Barney Frank Is the Neville Longbottom of US Politics
Barney Frank is a self-deprecator, a self-doubter, a teller of bad jokes, and a wearer of ill-fitting suits, but his talent for economics is rather like Longbottom’s talent for herbology.
Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex MarriagePublisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Length: 387 pages
Author: Barney Frank
Publication date: 2015-03
Barney Frank is the Neville Longbottom of US politics—chubby, awkward, a bit of a coward at first, but also likely to stand up to his allies and occasionally be praised for his surprising courage. He’s a self-deprecator, a self-doubter, a teller of bad jokes, and a wearer of ill-fitting suits. Frank’s talent for economics, much like Longbottom’s talent for herbology, is invaluable to the final outcome, but most readers are more interested in that other guy. Frank’s memoir, Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage, is akin to Neville telling you what was happening in the Room of Requirement while Harry was in the forest with Voldemort. That doesn’t mean readers won’t be interested in the political back-story, it just means they should be familiar with the history.
One of the most problematic aspects of Frank’s memoir is the author’s assumption that his readers will know what he’s talking about. Often, he references obscure social and political moments without explanation, making some of his stories difficult to track. For example, in chapter two Frank is discussing his involvement with public transit in Boston and mentions “the fabled MTA on which Charlie made the second most famous ride in our history.” Who is Charlie? Why was his ride famous? What was the first most famous ride? None of these questions are addressed; Frank simply continues with the story about the Boston bus crisis, assuming readers know the answers. Who is the audience for this anecdote?
Indeed, the lack of a clear audience is glaring at times. Perhaps Frank meant only to write for himself; the language throughout is graduate level, and Frank is unlikely to appeal to the casual reader. In fact, early on in the text he traces his aborted academic career and abandonment of his doctoral dissertation in favor of his life in politics. His unapologetic liberal memoir will not appeal to conservatives, either. He frequently targets them for many of the United States’ woes of the last 40 years, only occasionally absolving one here and there. For the most part, Republicans like George W. Bush and Newt Gingrich are treated with skepticism and biting humor.
Readers may often feel like the author is not talking to them. Even the queer-identified, well-educated, politically-minded who pride themselves on being fast readers may find perusing the author’s lengthy sections on financial reform bills and closed-door campaign discussions a challenge. A full appreciation of Frank’s memoir relies on the reader having a solid background in political science and/or history. His self-congratulatory note that in 1974, he “foresaw the coming of a liberal version of the Era of Good Feeling” assumes the reader knows what the conservative version is. Combined with his tendency to report numbers, such phrases and casual references to political history make the reading slow going. He does endear himself to literate liberals by mocking Ayn Rand. Libertarians definitely won’t like this book and Tea Party Republicans will no doubt attribute the fall of our entire society (and the second coming of Christ) to this one gay Jew. Nancy Pelosi will read it enthusiastically. He says nice things about her.
Despite an unclear audience, Frank’s intention for the text is clear: “This book is a personal history of two seismic shifts in American life: the sharp drop in prejudice against LGBT people and the equally sharp increase in antigovernment opinion.” Following his thesis is a discussion about the dangers of lead paint. The sudden topic shift typifies the structure of much of the text: meandering and somewhat hard to track. The wandering memories filled with dated pop cultural references like Howdy Doody and On the Waterfront may be salient to Frank but most readers will find them quaint and occasionally obscure—readers may need to Google Henny Youngman and Tom Lehrer. The author himself confesses to being a luddite when it comes to contemporary social media and internet use.
That said, readers will learn a great deal about how important social and financial legislation of the last few decades was conceived of and enacted. In great detail. As memoirs go, it’s on the long side at 353 pages plus appendices and an index. Frank offers up a critique of the modern political landscape, having been ever vigilant about the “three horsemen of the fiscal apocalypse—fraud, waste, and abuse” throughout his career, which he deems a primary aggravator for the public’s lost faith in government. Probably his most relatable comparison is between becoming a respected legislator and being popular in high school.
The dust cover calls Frank one of the “funniest politicians of our time.” While Frank definitely has a sense of humor and relays his antics of campaign mockery and conservative bashing, the cover’s claim exaggerates his comic appeal. Although there are some LOL-worthy moments, most of the humor is of the “I guess you had to be there” variety.
