BY Benoit Denizet-Lewis
December 03 2008 1:00 AM ET
As ornery as Frank can be, he engenders fierce loyalty among those who know him well. “I could call Barney from a street corner in New Jersey and say ‘Come pick me up,’ and I know he would,” says Mary Beth Cahill, who served as John Kerry’s campaign manager. “People talk about his intelligence and temperament, but what they miss is how loving and caring he is.” (Rep. Bill Delahunt of Massachusetts puts it this way: “Don’t let Barney fool you. He’s a big old softy.”)
In many ways, Frank’s saving grace -- what softens his rough edges -- is his sense of humor, which he’s just as likely to turn on himself as on others. In May he famously told The New York Times that asking the White House to support an increase in government intervention was “like asking me to judge the Miss America contest -- if your heart’s not in it, you don’t do a very good job.” In September, when John McCain announced that he would “suspend” his campaign to deal with the economic crisis, Frank called it “the longest Hail Mary in the history of football or Marys.” (Frank loves to remind people he’s gay and often works his sexual orientation into his jokes. During the Monica Lewinsky scandal, he complained that he couldn’t read all of the Starr Report detailing the Clinton-Lewinsky relationship because it was “too much reading about heterosexual sex.”)
Frank’s comedic timing is on full display on Election Day. When I point out to him that we haven’t seen anyone carrying signs in support of the statewide ballot question seeking to decriminalize possession of one ounce or less of marijuana (Frank is a vocal supporter of marijuana decriminalization), he doesn’t miss a beat. “What do you expect? They’re all off smoking dope.” Later, as we’re driving to a polling place in Fall River, south of Boston, we pass a truck with “Snap-on” written on its side. “What is that, a supply company for lesbians?” he wonders aloud.
“That would be strap-on,” Ready says with a smile before turning in his seat to face me. “Sadly, not all of Barney’s jokes are actually funny.”
Growing up in bayonne, n.j., in the 1940s, Frank never expected to casually joke about lesbians—or to ever come out of the closet. “I realized I was gay when I was 13, but I assumed I would never tell anyone,” he says as we head to a polling place in Raynham, a town of nearly 12,000, where Morin works as a cop. “I had an interest in politics, but I never thought I would run for anything -- more because I was Jewish than anything else.”
Frank’s older sister, Ann Lewis, says she never suspected that Frank was gay growing up; she just knew him as a young boy with an unusually developed social conscience and a particular sensitivity to racism. “Barney was a big Yankees fan as a kid,” she tells me, “and one day our uncle, who was a sportswriter, brought a Yankee scout to the house. Barney marched right up to the guy and asked him why the team didn’t have any black players. I think Barney was 9 at the time.”
While Frank spent much of his early tenure in politics (he served eight years in the Massachusetts house of representatives before being elected to national office) advocating for civil rights and gay rights, he didn’t come out publicly until 1987. “I don’t think my sex life is relevant to my job,” he told The Boston Globe at the time, “but on the other hand I don’t want to leave the impression that I’m embarrassed about my life.”
Three years later, when Frank was 50, he was reprimanded by the House for a previous relationship with a male prostitute who claimed to have run an escort service out of Frank’s apartment. (Republican and then-congressman Larry Craig, who would later star in his own gay sex scandal, was among those voting for the stronger punishment of censure.) The House investigation found no evidence that Frank knew about the escort service. “I was not emotionally healthy back when I was closeted,” Frank tells me. “I was very fat, very disheveled, and I now know that job satisfaction is no substitute for personal satisfaction. [The scandal] never would have happened if I wasn’t closeted. When I had this secret, it stopped me from relating to people in a healthy way.”
After shaking hands with supporters in Raynham (including a 10-year-old who proudly shows him her Bill O’Reilly impersonation), Frank suggests we head back north to Brookline, where he’s expected at a Democratic party. It’s starting to get dark, and Frank, who has yet to take one of his beloved catnaps, closes his eyes and rests his head against the back of the car seat. When he opens them a few minutes later, he lists what he still hopes to accomplish for gay and lesbian rights.