Talking to Barney Frank can be what one might call a double-edged sword for reporters. He is eminently quotable and yet, even as you frantically jot down more gems than you can possibly use in one story, you get the distinct feeling that he believes you're the dumbest person in the world.
I have taken some comfort in knowing that my experience of the congressman is not unique, based on conversations I've had with others.
He is particularly frustrated by incompetence. So when I called this week to inquire about "don't ask, don't tell" and proceeded to ask several questions regarding a timeline for the entire slate of LGBT legislative priorities, he finally blurted out, "This is what Tammy and I have been saying all along."
He had a point there -- the leadership has always said hate crimes and ENDA this year, and Frank in particular has consistently slated "don't ask, don't tell" for 2010. Even with the late addition of the domestic-partner benefits bill thrown into the mix, they appear to be pretty much on schedule with the exception that an ENDA vote in the Senate has almost certainly been pushed into next year.
Glutton for punishment, I then began probing Frank about the revelation that repealing "don't ask, don't tell" would likely be part of next year's Department of Defense authorization bill. Quite honestly, this strategy has been sort of an open secret on the Hill for the past month or two -- bandied about by activists, lobbyists, and Democratic aides alike. But until this week no Congress member had spoken of it on the record -- or at least not that I was aware of.
But as I suggested that this was the first time a member had gone public about repeal not coming through stand-alone legislation, Frank protested, "No, it is not -- it is not. We have been saying this from the beginning."
While it's quite possible that the leadership has always intended to go this direction, my sense is that this week brought the first very public pronouncement of it. Sure, it's perfectly logical given that DOD authorization was the vehicle by which the gay ban was originally implemented in 1993 -- the very same year that allowing women to fly Air Force combat missions was also written into the bill.
But Congressman Frank sensed the question behind the question: Why now -- why go public now?
In the wake of the Maine loss, a well-connected source told me that he understood the White House was nervous about backlash from LGBT advocates based on the perception that the administration had largely chosen to sit out the ballot measure. Any such fears could not have been helped by a public dispute that soon erupted between gay Democratic National Committee treasurer Andy Tobias and AmericaBlog creator John Aravosis.
And then Aravosis and his blog partner in crime, Joe Sudbay, went a step further -- announcing a "Don't Ask, Don't Give" donor boycott targeted at cutting donations to the DNC, Organizing for America, and the Obama administration. The campaign was immediately joined by a band of other bloggers and activists including the Daily Kos, Jane Hamsher of FireDogLake.com, Dan Savage, Michelangelo Signorile, David Mixner, Andy Towle and Michael Goff of TowleRoad.com, Pam Spaulding of PamsHouseBlend.com, and Bil Browning of Bilerico.com.
So naturally, when I was talking to Congressman Frank, I wondered if he had been recently unleashed by the White House to float a plan and a timetable for ending the gay ban -- details that President Obama had been criticized for omitting from his Human Rights Campaign speech even though he unequivocally pledged to end the policy.
Of course, I never got to ask the question directly because Barney got there first.
Sensing that I might be exploring a connection, he suggested, "I don't know whether it's some desire on the part of some in the community to claim that they caused things to happen that were going to happen anyways so they can get credit for it."
It's impossible for me to draw a straight line between this week's news, last week's loss, and the myriad events in between. But what I do know is that this town is exceedingly small and nothing seems to happen by accident. And while I am much less prone to conspiracy theories than many people I know, assuming that there is absolutely no connection between events in Washington gets harder with each week that I live here. Things in the Beltway transpire for a reason -- the real trick is pinpointing the right one.
The Obama administration and congressional leadership certainly may have envisioned this course for "don't ask, don't tell" all along. I also have little doubt that the timing of Congressman Frank's delivery may have been spurred by multiple factors rather than a singular causation. But from where I sit, the path to repeal was just brought into focus for the general public this week. And the truth is, having the strategy is most definitely paramount to any musings about the timing of the reveal.
Frank ended our conversation by quipping, "Call me back in two weeks and we'll have this conversation all over again," -- a friendly jab at my repeated questioning about the legislative timeline they had been floating all year.
I laughed. And my baptism in the ways of Washington continued.