To be Frank
Former congressman Barney Frank is never at a loss for words
BARNEY FRANK IS passing time with a newspaper crossword puzzle before our interview. When I arrive at the West Newton video studio where he does live shots for CNBC, Frank crushes the newsprint and sinks it into a nearby trash can. The former congressman dispenses with pre-interview niceties. He’s ready to talk. And he holds forth for about an hour, even as he continues to take calls, complain about his flip phone, and fiddle with every object – magazines, business cards, my copy of his book, sofa pillows – within reach.
When dealing with Frank, you better bring your A-game. Behind the “short attention span” and “impatience with face-to-face dealings,” handicaps he freely admits to in his recently-published memoir, Frank is a man with an encyclopedic command of modern American politics and economics, delivered with all the subtlety of a rocket launcher.
The book, Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage, charts his unlikely transformation from a closeted Harvard PhD student to a young City Hall aide and Beacon Hill lawmaker desperately hoping to not be outed to an openly gay congressman representing the sprawling Fourth Congressional District in Massachusetts. The New Jersey native volunteered in Mississippi during the civil rights movement’s 1964 Freedom Summer, worked for Boston mayor Kevin White, and turned down an offer to be Michael Dukakis’s transportation secretary. When Pope John Paul II ordered priests to forgo political office in 1980, the decision set the events in motion that forced Father Robert Drinan from Congress and sent a left-handed, gay Jew to Washington replace him.
Coming out in 1987, Frank survived a sex scandal two years later that might have destroyed the career of a less adroit politician. He went on to serve in Congress for more than 30 years and retired in 2013 on a high note, having helped usher in major reforms in the US financial system after the Great Recession. Today, Frank, now 75 and sporting a salt-and-pepper beard, remains a man in demand. Behind his caustic, but often entertaining, wit is an accomplished wordsmith who cares deeply about politics and policy. He serves up commentary on CNBC and writes for Politico Magazine and the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. Asked why he decided to give journalism a shot, he says, “It’s a way to influence public policy without having to work as hard.”
This is an edited transcript of our recent, wide-ranging conversation that touched on issues like race relations, the financial sector reforms that bear his name, international politics, and the world classiness of Boston.
COMMONWEALTH: You were a civil rights activist in the 1960s. What do you make of recent events in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charleston?
BARNEY FRANK: We are in the next phase of the movement for racial equality. The movement for fair treatment of people who are gay and lesbian started much later, but sadly made more progress. What broke the back of homophobia was when people found out that they had all these gay friends, relatives, etc. They didn’t have a lot of black friends.
In the mid-1980s, I said that I thought the average American was less homophobic than she thought she was supposed to be, but more racist than she was prepared to admit. What’s interesting is that legally there is full equality under the law for African Americans more so than for gay people. But attitudinally, there is more prejudice against blacks.
CW: Why don’t white Americans understand African Americans’ frustration with police brutality?
FRANK: Because people generally don’t understand each other. Because whites don’t understand blacks and blacks don’t understand whites. Because human beings, by nature, are self-oriented. Some whites do [understand blacks]. The fact is, for historical reasons, there is more unfair law enforcement against African Americans. But there is also more crime committed by African Americans for socioeconomic reasons. Some people only look at the one, not the other and that’s the problem. What’s happened is we have finished this stage of legal equality but there has been this law enforcement issue that people only nibbled around the edges of, for instance, crack versus powder cocaine [prosecution disparities].
The other thing is this, and I notice that even President Obama stresses this: We talk about reducing sentences for low-level users and nonviolent offenders. That’s the key.
CW: Does the specter of Willie Horton remain a barrier to reducing sentences and early release programs?
FRANK: On violent crime, murders, yes. Otherwise, depends on the crime.
CW: Why did you go to Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964 to help register blacks to vote?
FRANK: Race has always seemed to me to be the worst problem in America, the one that makes me the angriest.
CW: Why does it make you so angry?
FRANK: I honestly don’t know. I can’t explain myself. These are things that I feel. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes called them “the can’t helps.” I can’t help feeling that way. It’s America at its worst. It’s the worst case of mistreatment and the failure to live up to our ideals.
