Harrumph!

By Benoit Denizet-Lewis

Originally published on Advocate.com December 03 2008 1:00 AM ET

It’s 8 a.m. on Election Day, and Barney Frank is doing his laundry. “Good morning,” he mumbles, lugging a gigantic white laundry bag over his shoulder as he leads the way from the basement up the stairs to his studio apartment in an unremarkable brick complex in Newton, Mass. We’re greeted there by Frank’s boyfriend, Jim Ready, a handsome and sturdy 39-year-old who bears an uncanny resemblance to Sarah Palin’s snowmobiling husband, Todd. Ready loves to surf more than snowmobile, and he’s secured promises from Frank, who does not surf, to accompany him on some beach excursions. “I’ve been to enough political events with him lately,” Ready says. “He owes me.”

Today, though, the 68-year-old congressman is busy trying to keep his job. There is little doubt that he will -- Frank is beloved in the district he’s served since 1981 and is running against Earl Sholley, an all-but-ignored Republican -- but Frank’s brand has taken a hit in recent months as Republicans “mounted a coordinated campaign to blame Democrats, with me as the point man, for the economic meltdown,” he says. In a poll taken a few weeks before the election, Frank was drawing only 55%. “I’m usually in the high 70s,” he tells me, “so that was a problem.”

Frank fought back the only way he knows how -- vigorously, and with a heavy dose of comedy. He produced two memorable campaign commercials: In the first he uses vintage footage of circus elephants as a backdrop for criticizing Republicans who “did the bidding of the financial giants that wanted no regulation.” The second ad opens with an unhinged Bill O’Reilly screaming at Frank during an October edition of The O’Reilly Factor. “The right wing is losing control,” the narrator says. Frank ends the commercial with his trademark wit. “I’m Barney Frank -- I approve this message and the chance to be on TV without interruption.”

In Washington, Frank used his position as chairman of the House Financial Services Committee to lash out at Republicans who blamed him for the subprime mortgage crisis. In an October hearing about the future of financial services regulation, Frank, looking particularly disheveled (wrinkled shirt collar, hair sticking up on the back of his head), gnawed on his gavel as Republican congressman Scott Garrett suggested that Democrats were not being intellectually honest and had blocked Republican amendments aimed at reining in Fannie May and Freddie Mac.

“The gentleman’s three minutes have expired,” a feisty Frank said. “And let’s talk about intellectual honesty…. He said earlier he’d offered amendment after amendment. In his head. But on the floor he offered one, which was withdrawn…. These amendments he talked about, in which he sort of implied that the Democrats had blocked the Republican efforts, are fantasies.”

Frank is much less ornery today. In fact, the man whom many call the grumpiest member of Congress has been uncharacteristically cheery over the prospect of his reelection, a Barack Obama presidency, and a healthy majority in Congress. When I joined Frank and Ready for dinner two days earlier at the Cheesecake Factory in Newton, Frank spent much of the meal smiling and fawning over Ready. The two became a couple three years ago when Ready pursued Frank at a gay political fund-raiser in Maine, where Ready still lives. “I’ve had a crush on Barney for 20 years,” he told me, rubbing Frank’s back.

The happy couple are back at it this morning, playfully debating which local anchormen are gay (“It’s pretty clear that all male weathermen are gay,” Frank says) and poking fun at Frank for not knowing how to use the Internet. “It’s probably for the best, because Barney would somehow manage to break the Internet,” Ready says with a chuckle. “He breaks everything.”

“I’m very clumsy,” Frank concedes, tying his tie. “I just get frustrated when something doesn’t work, so I’ll just start banging on it. ”

As we wait for Frank’s driver—a gay police officer named Steve Morin -- to pick us up and drive us to polling places where the congressman will greet voters, I ask Frank how many seats he expects Democrats to pick up in the House.

“I talked to Rahm Emanuel about that,” he says. “He’s the best political mind among the Democrats, and he said…”

“A better mind than you?” Ready interjects with a smile.

“Well, I’m as good as anybody at figuring out how to get things through Congress,” Frank says, “but I’m not as confident with the public. I’m best at gauging other politicians and figuring out what they want. And except for a few conservative Republicans who are completely useless, I can work effectively with pretty much anybody.”

As we’re about to leave the apartment, I ask Frank if there’s a danger that a Democratic majority might try to overreach. “Certainly,” he says, “but the one advantage we have is that things suck so badly right now, and everybody knows it, that there is a very low bar. I mean, look at the pile of shit we’re going to inherit.” Frank rifles through his closet for a suit jacket. “On the plus side, I’ve got at least four years to really help affect the things I care most about. Financial regulation, housing, and gay and civil rights. There is still so much to get done. And the possibility to do that pleases me very much.”

Is Barney Frank, whom one friend describes as a “lovable curmudgeon,” about to get…happy?

Congressman Barney Frank smaller (Getty) | Advocate.com 

“Hey, barney, I’ll bet you a glass of red wine that you get to 72% today,” Morin tells him as we drive to the first of a dozen polling places we will visit on this unseasonably warm morning. We’re in a Jeep with tinted rear windows. Ready sits in the passenger seat, while Frank is in the back reading the Boston Herald and barking out instructions.

