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In Conversation: Barney Frank

On the eve of his departure from Washington, the candid, caustic Massachusetts congressman talks with Jason Zengerle about Jon Stewart, Newt Gingrich, Tip O’Neill, Hillary Clinton, Fannie and Freddie …

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Think back a little bit to 1981, when you ­arrived here in Washington. What did you imagine you were going to accomplish?
I was unsure that I was a long-timer here. I came here knowing that Massachusetts was going to lose a seat and that I was very likely to be the targeted one. In fact, I was. They mapped a district that everybody assumed I would lose, including me.

Did that shape what you wanted to do?
I had a kind of general liberal agenda. I also had in mind to try to do something about gay rights, as we then called it, because I’d been a leader on that in the [state] legislature. I was still closeted, but from the day I decided to run for office, I decided that I would, of course, still be closeted but that I would work very hard for gay rights. It would be totally dishonorable, being gay, not to do that.

What about Congress itself back then? You came in at a slightly strange time for a newly elected Democrat, at the beginning of the Reagan years.
But I came in somewhat sheltered, because my district adjoined Tip O’Neill’s district. I came in under the patronage of the speaker. I got to sit at the big-kids’ table. Tip put me on the committee that dealt with urban affairs and housing, then called the Banking committee. He’d arranged to have a Massachusetts member on every important committee: There was a Massachusetts member on Appropriations, on Ways and Means, on Energy and Commerce. The one substantive committee for us that had a vacancy was that one.

I had been in the state legislature for eight years. And legislating is very much a common thing—it’s not so different from one body to another. I mean, I can read Trollope about the nineteenth-­century British Parliament and see similarities.

What are they?
In every other thing you do where there’s a formal relationship, one of two principles applies. Either there’s a ­hierarchy—there’s somebody who can hire and fire you and give you orders—or there’s no formal ongoing relationship, but you use money—I will sell you this car if you give me money, I will perform this operation if you give me money. Legislators have a formal set of responsibilities to work together, but there’s no hierarchy. There is nobody in the House that can give anybody else an order. The speaker’s more influential than a freshman member of the minority party, but nobody can order you to do anything. Every two years, the people in Massachusetts can fire me. But nobody I work with can fire me.

And, by the way, increasingly there’s much more autonomy from leadership. With the Internet and everything else, more of it’s on your own than not. So that puts a great priority on personal relationships—that’s how to be influential without being overly pushy.

You’re saying you’re not very pushy?
I’m a good legislator. I’m bad at some other things. On the other hand, I spent 1981 thinking for much of the time that this was only going to be a two-year deal.

Did that make you pushier at the time?
No. That’s what I would think about when I went to bed, but once the game started, you played the game. The bell rings, and you start swinging.

So it was at the start of your second term that you began to think of yourself as a long-term member?
After I won reelection in ’82, a guy I was friendly with, a Republican who’d been in the state legislature with me, said, “Well, this job is yours as long as you want it.” I said, “That’s right.”

People complain about the increased polarization and partisanship in Congress, and they attribute it, in part, to safe districts like yours.
Is there more polarization, in your judgment, in the House than there is in the Senate?

No.
Okay, think about it—what did you just ask me? Literally, that just destroys the hypothesis. That just makes nonsense out of it.

The main reason for the increase in partisanship is Newt Gingrich and the success of his decision [as Speaker] to demonize the opposition as a way to win. That was reinforced by the right-wing takeover of the Republican Party. And finally, modern communications: Twenty years ago, people had a common set of facts that they read. They read opinion journalists, but they got their information generally from newspapers and from broadcasts. Now, the activists live in parallel universes, which are both separate and echo chambers for each. If you’re on the left, you listen to MSNBC, you go to the blogs, Huffington Post, et cetera, and you basically hear only what you agree with. If you’re on the right, you watch Fox News and the talk shows, and you hear only what you agree with. When we try to compromise, what you find is not people simply objecting to the specific terms of the compromise, but the activists object even to your trying to compromise, because they say, “Look, everybody I know agrees with us, so why are you giving in?”


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