CW: What did you make of the 2013 US Supreme Court decision on the Voting Rights Act?
FRANK: The same week in 2013 that they got rid of DOMA [the Defense of Marriage Act], they gutted the Voting Rights Act. I said, I’ll be honest with you, if I had to choose I would have reversed [the two decisions] if I had the power.
CW: You worked for Mayor Kevin White, who presided over the most racially turbulent period in Boston’s history. What do you think motivated him on the issue of race?
FRANK: First of all, it was political. It was a little bit opportunistic. When he ran against Ed Brooke [for secretary of state], he was a little bit racist. His bumper stickers said, “Vote White.” That was 1960. Here was a guy who had never experienced what racism was like for black people.
CW: Was there an episode that shook Mayor White’s consciousness?
FRANK: There is one particular incident involving Paul Parks, a very distinguished engineer. Kevin appointed Paul to head the Model Cities Program. He later became commissioner of education under Mike Dukakis, one of the first African Americans in Massachusetts to have very significant power.
Paul and Kevin had gone to Washington to testify at some hearing. They came back to Logan and got in a cab. They sit in the cab and Kevin said, “All right, you’re going to drop me off at City Hall and then take him home to Roxbury.” The cab driver says, “Oh, I can’t do that.” He didn’t want to take Paul to Roxbury. Kevin didn’t know that this is what happened to black people. He didn’t know that this was part of their daily lives.
It finally dawned on Kevin. [Frank shouts] “Wait a minute,” Kevin said. “You’re telling him you don’t want to take him to Roxbury?” Then Kevin said, “Hey, I’m the fucking mayor. You’re taking him to Roxbury.” Kevin was surprised to learn – here was Paul Parks – Paul is respectable-looking, he wasn’t wearing shabby clothes. He met every stereotype you want of a business executive. Except that he is black.
CW: After the Supreme Court struck down laws banning same-sex marriage, Attorney General Maura Healey said the LGBT movement needs to turn its attention to the problems of LGBT youth. Do you agree?
FRANK: The biggest issue facing gays and lesbians, I think, is employment discrimination. As to youth, I agree that there’s an issue, but it’s not particular to LGBT youth. There’s a suicide prevention aspect there, but it is true for other youth as well.
CW: You recently appeared at a Washington, DC, forum with former senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut to mark the fifth anniversary of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act that mandated new financial sector practices in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Dodd said that the regulations have prompted major changes in the financial institutions’ culture and business practices. Have you seen a similar shift in consumers’ behavior?
FRANK: No, but we didn’t count on that. We have some programs for financial literacy. If those happen, they happen. But I think that public policy should assume the worst and try to protect against it.
CW: Are financial institutions making wiser decisions?
FRANK: Some of them are being wiser; others are being forced to be wiser. We don’t ban anything in that bill, but we did say nobody could lend money to people who have no income. You can’t lend money to people where the building isn’t worth that much. You can’t lend money to people with negative amortization, so that every month they owe you more. We just got rid of those.
Financial institutions can’t make the kind of loans that got them in trouble. AIG came to the federal government in 2008 [looking for help] and ultimately they had to acknowledge that they had $185 billion in debt that they couldn’t pay, and if that wasn’t paid they would have screwed everybody else up. That couldn’t happen today.
In the first place, you have to keep track of what you are doing. You can still make any derivative bet you want, but you still have to know how much it is. You have to know the price and have the money ready. I doubt that many of financial institutions will rely on the credit reporting agencies the way they used to, that gave them all these high marks. I think they understand that they were just making stuff up.
CW: You are still surprised that no one was charged with criminal misconduct.
FRANK: I think [the federal government] should have had a more serious effort to try and prosecute some of these people criminally. I mean, when there is conscious lying about what the figures were, some of that is illegal. That troubled me. Part of it is that it is hard to prove some of these things and some of the top people insulated themselves. Part of it is a cultural thing – well, these were not bad people.
CW: The college student debt burden has been compared to the subprime mortgage crisis. Do you agree?
