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In Conversation: Barney Frank

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JZ: Did that change your approach? You obviously had a majority.

BF: Sure it does. You go where the votes are. You were less likely to try to put together bipartisan coalitions and more likely to try to solidify your own people. By the time I became the chairman of the committee in 2007, it was totally that way, and I spent all my time, from 2007 through 2010, my four years as chairman, working with my Democratic colleagues and spent very little time trying to win over Republicans. I had one or two I could work with on a couple issues, but where earlier I would have been working on a bipartisan coalition, I knew there was no chance of it, so I didn’t. I just focused entirely on my Democratic colleagues.

JZ: Everyone always talks about how dysfunctional things are up here today, as though there was once a kind of golden age. When you think back to the early eighties and when you got here, and a guy like Tip O’Neill, how would he work in this environment?

BF: It wasn’t personality. These are broader political forces. He would have to do what the rest of us have had to do: be more partisan.

JZ: It seems like you’re leaving in part because of this dysfunctional atmosphere.

BF: Less so. First of all, I’ll be 73 years old at the end of the month. And I’ve seen too many people stay here beyond when they should. I don’t have the energy I used to have, and I’ve been doing this since October of 1967. I don’t like it anymore, I’m tired, and my nerves are frayed.

I also want to write. Pat Moynihan could write books with one hand and legislate with the other. I can’t; I have a short attention span. The slightest distraction would take me away from writing.

JZ: Can you—

BF: Secondly, just let me say, once the Republicans took over I changed my mind. I said I don’t want to walk away with those guys in power. And I would have run again, except then the redistricting came, and what the redistricting did was it would have meant that I would have had to spend much of this current year campaigning among 325,000 new people. I had this problem. I survived last time, a terrible time for Democrats, and I won 54 to 43—you know, not as much as I’d like, but it wasn’t close. Part of it is constituent service, I think that’s an important thing to do, but very few of the things you do for your constituents are resolved within two or three months. I had this real problem. I go to 325,000 new people and say, by the way, I’m very good at helping you with your problems, but I need to tell you, if you come to me with a problem in February of 2014, you’re probably going to be out of luck because I won’t be able to resolve it. So it was redistricting that pushed me over.

But I think I will have, ironically, more credibility in my public-policy advocacy when I’m not running for office.

JZ: When you got here in ’81, I take it being a member of Congress was considered a plus at that point in terms of your image? In 1979, Congress had the lowest approval rating—

BF: Well, ironically, it still is. People are still deferential. And since I announced my retirement in November, it turns out that even impending absence makes the heart grow fonder. People have been extraordinarily nice and gracious. It’s still kind of considered a big deal by people to be a congressman.

But I’m tired. People have a right to complain to me about this problem and that problem, and I just have been doing it for too long and I dislike the negativism of the media. I think the media has gotten cynical and negative to a point where it’s unproductive.

JZ: Is that a recent development?

BF: It’s been a progressive development, or a regressive development. It’s been moving more and more.

JZ: You’re attributing the partisanship to Gingrich, but is there any—

BF: Gingrich started it, but like I said, the media—

JZ: So what explains the media going down this path? If Gingrich is the singular cause—

BF: The partisanship, don’t confuse the two, is because the left and the right separate themselves. Most people who are activists and are concerned about issues get their information from sources which reinforce their opinions and give them the facts that they want to hear.

JZ: Do you view the media now as an obstacle to getting things done?


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