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In Conversation: Barney Frank

So do you look across the aisle and still see people who share your faith in governance?
A few. But they are mostly so intimidated by the fear of losing a primary that they can’t do much. There are a couple of Republicans on the committee that I can work with because they’re sort of independent and tough-minded.

People ask me, “Why don’t you guys get together?” And I say, “Exactly how much would you expect me to cooperate with Michele Bachmann?” And they say, “Are you saying they’re all Michele Bachmann?” And my answer is no, they’re not all Michele Bachmann. Half of them are Michele Bachmann. The other half are afraid of losing a primary to Michele Bachmann. So, no, there are maybe three Republicans I can work with, on a couple of issues, out of the thirtysomething on the committee.

And the ones who are afraid of being challenged in a primary, who have this view of government being important but don’t express it because they’re afraid, why do they stick around?
Ask them, I don’t know.

I don’t know, I’m not going to guess.

I’m not going to psychoanalyze these people. I won’t do it.

You would leave, I assume—
Look, this job certainly didn’t make any sense in terms of maximizing my income or minimizing my stress or maximizing the comfort of my life. I think it’s a wonderful job to have because I’m able to work to make fundamental changes in society and improve the quality of people’s lives and eliminate and diminish unfairness at various times. If I wasn’t able to do what I thought was important public policy, it would be a stupid job to have.

Olympia Snowe decided it wasn’t worth it. What do you think of her decision not to run for reelection for her Senate seat in Maine?
It was confirmation of the death grip the right wing has on the Republican Party. Olympia was obviously just facing this terrible dilemma where she, to stave off a primary challenge and be able to function within her party, had to move further and further to the right. But it was never far enough.

Did you find her a useful centrist to have in Washington?
Decreasingly. She was a key vote for us on financial reform, but there was a price for her support. The CBO told us that we were going to need $20 billion to pay for the bill. Chris Dodd and I agreed to assess the large financial institutions for that, but we needed two Republicans to get to 60 votes in the Senate. Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, and Scott Brown told us that they wouldn’t vote for the bill unless we took that $20 billion assessment off the backs of the financial institutions and instead put it on the taxpayer. That was just crazy, but that’s what we did.

Between Olympia and a right-wing ­Republican, she was better. But I am pleased that she is retiring, because I think her successor will vote with the Democrats much more.

Without going down a laundry list of your favorite legislative accomplishments, but thinking a little more broadly—
I can’t do that, it sounds egotistical.

What do you think you got done? You came in with certain goals, and now you’re leaving.
LGBT rights are very important. I will take very substantial credit for the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” I’ve done a lot in housing, in preserving rental housing, in keeping rental housing going. I’ve been frustrated for years, but I now take some credit in the last few years for putting ­military-spending reductions on the table. I think I played an important role in blocking the impeachment of Bill Clinton.

What was your attitude during the impeachment fight? Was it a matter of a principle, or of “We have to stop them from impeaching this Democratic president”?
It was that it was an assault on democracy, and I care a lot about democracy.

Does it ever surprise you that there hasn’t been any kind of impeachment effort against Obama, given how—
No. First of all, that one blew up. Secondly, Obama hasn’t given them the ammunition Clinton did with Lewinsky.

I want to go back to books. In addition to Caro’s, you mentioned that there was one other book you read as a how-to manual. What was that?
It was a biography of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., by Charles Hamilton. Adam Clayton Powell was not the first black member of the U.S. House, but he was the first self-respecting black member.

Powell got here in ’45, and he was told that he couldn’t use the swimming pool, the members’ swimming pool that was only for white people, he couldn’t eat in the House dining room, and he couldn’t get his hair cut. So he said “The hell I can’t,” and he did it. And Powell—my analogy was I was the first member of Congress voluntarily to come out, the second to come out: Gerry Studds was outed but courageously said that he was. So Gerry and I were sort of tied for being the first out members. And that was a line to walk, about how do you affirm your identity as a gay man without making too much of it. I had a partner at the time, and my view was, and I continue to believe this now—I’m about to get married to Jim—I don’t do anything just to make a point, but I don’t not do something so somebody else can make a point. It’s how to be self-respecting without being belligerent.