FRANK: It’s not going to bring a systemic crisis. The thing about mortgages, people had more of their wealth in there. If one person is foreclosed upon that ruins your house and the whole market comes down. Residential mortgages have a bigger impact on individuals and much more contagion. The student loan problem is a serious individual problem, and it has some negative macroeconomic effects by slowing things down. But it is not going to cause a crisis.
CW: What is the solution?
FRANK: Forgiveness – the federal government stepping in and doing some [partial] forgiveness.
CW: Should people be allowed to file for bankruptcy over student loans?
FRANK: I am all for that. I don’t think anything should be excluded from bankruptcy.
CW: Does the political will exist to go in that direction?
FRANK: Not while the Republicans are in power.
CW: You say in your book, “Conservatives had discovered a potent strategy. They would not mount a frontal attack on the public sector; instead, they would use the public’s aversion to taxation to trump its affection for spending.” Do you see any signs that this sentiment is shifting?
FRANK: Unfortunately, no. A former Boston city councilor once summed it up to me: “Hey, kid ain’t you heard the news? Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.” I don’t think we can talk our way out of that cycle. You can’t persuade people. We have to deliver, though. It’s a chicken-and-egg thing.
CW: What does government have to deliver if government doesn’t have the funds to deliver a certain level of services?
FRANK: That’s why in my book I propose very substantial cuts in the military budget and ending the war on drugs. Unless we can free up a source of money, you’ve put your finger on it exactly, we are not going to get out of that. The way to get out of it is to make substantial reductions in the military budget. You can save $150 billion a year or more if you get rid of prosecuting people for drugs at the state and the federal levels. There is very slow progress on the war on drugs, there is a reassessment on low-level offenders.
CW: But the military budget has been sacrosanct. How do you cut it?
FRANK: How do you do it? You argue for it. You make the point about the trade-offs. Let’s start with liberals. If you don’t cut the military budget, forget about everything else you want to do economically. We were getting there post-cold war. George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton began to bring it down. Then Dick Cheney very successfully persuaded people that terrorists were as big a threat as the communists. Part of it is that you have to explain to people that terrorists are terrible people. I like it when they are killed. But they do not threaten our civilization the way Stalin did or Hitler did. They do not have that kind of power.
CW: You don’t see ISIS as a credible threat?
FRANK: [Exasperated] I’m sorry to be honest, you’re not listening to me. They are not a threat to our existence as a society. They are not the communists. They don’t have nuclear weapons. They can come here and murder a few people, a terrible thing. Try to stop it. But America’s national security is not at risk. They cannot overthrow us they cannot invade us they cannot do the damage to us that the Nazis…
CW: But when the US intervenes in the Middle East…
FRANK: There is a qualitative difference in your need to spend between protecting yourself and for humanitarian purposes or whatever for helping other people. People talk about wars of necessity and wars of choice. These are wars of choice. I voted against Iraq. That was always a mistake; that is widely known now. I voted for the war in Afghanistan, but we let it go on too long. But thing is to separate out what are threats, what are things we want to try to do, what are things that we would like to do, but can’t do. We can’t solve the problems in Syria. We can’t solve the problems in Iraq. People hate each other. We can’t do anything about it.
CW: So the United States should stay out of those countries?
FRANK: I am in favor of bombing the Islamic State.
CW: That’s intervention.
FRANK: That’s staying in, but at a much lower level of involvement. It’s much less expensive.
CW: Doesn’t bombing enflame the whole region all over again?
FRANK: No, we don’t enflame it by doing that. It’s enflamed without us. Here’s the deal: You have very terrible people fighting not so nice people.
CW: What about Russia and China? You’ve got Russia in the Ukraine and China building artificial islands in the South China Sea.
FRANK: Neither one is threatening the United States.
CW: Some people would disagree with that.
FRANK: Some people think Elvis is alive. That doesn’t mean anything. Nobody argues that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a threat to the United States. Both of them threaten their own peripheries.
CW: It depends on how far across the peripheries they get.
FRANK: They’re not going to Germany.
CW: Is Germany the line? Is Poland the line? Some would say Ukraine is the line.
