good news.

And secondly, I'm Jewish. One of the things that has evolved in America is that anti-Semiticism is no longer a barrier to getting an elected office, but it was 60 years ago.

So I figured I would be involved in politics as a volunteer, a helper, etc.

I volunteered to go to work for Kevin White. I assumed I would work for him, the election would be over, and I would go back [to law school]—I was supposed to be writing my thesis.

And he won and said he wanted me to come work for him. It changed my life.

In early 1972, the moderate Republican state representative from downtown Boston, Back Bay announced he was retiring. I had moved there when I went to work for Kevin White.

So some friends said, you know there's a vacancy here. It's been a Republican seat but it's changing. People moving in. It was the year of the 18-year-old vote and George McGovern.

And I went back up and I got elected to the legislature.

I figured at that point this will be a good run, I'll be in the state house for a while.

Then in 1980, the pope ordered Father Robert [Drinan] who was the congressman from the district that was next to mine, I lived in Tip O'Neill's district, not to run again.

And so I said, 'What the hell?' and I ran for that seat.

Did you think you would win?
I thought I had a good chance to win. At first I thought I was going to win—then I thought I wasn't—I was up and down. I always think I'm going to lose when I'm in a tough race—I'm very pessimistic.

Were you worried what would happen when you came out of the closet?
Yeah. Personally, I wondered what would happen if people outed me, and I didn't know what I would do. And I did worry about it.

I came out because I couldn't live closeted. It was a crazy way to live. I couldn't meet people, that's how I got in trouble with that hustler. There's a need for emotional and physical relationships—and it's just very hard.

I thought I would go to Washington and I would be publicly ambiguous, privately I could live as a gay man, but you can't do that, I was too much in the spotlight.

It just was impossible. So I decided that I would come out. And I was worried but I just couldn't live any other way.

I was talking with former Rep. Mike Oxley and he said, "Barney really believes in the institution of Congress." Is that right?
Yes. One of the things I'd like to do later on is I'd like to teach a course on Democracy.

Democracy has been the motivating factor in my life—Emmett Till, McCarthy—I just believe very strongly in democracy as a moral imperative. That people have a right to run their lives and that Democracy is very important.

And the embodiment of that Democracy is the Congress and the House of Representatives. So yes, I believe very much in the institution of Congress, not in itself, but as the institution of American democracy.

But people feel now like Congress doesn't work.
That's true, but that's only since the Tea Party came. Did you feel that way in 2009 and 2010?

In 2009 and 2010—go back—read Hank Paulson's book—we worked very closely together. We did the Tarp with the administration. In the most political part of our history, we did the auto bailouts.

First of all, bipartisanship stopped when Obama came in.

Nancy Pelosi did a stimulus with George Bush in 2008 in January—people forget that—which we worked with him because the economy was turning down.

We didn't say go ahead and screw up and we'll beat you bigger in 2008.

In 2009 and 2010, we got health care, we got financial reform, we got Lily Ledbetter, we got the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell—it was very productive, including some foreign policy cooperation.