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In Conversation: Barney Frank

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BF: Ask them, I don’t know.

JZ: But—

BF: I don’t know, I’m not going to guess.

JZ: But—

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

JZ: You would leave, I assume—

BF: 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.

JZ: Without going down a laundry list of your favorite legislative accomplishments, but thinking a little more broadly—

BF: I can’t do that, it sounds egotistical.

JZ: What do you think you got done? You came in with certain goals, and now you’re leaving.

BF: 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 rental 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 putting military-spending reductions on the table. I think I played an important role in blocking the impeachment of Bill Clinton.

JZ: In impeachment, what was your attitude during that fight? Was it a matter of a principle or was it a matter of, “We have to stop them from impeaching this Democratic president”?

BF: It was that it was an assault on democracy, and I care a lot about democracy. But also it was substantive. I thought that Clinton was very important on issues. Although Al Gore would have been the same, actually, if Gore had taken over upon the impeachment, he might have been elected to win. No, it was mostly, it was the anti-democratic nature, plus I admired Clinton and it was a terrible unfairness to him.

JZ: Does it ever surprise you that there hasn’t been any kind of impeachment effort against Obama, given how—

BF: No. First of all, that one blew up. Secondly, Obama hasn’t given them the ammunition Clinton did with Lewinsky.

JZ: You mentioned LGBT rights. I think I read somewhere a few years ago that when you were done here, you planned to write a book on the gay-rights movement.

BF: Yeah, my career, and the gay-rights book will be my second book, if I can stay sentient long enough. My career and the gay-rights movement are serendipitously co-terminus, to use too many big words. I worked for the mayor of Boston 1968, ’69, ’70. My bailiwick was, among other things, liberal issue groups. I was the chief of staff.

JZ: Yeah, I’ve read Common Ground.

BF: Yeah, all right. There was no gay-rights activity in Boston at the time, none, politically, and I guarantee you that because, as a closeted gay man, I was hoping to meet other gay people, and it would have been a twofer for me. It didn’t happen. I went off to Washington in 1971 to work for [inaudible] and I came back in 1972 and there was a gay-rights movement. Very few political movements in America have as clear-cut a starting line as the gay-rights movement with Stonewall. There were some very brave people before, but Stonewall really did crystallize it.

JZ: When did you first hear about Stonewall? Where were you and how did it—

BF: I have no idea, somewhere. Oh, I know where I was, I was in City Hall.

JZ: But did you recognize it as that moment?

BF: Not as much, probably because those years I was working for Kevin White were the most absorbing of my total personality. I had no life, I gained an enormous amount of weight, it was terribly stressful. It was important work, but it was very hard work. So I wasn’t focused on very much outside of my work at City Hall.

I come back in ’72 and began campaigning for LGBT rights, and I’ve been one of the national leaders of the movement since 1972. I was the first person to file a bill in Massachusetts. And I believe very strongly people on the left are too prone to do things that are emotionally satisfying and not politically useful. I have a rule, and it’s true of Occupy, it’s true of the gay-rights movement: If you care deeply about a cause, and you are engaged in an activity on behalf of that cause that is great fun and makes you feel good and warm and enthusiastic, you’re probably not helping, because you’re out there with your friends and political work is much tougher and harder. I’m going to write about the history of the LGBT movement, partly to make the point that, in America at least, it’s the way you do progressive causes.


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