August 19, 2019

A ‘Frank’ assessment

Now and then, a politician comes along who is both cantankerous and somehow lovable, highly principled and yet open to argument, possessed of both a sense of honor and a sense of humor. The late New York Mayor Ed Koch was one example, and Arizona Sen. John McCain is another. And so is the inimitable Barney Frank, the long-serving (and now retired) congressman from Massachusetts, whose own publisher sums him up as “a disheveled, intellectually combative gay Jew.”

Unlike most other political autobiographies, “Frank: A Life in Politics From the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is much more than a manifesto, a self-advertisement or an attempt to cash in on a long career in elective office. Rather, it is a vivid and candid account of a life, both private and public, that is told in the gruff, wry and blunt voice that is literally unique in American politics — the inimitable voice of Barney Frank.

Frank always has been sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued. When a journalist described his suits as “ill-fitting,” Frank retorted: “My suits were in fact very fitting, I just didn’t happen to be the one they fit.” When Bill Clinton faced impeachment because of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, Frank summed up the question: “What did the president touch, and when did he touch it?” 

Frank applies the same sharp wit to himself in the first paragraph of the book, when he observes that he knew at the age of 14 that he was “attracted to the idea of serving in government” and “attracted to other guys.” Frank cracks a dry joke: “I also realized that these two attractions would not mix well.” Indeed, one of the fascinating and affecting themes of “Frank” is how he moved, slowly and painfully, out of the closet while serving in Congress.

“Tip, Bob Bauman has just written a book that says I’m gay,” Frank told House Speaker Tip O’Neill in 1986.

“Aw, Barney, don’t pay any attention. People are always spreading s–t about us.”

“But, Tip, the problem is that it’s true.”

At the same time, Frank remains a politician who cares deeply about policy. He leads us through the labyrinthine politics of Massachusetts, and he gives us detailed accounts of the political battles that he fought on Capitol Hill over the course of three decades. As if to demonstrate his credentials as a policy wonk, Frank appends a couple of detailed documents to his biography: “Who Did What on Subprime Lending and Regulating Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac” and “Conservative Support for Subprime Loans to Minority and Very Low-Income People Before the Economic Crisis.” These documents are considerably less effervescent than the text of the book, but are very much a part of the subtext.

Frank was raised in a “very Jewish but largely secular household” where “the nearest thing to a Bible was the then very liberal New York Post.” His Jewishness, too, was a political liability in many places around America in the 1950s: “While I planned to keep my sexual orientation a secret, it was too late to conceal my Jewishness — I had already outed myself with a bar mitzvah.”

Frank does not dodge the 1989 scandal that dogged his distinguished political career, a relationship with a male prostitute that led to a censure (but not expulsion) by Congress. But it is a measure of his toughness and tenacity that he survived the scandal and served as an ever more visible and effective advocate for LGBT issues, even if some LGBT activists, he writes, “decried my lack of ‘militancy.’ ” History proved him right: “In Massachusetts and elsewhere, the LGBT community turned its strong emotions into disciplined political action,” and today we live in a very different world than the one Barney Frank knew as a closeted bar mitzvah boy.

One illuminating moment in his remarkable career came when Frank stood at the balance of power in Congress on two issues that mattered to him — not only gay rights, but also the regulation of banks and brokerages in the aftermath of the 2008 economic meltdown. When he advocated for a new hate-crimes law, he made the point clear to friends and adversaries alike: “I’m chairman of the Financial Services Committee of the U.S. House, and a lot of very important people are now being very nice to me,” he said. “Even if this bill becomes law tomorrow, it will still be legal to call me a fag. I just wouldn’t recommend it to anyone in the banking business.”

Frank characterizes his book as “a personal history of two seismic shifts in American life” — the decline in prejudice against LGBT people and “the sharp increase in anti-government opinion.” Clearly, he continues to believe that the issues of public policy are what really matter in life, and not just in his life. But it is also true that “Frank” is an intimate, courageous and revealing book about what the political landscape looks like from his unique perspective.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

Barney Frank will discuss his book March 26 at 7:30 p.m. at