"Republicans are getting worse": Barney Frank unloads on GOP bigotry -- and Obama's mistakes

One of the biggest political personalities of our time tells Salon about his new memoir and his theory of change

Published March 17, 2015 8:30PM (EDT)

Barney Frank       (Reuters/Adam Hunger)
Barney Frank (Reuters/Adam Hunger)

In all honesty, when we jumped on the phone with former congressman and liberal firebrand Barney Frank last week, we were prepared for a bumpy ride. Not because we'd written anything negative about Frank previously or because we knew him to harbor ill will toward Salon. Rather, our disquiet was a byproduct of Frank's well-earned reputation for being a man who does not suffer fools gladly, even (or especially) when said fools work for the press. And reading "Frank: A Life in Politics From the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage," his new memoir and the impetus for our conversation, did little to disabuse us of that notion.

Maybe we caught him on an especially good day, or maybe he's found life outside the House of Representatives to agree with him; but for whatever reason, we found Frank to be different than what we'd come to expect. He still flashed his talent for dry humor and his razor-sharp wit, of course. But Frank was also introspective and reflective while remaining staunchly unsentimental. Our discussion, which touches on the new book as well as Frank's thoughts about Hillary Clinton, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Ben Carson and the problem with movies like "Selma," has been lightly edited for length and clarity and can be found below.

As you were writing your memoir, what audience did you have in mind? Was it for the contemporary reader or more for posterity?

Oh, the contemporary reader. I had two goals. My biggest single goal was to have a continuation of my public policy drive; the thing I was most trying to accomplish was to help turn around this anti-government attitude and to explain to people why we should be more supportive of government and, in particular, to explain how I think we can accomplish that, politically. I think it also has some use for LGBT people, although by now I think the notion that you can prosper in the face of prejudice is fairly widespread.

To be honest, I started out wanting to write a very political-message-type book but the people at the publisher's persuaded me that people would also like to read about my life. One of the messages I try to get across is to my allies on the left, that we would be better off if they were more disciplined. I wish Occupy acted more like the Tea Party — politically, not substantively, obviously— and I've spent a lot of time arguing with friends on the left that these expressive demonstrations are only rarely the best way to go and that in any case, you need to get involved politically.

It's been my frustration that some of the groups I disagree with like the National Rifle Association and the Tea Party do a much better job of mobilizing and influencing the political process than the people I agree with. That was a significant part of what I was trying to get across in the book.

When you're in these debates with your friends, are there any stances on issues that you think have changed over time among the left?

Yeah, the civil rights movement. At the March on Washington in 1993, Lea DeLaria said, to great applause and hilarity, isn't it wonderful that there's now a First Lady I'd like to fuck? If Red Foxx had said that at the March on Washington about Jackie Kennedy 30 years earlier, he would have been physically kicked out of there.

If there's one book I wish I could get people to read, it's Taylor Branch's book about Martin Luther King. It's a great example of what a strategist he was. Today there's a movement towards an overall civil rights bill but the blacks never had that. The '64 civil rights bill was very important, but then came the '65 Voting Rights Act and then the '68 housing bill. Properly understood, the civil rights model is a very good one to follow, but people have this sort of romanticized, simplified version. It's the need to strategize, if you really want to change reality.

Why do you think that simplified version of history is so appealing to so many?

First of all, you are by definition talking about issues that people feel very deeply about. These are morally compelling issues, I agree; that's why I've spent my whole life trying to deal with them! When you're motivated by some deep moral passion, you want to express that passion, and you're also dealing with conditions you believe are causing great harm to people— which is, again, accurate— and you're in a hurry to fix them. You don't want to help people slowly when they're greatly in need!

The reality can be very frustrating, too. I would say this: One of the things that's been exacerbated by the divide in our media is that people on the left do not understand the strength of the opposition we face. That is, they're inclined to think, well, this is just politicians standing in the way of overwhelming public opinion— I wish! They are frustrated when we tell them, look, we don't have the votes to do this right away and they're inclined to think we're not fully committed.

