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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 …


Note: This is the full transcript of the Barney Frank interview that ran in the April 23, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.

February 3, 2012. Rayburn House Office Building in Barney Frank’s Congressional Office.

JZ: Could you just think back a little bit to 1981, when you got here, and what you thought you were going to accomplish? [Phone rings, Frank answers it.]

BF: [Speaking into phone.] Yeah, hey Frank. That’s all right, what time is that? Whatever, okay, I’ll do it. That’s better for me. All right, I’ll take it. All right. I’ll just go and do it. Okay. [Hangs up phone.]

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 did a district that everybody assumed I would lose, including me.

I had a kind of general liberal agenda. I was specifically focused on helping cities and housing in particular. That was partly because I had that interest when I was in the legislature, but even more because, when I got here, Tip O’Neill 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, and that committee had no Massachusetts member. 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. So there was that.

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 legislature. I was still closeted, but from the day I decided to run for office, knowing that I was gay, 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. So I had that as kind of a secondary agenda.

JZ: What about Congress itself back then? You came in at a slightly strange time, at the beginning of the Reagan years.

BF: But I came in somewhat sheltered, because my district adjoined Tip O’Neill’s district. I had in fact been his constituent—I moved to run for Congress. In 1976, the year he was about to become Speaker, he had a tough primary fight over busing, and as a state representative in his district, I’d been a major organizer of his and supporter. His son and I had been elected to the state legislature the same year, we were very friendly, so I came in under the patronage of the Speaker. I got to sit at the big kids’ table.

I also 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.

JZ: What are the similarities?

BF: 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.

JZ: But the Speaker can make it easier for the people of Massachusetts to fire you.

BF: He can make it easier, but there’s a qualitative difference. In most things, your boss cannot tell you, “I’m going to make it harder for you if you don’t do this.” Your boss says, “Do it or you’re fired.” There’s a qualitative difference there.

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.

JZ: You’re saying you’re not very pushy?

BZ: I’m a good legislator. I’m a bad some other things.

JZ: Your relationships—

BF: On the other hand, I spent 1981 thinking for much of the time that this was only going to be a two-year deal.


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