“Don’t go this way -- turn left,” Frank says when Morin takes a right at a major intersection in Newton. “I told you to take a left. Then take a right.”

“Barney’s like a human GPS,” Morin tells me. “I’ve been his driver since 2002, and sometimes I feel like I’m driving Miss Daisy. He can get a little rambunctious, but then so can I. If he acts up, sometimes I’ll stop the car and say, ‘Congressman, would you like to walk home from here?’ ”

At a polling place in Newton, Frank is overwhelmed by well-wishers. “God bless you.” “Keep up the good work.” “Thanks for everything you’ve done for the gay community.” “Saw your commercial -- loved the elephants!” After a middle-aged woman shakes his hand, she practically levitates over to her waiting husband. “I feel like I just met the Beatles!” she gushes.

But as we’re about to leave, a slender, pale man with a thick Russian accent ruins the vibe. “We got into this economic mess because of people like you,” he tells Frank, declining to shake the congressman’s hand. “You gave a mortgage to everyone who didn’t deserve one.”

“No, you actually have that backward,” Frank blurts back. “I’ll show you articles where I was critical of that. If you want the facts, I can give them to you.”

“You’ve been in Congress too long. Look at what’s happening in Massachusetts. People are leaving.”

“Then why don’t you leave too?” Frank says matter-of-factly. “You should move somewhere else.”

The man seems momentarily taken aback. Has his congressman just told him to leave the state? “Well, then who will pay taxes for you?”

“A lot of people are very happy to pay taxes.”

Back in the car, Frank tells me that he relishes confrontation. “Getting in a heated exchange with someone is kind of cathartic in some ways for me,” he says, holding a list of local polling places. “I’ve always been good at verbal confrontation, and I’ve never had a fear of it. I have to be careful that I don’t get into it too much.”

Frank tells me that he rarely says something he regrets, although he concedes that his impatience and abrasiveness can be hurtful. “Some people still say I get angry too much,” he says. “In general, I think I’m getting a little more reflective, a little more understanding. It’s just that I get so impatient with people. My scarcest resource is my time, so I’m very protective of it -- maybe overly so. ”

Frank has been known to walk out of a room or start reading a newspaper if he thinks you’re wasting his time. Walter Schubert, a friend of Frank’s and the first openly gay member of the New York Stock Exchange, has learned not to take his eyes off the congressman for long. “He’ll be a guest speaker at some event, and if it’s running behind schedule, he’ll think nothing of just walking to the elevator and leaving,” Schubert says. “We’ll all be running after him saying, ‘Barney, you can’t just leave!’ The thing about Barney is that he suffers no fools. If you come unprepared to a conversation with him, or if you don’t know what you’re talking about, he has no problem saying, ‘That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.’ ”

Many colleagues and friends say they find this bluntness refreshing. House speaker Nancy Pelosi marvels at how much she gets done with Frank in a matter of seconds. “Not one wasted word,” she told me. Steve Elmendorf, a gay Washington lobbyist who was a senior adviser for 12 years to Dick Gephardt, has known Frank since 1987, the year Frank came out publicly. “Once people get to know Barney and get over the fear that he’s going to yell at them, they tend to like his style,” Elmendorf tells me. “There’s no bullshit with Barney. Unlike other congressmen who pretend to be nice to everyone, Barney tells you exactly where you stand. And I understand why he gets so frustrated with people. He’s usually the smartest person in the room, and I think he genuinely gets annoyed that people can’t keep up.”

Congressman Barney Frank smaller (Getty) | Advocate.com 

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.

Congressman Barney Frank smaller (Getty) | Advocate.com 

“Once we get out of Iraq, we’ll get rid of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ ” he tells me. “There’s not going to be that much of a fight over that—people are over it. Plus it’s hard to argue today that 20-year-olds freak out at the sight of a gay guy. We will also get hate-crimes legislation with transgender included, and we will get employment nondiscrimination with transgender included -- if transgender people keep working for it and lobbying for it. Many people assumed that Nancy Pelosi and I could just deliver that, but that’s not how it works. I think they understand now that they have to go to each congressperson and make the case.”

When the conversation turns to gay marriage, Frank says he is “cautiously optimistic” about Proposition 8 being defeated in California. “I just wish more time had passed since it was legalized and this election,” he says. “With discrimination, the fear always outweighs the reality of it. You just hope there’s enough time to show everyone that everything is fine, that gay marriage has no impact on heterosexual marriage.”

Proposition 8 ended up passing, of course, prompting protests across the country. “It’s great that people feel passionate about this,” he says 10 days after the election, when I ask whether the upswing in gay activism pleased him, “but do you really think a rally on the Boston Common does one thing to change anything? I would prefer people channeled that energy -- whether it’s for marriage equality or employment nondiscrimination -- into mobilizing and trying to persuade those who disagree with them. Notice that the NRA never marches. This is my continual debate with people in the gay community, many of whom want to hold rallies instead of doing political lobbying.”