Finally, there's something much more fun— in the profound sense— about this. Joining with people you agree with in this passionate demonstration of your feeling, that's much more enjoyable than trying to get votes. There's an emotionally expressive content to that. Our dirty little secret is that most political work is boring. It's bit by bit, piece by piece. Getting out there and demanding or getting yourself arrested or blocking something, that's a powerful act, but it's unfortunately much less effective.

What do you mean by "political work"?

By nature, the kind of political work I'm talking about involved trying to move people who are not fully committed to you. You don't work on registering the voters who are already deeply motivated; they've already registered and they're ready to vote. If you're trying to lobby legislators, you don't only lobby the legislators that are in 100 percent agreement with you. The kind of work I'm talking about brings you into contact with people who are anywhere from only mildly committed to openly skeptical of you, but it's much more enriching to be with people who agree with you 100 percent and are going to tell you how wonderful you are.

Are there any figures from your career that come to mind when you think of people who were able to strike the balance you're talking about?

Allard Lowenstein was both a very articulate political strategist and a guy who was very forceful; Martin Luther King was an inspirational moral leader but he was also a very thoughtful strategist. Those are two examples.

You say you didn't begrudge Clinton for recognizing during his presidency that the country was still in a conservative mood. But you also say that you were unhappy with what you perceived as a lack of willingness on his part to put a plan into motion to eventually change that reality. Do you buy the narrative that's popular on the left that sees Obama as more like Reagan, more concerned with changing the trajectory?

Two things: First of all, what Reagan was preaching to people was, here's the deal: I can cut your taxes and you won't feel any losses. I can give you more and more and you'll have to do less and less. Reagan never asked people do to anything that wasn't wildly popular.

As far as Obama is concerned, I think his problem is that he's well-intentioned but he underestimated how vehemently right-wing the Republicans have become. He's finally overcome that, which you can see in his recent budget; he's doing the right thing, but it took him longer than it should've. In fairness to him, we've never in American history had a party so in control of such an ideologically extreme faction.

How might his presidency  have looked if he had realized that sooner?

I think he would have been more into arguing for the policies explicitly, or even mentioning what a bad situation he inherited. The one thing I would have done— and it's going to sound so conservative— is that I would have led with financial reform and not healthcare. I would want to do both, but I think with healthcare he underestimated the extent to which they were going to turn against the proposal that was close to what many conservatives have been for.

I would have begun with financial reform and hit it harder. On the stimulus, again, I would have drawn the lines a little more sharply and I would not have bargained with Social Security.

The kind of extremism you're talking about that's taken over the GOP, do you think it extends all the way up to the Supreme Court? In other words, do you expect the Court to gut Obamacare in its King v. Burwell decision?

I'm somewhat optimistic, but this is up to Kennedy. Kennedy has troubled me in other areas... but Kennedy is not, obviously, a Tea Party guy. Scalia, Thomas and Alito are in that radical right-wing trend. It troubles me to see all these articles about what a pal he is of Ginsburg and the others, because he is an explicit homophobe. I don't think people would be as friendly with someone who was a racist and a homophobe, and that troubles me.

I will say this: if the Republicans win the presidency, that radicalism will take over the Supreme Court. If the Republicans win the presidency, you will have an entrenched majority of Scalia, Thomas and Alito.

I'm sure you saw what Ben Carson said recently about homosexuality being a choice—

I did tell MSNBC that I did want to know when he decided to be straight.

Right. When do you think we'll finally reach a point where even Republican primary voters won't accept that kind of talk about LGBT people?

The most disturbing thing about that was that it did not seem to trouble Republican primary voters... the answer is yeah, but it may be another 20 years. When I started in politics, there was no difference between the parties; both parties were totally homophobic, including John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Things began to change after Stonewall, so in '76 there was very little difference between Gerry Ford and Jimmy Carter on this. They moved both parties with the country, and then Reagan comes in and the right wing takes over. So you've had three trend lines since the 1970s: the country is getting better at an even faster pace than I thought, the Democrats are getting better at an even faster pace than the country, and the Republicans are getting worse.