FRANK: The line is former Soviet Republics. I would worry about Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Moldova, etc. I want to help those people. I want to send weapons to Ukraine. But that’s not a threat to us. With regards to China: China is threatening to Vietnam and Japan. I don’t think there is any danger that they are going to invade Vietnam; they didn’t do well with it the last time [in 1979]. The most important thing we should be fully supportive of right now is Japanese rearmament. I am ready to forgive them for World War II to the extent that they can have their own military and defend themselves. With the Taiwanese, we should make clear that if the Chinese invaded Taiwan, we would support the Taiwanese.
CW: These issues will be on the next president’s plate. You’ve written about Bernie Sanders and said that progressives need to get in line behind Hillary Clinton. Will they come around?
FRANK: There is no question that she is going to be the nominee. But some people say let’s make her bleed a little bit until then, show her who is boss. Why do you want to do that to someone who is in a tough fight? I’m not saying get in line behind her. Be critical of her, differ with her, but support her.
CW: Is Clinton well-positioned to go up against a serious Republican challenger like Jeb Bush, Mario Rubio, or Scott Walker?
FRANK: Bush has negatives. Walker has moved pretty far to the right. The economic issues are playing in our favor. The issue will be how do we more fairly distribute the proceeds of a pretty good economy.
CW: What should Clinton’s campaign platform have to say about income inequality?
FRANK: Higher taxes on the very wealthy, a higher minimum wage, support for unions….
CW: A Republican Congress would dispose of all of those in pretty quick order.
FRANK: The minimum wage, they may have a hard time resisting. Depends on whether Democrats take back the Senate, which is a possibility. Less likely the House. There are some executive powers. You can appoint strong people to the National Labor Relations Board to be fully supportive of unions.
CW: You owe your congressional career to Pope John Paul II. If you were still in Congress and had the opportunity to meet with Pope Francis, the current pontiff, what might you say to him?
FRANK: I would never have gotten to talk to him, but I would have told him tell that I am very happy that he has taken up the economic inequality issue. He goes further than I do. I think more highly of capitalism, apparently, than he does from what I read. But I would encourage him to keep pushing for public policies that diminish inequality. He certainly helped when he said, “Who I am to judge” on homosexuality. He makes an effort to demystify these issues, make them less radical. He is a great validator of the legitimacy of those things.Also, he would encourage people to push back. He will complicate the lives of some Republicans who want to vote against income inequality measures. He makes it harder for people to claim support from Catholics simply because they are opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage.
CW: How did you get to be such a successful politician even though you hate something that is so integral to a politics — campaigning?
FRANK: The way I offset that was I liked the part of the job that made your constituents like you. I was very good at delivering things for them – straightening out a bureaucratic mess and getting the right things done. I regarded constituent services, including earmarks, as a way to temper bureaucratic rigidity. I did my job in a way that maximized my appeal to my constituents. As a result, I didn’t have to campaign much.
CW: What do you make of the new group of Massachusetts representatives?
FRANK: I know Joe Kennedy, and I am very impressed with him. He has maximized the benefits of the Kennedy name and minimized the negatives. Joe has this dilemma, which is he has a lot of people ready to be jealous of him and write him off. He handled that very well. He’s very respectful of people. He almost holds himself back. Katherine Clark is a good legislator, she likes legislating, and she has dug into it.
CW: What do you think about the hand-wringing over whether the Olympics would help make Boston a world-class city?
FRANK: That’s bullshit. What does that mean – a world-class city? Could someone define that for me? Does it mean a city that other people want to visit? Somebody give me a list of world-class cities and how do you become one? If people want to look at things that would command the admiration of the world, we have our universities and our hospitals.
CW: Now that you are working in the news media, how does that affect your view of journalists?
FRANK: I don’t like journalists. I like them personally. They frustrate me though. They are among the most intelligent people I deal with. But there’s been a negativism that has suffused the profession for so long that I resent that.
CW: What do you mean by negativism?
FRANK: It was best summarized for me by a very good [retired] journalist named Robert Kaiser of the Washington Post. An editor friend of his once said a few years ago, “I wish young journalists today were as skeptical of bad news as they are of good news. If you tell them something good, they can’t wait to debunk it; if you tell them something bad, they can’t wait to push it into print.”