Frank’s position on the rallies initially surprised me -- how could any gay person not be moved by them? -- but it shouldn’t have. In 2004, when gays and lesbians were celebrating San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom’s decision to buck California law and issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, Frank called it a “spectacle” that would only increase support for President Bush’s proposed federal constitutional amendment limiting marriage to heterosexual couples. “When you’re engaged in a political fight, if you’re doing something that really, really, really makes you feel good, then it’s probably not the best tactic,” he told The Washington Post at the time. “[Some gay activists] have this notion that Martin Luther King and the rest of the gang just let it all hang out, that the civil rights movement was just a series of spontaneous outbursts. But it was in fact a series of strategic decisions.… I care deeply about [marriage equality], but the more deeply I care, the more sensible I have to be in achieving it.”

Frank holds a deep reverence for the political process and rejects the notion that the ends justify the means. He also doesn’t see the value in “wasting time” by talking to people who already agree with you. “It doesn’t change anything,” he tells me as we drive back toward Boston on Election Day. (Pelosi says she learned firsthand about Frank’s low tolerance for preaching to the choir. In 1987 she called him to complain that a congressman was saying terrible things on the House floor about gay men with AIDS. “So Barney said to me, ‘What are you calling me for? Go argue with him. Go make the case. Next time you want to complain, go complain to the person you need to convince.’ ”)

Frank, who in 1995 was famously called “Barney Fag” by Rep. Dick Armey of Texas, says he hopes people take a pragmatic, strategic approach to gay marriage. “There’s a danger of using tactics that can advance you in the short term but hurt the long-term goal of marriage equality,” he says. “The most important thing we can do is change the minds of people who voted against us. We know that many African-Americans in California were given blatantly false information about us. We didn’t refute that effectively, and we’re paying the price, because they voted disproportionally against us. I’m already talking to a lot of prominent African-American leaders about what we can do to change that. Thousands of people rallying on the Boston Common don’t get African-Americans to change their votes in California.”

Even if California loses marriage equality in the short term, Frank believes we will win the larger war. “I’ve seen anti-Semitism essentially disappear in my adult life as a social and economic factor,” he tells me. “There may be some nuts out there, but generally things are fine. I think the same thing will happen with gayness. We’ll get to a point soon enough where it’s not even an issue anymore. But progress can be slow. I filed my first gay rights bills in 1972 in Massachusetts. Forty years later, it would be nice to have this wrapped up and put to bed.”

Congressman Barney Frank smaller (Getty) | Advocate.com 

At the democratic party in Brookline, organizers hoping Frank will speak to the faithful have to pull him away from a television tuned to CNN. The cable network has just called New Hampshire for Obama, and there is little doubt that he is headed for a resounding and historic victory. Frank’s main concern now -- other than his own race, which he doesn’t seem too worried about -- is how many seats Democrats will pick up in the House and Senate.

“It’s looking really good,” he tells me as an elderly woman with Obama earrings grabs his hands and shouts, “Barney, I voted for you three times today -- as all my dead relatives!”

As the crowd of happy (and increasingly tipsy) Democrats hoot and holler in the main meeting room, Frank barrels into a brief speech. “I’ve had situations where the audience was more interested in something else than what I had to say,” he begins. “But this is the first time I’ve been more interested in something else than what I’ve had to say! So this is going to be pretty quick. But it is clear that we are winning big, and we are winning big on the issues. We’re winning big because this right-wing philosophy that the government was the enemy and that the private sector could do it all by itself, that we didn’t need regulation and that there would automatically be fairness in income for everybody, has been thoroughly repudiated by reality. I believe we are going to see the most significant improvements in public policy, in the direction of fairness and quality of life, in ending discrimination, in regulation and environmental protection, and in a decent foreign policy, the biggest change since Franklin Roosevelt came and repudiated Harding and Coolidge and Hoover. We are now repudiating Reagan and Bush and Bush.”

Next, it’s off to a John Kerry–sponsored election party at a Boston hotel, where Frank -- who is tired but running on Election Night adrenaline -- gets word that he’s easily defeated his Republican challenger. (Almost as an afterthought, he’d called the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to find out.) Frank breaks the news to us matter-of-factly, but his long embrace with Ready suggests relief. “You know, when people lie about you, it’s nice to get a chance to refute those [lies] and have people believe in you,” he tells a reporter calling for comment.

“What percentage did you get?” Morin wants to know as we drive back to Frank’s apartment after spending an hour watching election returns at Kerry’s party. “Are you at 72? You owe me a glass of red wine if you’re at 72!” (Frank ends up at 68%.) A few minutes away from Frank’s place in Newton, we learn that the networks have called the election for Obama.

“This is American history being made,” Frank tells us, tired but clearly ecstatic. “This is much bigger than Bill Clinton’s win. Clinton kind of ran promising to be a better conservative than conservatives. This is big. This is the country telling Republicans, ‘You know what? You guys are full of shit.’ ”

In the parking lot of his apartment complex, Frank thanks everyone for a long day’s work and then tries unsuccessfully to open the Jeep’s back door, which Morin is slow to unlock from the front seat. Temporarily trapped, Frank quickly loses his patience. “Steve, can I get out of the car, please?”

With Frank safely out, Morin chuckles. “Now that’s the Barney I know and love.”