I think it's going to be generational. I think you're not going to see Republican presidential candidates doing that as much as they have in the past, and I include Romney in this. When we got marriage equality in Massachusetts, Romney— who was then the governor— decided he was going to make a name for himself as a Republican by leading the attack on us. I'm afraid it's going to take another 20 years because primary voters tend to be older because it's self-selecting. The Republican primary has now become extremely significant, and one of the things I hope will happen is that mainstream conservative voters will reassert themselves.

I know you've said that you'll support Secretary Clinton if she chooses to run. So you're not concerned, as some other liberals are, that she'd weaken Dodd-Frank if given the chance?

I don't know if you know this, but after President Obama signed that appropriations bill that had a weakening of one section, Clinton made it very clear that she would not be for any weakening. There are two reasons I think she won't do it: one, I think she believes it, and two, the reaction to that was so fierce that the White House understood this was not a good idea.

Some people might say, oh, well the wooer of big money might go along with it, but you know what the answer to that is? Hillary Clinton doesn't need anybody's money! She's rolling in political dough. Hillary Clinton is going to be one of the best-financed candidates in history.

How about Sen. Elizabeth Warren? Do you think she's someone who understands what you were talking about earlier — the importance of traditional politics?

There's no question, she's very shrewd. I met Elizabeth Warren through a group of people who were advocates on public policy— the Tobin group, organized out of Harvard— and she raised the issue of the Consumer Bureau. She wrote the story of her collaboration in her book, and was even nice enough to refer to my handsome, surfer-dude boyfriend, now my husband.

I told them I didn't think we could get the votes for an independent Consumer Bureau, but then the financial crisis created a great political support for that so she and I worked very closely. As I've said in several places, I was impressed both by her passion and her ability to work within the political reality. I'll give you an example: then-Sen. Russell Feingold voted against the bill on the grounds that it didn't go far enough. He acknowledged that in anything it did, it was an improvement, but he said he was holding out for the best and wouldn't support any compromise. Elizabeth Warren lobbied him quite strongly, and she strongly opposed people on the left who opposed it. Yeah, she did it in a very conventional, political way.

Do you think she might end up running after all?

She's very smart, and that's one reason why she's resisting these people and making it very clear that she's not running for president. It's not there for her, at this point. Too many people say, OK, I'm going to do the right thing but then when they get into running for president they go, oh, maybe I've gotta moderate a little bit.

Elizabeth understands that if she were to hint in any way that she was running for president, that would give her enemies a way to dismiss her — you can't pay attention to her, she's running for president! I think her explicit admission that she's not running helps people deal with the substantive force of her arguments; they can't discount her as politically motivated.

When you were looking back on your past for this book, was there any section of your life that you were particularly not looking forward to revisiting?

My mistakes. Obviously the stupidity with the hustler — and you really should read the committee report, which says I was stupid but didn't do all the really terrible, stupid things they said I did. That was obviously the toughest. One of my biggest mistakes was opposing Michael Dukakis, but I actually enjoyed having the chance to mention that. Other than that, I didn't really regret any of it. I looked forward to the chance to talk about it.

By the way, there was this myth that it was the left's passion for putting people in houses they couldn't afford that started the crisis, which is the right wing's invention to try to defend total deregulation. I really enjoyed being able to put out the facts on that one, and two of the most important parts of the book are those two appendices.

Right, so it turns out that you weren't the King of Wall Street in the '80s and '90s!

We tried three different times to stop bad subprime loans; the Wall Street Journal as late as 2007 was attacking me for trying to restrict minority homeownership. I think my very favorite thing was when Dick Cheney said in 2003 that Chairman Barney Frank blocked our bill on financial services reform... I felt a kinship to Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, because Cheney was lying; I didn't become chairman until 2007 — and within six months of becoming chairman, we passed the bill.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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