I’d nearly forgotten how much I adore Barney Frank.
The Massachusetts lawmaker retired from Congress in January 2013 after 16 terms representing the state’s fourth House district. He had kept relatively quiet in the two years since, but has suddenly been popping up in TV and radio interviews in conjunction with the release of his new memoir, Frank.
His reemergence into public life should function as a reminder of how unique, entertaining and indispensable he still is.
To many, Barney Frank may well be known simply as the co-author of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which attempted to right the American economy amidst the Great Recession by dramatically shaking up the inner workings of the country’s regulatory agencies.
While Frank’s role as chair of the House Financial Services Committee will undoubtedly be a major component of his legacy as a public servant (for better or worse), his special place in my heart—and in the hearts of countless other government nerds—was secured through a lifetime of advocacy for causes and principles that precious few other congressmen have ever bothered to take seriously.
And—it must be said—for his being such a cranky, insufferable firewall against those who have stood in his way.
As a Massachusetts Democrat, Congressman Frank was, in some ways, completely predictable. On matters of policy, he took an unambiguously liberal view on nearly every issue, from economics to foreign policy to climate change to abortion.
But it wasn’t just that he held clear political stances and stuck with them (rare as that is nowadays). It’s that he defended his worldview with guns blazing, arguing for his side until his throat grew hoarse—often to the point of rudeness—never giving an inch and never entertaining any doubt that, in the end, he was right.
Specifically, Frank made himself a champion of two would-be lost causes: Government and liberalism. That is to say, on the former, he advocated not merely for his own particular government-led solutions to various national ills, but also for the notion that government should be in the business of helping people whenever it possibly can. On the latter, he not only gave voice to left-wing ideas, but to liberalism itself as a noble means of seeing the world and running the country.
In short, he was (and still is) a big government Democrat and damned proud of it.
For any left-wing politician, this should go without saying. But it doesn’t.
Unlike most Republicans in Washington, who fall all over each other to claim themselves as the most “conservative” person in the room, today’s Democrats do a fairly rotten job of sticking up for their own brand. As Frank himself has disapprovingly observed, most Democrats attempt to have it both ways by championing government programs but then echoing the GOP mantra that government should be as small as humanly possible.
They do this out of fear—namely, fear that voters are too conservative to ever be sold liberalism as a governing philosophy. They have effectively ceded the moral high ground that, in the Roosevelt and Johnson eras, liberalism so firmly held.
Instead, they have adopted non-ideological centrism as their M.O.—a tactical approach that, to be sure, helped to elect Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to four combined presidential terms, but which has also left the party vulnerable to the charge that it doesn’t believe in anything except winning elections.
Barney Frank had no truck with this lame political maneuvering, and instead took the gamble that he could convince people that his left-wing views were the right ones, not least by showing that he believed in them himself.
Indeed, when speaking on issues about which he was passionate, he was seemingly a man without fear. Even when he knew his position was unpopular—and he certainly had a knack for skirting popularity—he went right ahead to make his opinion clear. Morally speaking, he didn’t care if he was the only one stumping for this or that cause. He was determined to say what he truly thought and shape America into what he dearly wanted it to be.
The results were mixed. In his 32 years in Congress, Frank notched some glorious victories and some devastating defeats. The real challenge—for him and for any intellectually honest public figure—was to emerge from a lifetime of political and ideological battles with his dignity intact. On balance, he succeeded.
At this moment, it’s worth appreciating just how difficult it is for a lawmaker to remain true to his convictions while also logging some genuine legislative accomplishments along the way. For most congressmen, it’s one or the other: Either you hold firm to your principles and get nothing done—newly-minted presidential candidate Ted Cruz is a sterling example—or you bend and compromise, effecting laws that are not quite what you had in mind but are, under the circumstances, good enough.
In fact, Frank spent a great deal of his tenure bowing to certain political realities, acknowledging that politics is always a mixture of idealism and pragmatism and that intractable opposition cannot simply be wished away. When push came to shove, he would opt to cut a deal with Republicans to get half of what he wanted, rather than obstinately sticking to his guns and ending up with nothing.
He tried hard not to make the perfect the enemy of the good, and it resulted in an awful lot of good.
The key, through all of it, was that Frank almost always came clean to his constituents as to why he acted as he did. This would often require an explanation similar to the one I just gave—that politics is the art of the possible—and if the voters didn’t accept that, it was just too bad.
Frank has always prided himself on intellectual honesty, and on the basis of his collected public statements over the years, there may be nothing he despises so much as disingenuousness and hypocrisy—character traits that he still takes enormous joy in calling out.
To wit: Before his surname became synonymous with financial reform, there was such a thing as the “Frank Rule,” which stated that a congressman who was secretly gay could be “outed” by others if said congressman publicly opposed gay rights and/or supported anti-gay legislation. As Frank put it, “The right to privacy does not include the right to hypocrisy.”
In a fair way, the Frank Rule is where all the elements of Barney Frank’s awesomeness converge. It demonstrates his searing disdain for double standards—the practice, in this case, of a lawmaker privately engaging in behavior that he publicly condemns. It underlines Frank’s penchant for loudly and consistently condemning such conduct when it occurs.
In addition, it alludes to Frank’s outsized concern for ordinary people—especially members of minority groups—who are left vulnerable by unprincipled politicians who consider themselves to be above the law.
And, of course, it concerns the most important cause of Frank’s life and career: Legal equality for gays.
Frank was America’s second openly gay congressman. When he came out in 1987, the most pressing civil rights issue was amending the Immigration Act of 1965, which had classified homosexuals as “sexual deviants” who could be denied entry to the United States. Same-sex marriage was scarcely an idea, let alone a reality.
While Frank has not been personally responsible for every civil rights victory in the quarter-century since, his fingerprints are everywhere, and his public oratory in defense of legal equality for gay people is among the most arresting and passionate as that of any public figure. In an interview shortly after retiring, he cited the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, on which he played a part, as possibly the finest moment of his career.
And his concern for fellow gays is really just one component of his work to secure civil rights for all oppressed groups, itself motivated by his most zealously-held, and seemingly contradictory, belief: That people should be left the hell alone by the government.
For all his true blue liberalism, Frank is a social libertarian of the first degree, defending the right of individuals to engage in any activity they want, provided that it doesn’t directly harm anyone else. For him, this includes the right not just to marriage but also to gambling, to drug use, to prostitution and, fittingly, to free speech. When the Westboro Baptist Church came under fire for its anti-gay demonstrations at the funerals of soldiers, Frank was one of only three congressmen to side with the church, arguing that even rank homophobia is not a sufficient cause to stifle free expression.
This is precisely the sort of nerve and political boldness of which Congress has been deprived since Frank departed its storied halls, and of which it could not possibly have enough.
We need more public servants like Barney Frank to defend the lost causes that will always need a champion. For the time being, we can be thankful that, even in retirement, we still have Barney Frank himself to fill the role.