Frank begins his career as a fearful yet idealistic young politician who wants to change the country’s social landscape for the better. He’s especially concerned with housing for African Americans and economic stability for white males against a backdrop of his ever-present fear of being outed, citing his viewing as a young man of the 1962 film, Advise & Consent, in which a closeted gay politician is blackmailed and then commits suicide. Frank finally comes out publicly in 1984, having spent the first 20 years of his political career in the closet.
The author concedes that he “could no longer urge other members to show political courage” while he himself cowered in the closet. The significance of this recognition and his subsequent decision to out himself should not be understated, yet he does. At a time when legal protections for LGBT people were largely absent, Frank announces his sexual orientation to the press while actively serving in the US legislature, an act of bravery to which he dedicates only one chapter (unimaginatively titled “Coming Out”). He recalls that it was a non-event. There’s no scandal to be recalled, no archived news footage. He’s gay but he’d really rather tell you about his relationship with Tip O’Neill than his first boyfriend. He says coming out was the second most important decision of his life, the first being his decision to run for Congress. Politics was always his first love.
Although his coming out is anti-climactic, it does provide him a unique perspective. He recalls for his readers detailed history on important anti- and pro-LGBT legislation that has taken place in the US over the last 50 years. Included in these memories are repeals of the exclusionary language in immigration laws, anti-discrimination in employment, and the adoption and eventual repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. (He was an early architect of DADT under Clinton, but excuses himself from the worst parts of the legislation and worked diligently for its reversal.) Interestingly, despite the book’s title, he doesn’t spend much time talking about same-sex marriage. A mention of the DOMA repeal and a note about a few states’ marriage laws are the extent of it.
There is an undercurrent of concern about “the gay thing” which surfaces repeatedly, but if readers are looking for a text dedicated to LGBT politics, they won’t find it. What they will find is tax law quoted verbatim. For every page that Frank discusses LGBT issues, there are 20 pages of housing reform discussions, for every sentence where Frank mentions his own sexuality, there are countless more where he discusses Bill Clinton’s. The biggest change in his career before and after coming out is simply that he “was happier”. This may be the most important phrase in the book. Nothing much changed when he came out except his own personal comfort with his life. He acknowledges, however, that his experience was buffered by the safety of money and political power and he recognizes not all LGBT people’s experiences are as painless as his.
By the end of his career, he’s no longer fearful, having found his voice in the political machine, but maintains his idealism, now tempered by age and experience. His entire political motive for the length of his career is summed up at the very end, when he notes that even after retiring, he “was as passionate as ever about improving the world—making it conform more to [his] values.” This idea is repeated throughout the memoir, and reveals Frank’s blind side and perhaps his biggest flaw: his belief that he is right and his values are the correct ones.
Frank is a staunch believer in how a strong government can be the savior of the people, especially those who struggle with economic and racial inequality. He calls for major cuts to military spending, a decrease in the prison population, and agrees with Bob Marley’s assessment that we should “legalize it”. He highlights a surprising amount of bipartisanship and explicitly notes his favoring of racial issues over gay rights issues, especially early on in his career, often repeating his mantra of playing “both sides” of the floor in order to “achieve objectives”. He’s as pragmatic as he is moralistic. He uses the phrase “play the race card” non-ironically. He asserts “that coping with the legacy of racism was our single greatest moral responsibility as a nation.” He also expresses concern for how to regain the trust of middle class Caucasian males who have turned away from the union-strong democratic party of the mid-20th century. At times, this makes his political ambition feel like a dog with two masters.
Readers will come away from the book with the feeling that Frank is a contradictory fellow—idealistic yet quick to compromise, eager to help the poor and people of color but overly concerned with what conservative white males think. He’s self-conscious and self-flagellating yet full of ego and occasionally ill-humored, with a tendency to overeat and insult the religious right. Although he occasionally admits to making mistakes, more often than not his memoir reads as rationale for why he did what he did; any failure was not his fault. At times, it feels like Frank is asking his audience for absolution. In his view, moderation in achieving equality is the means to the end. This is a reoccurring theme in the book: concession and compromise. At one point Frank says “standing up to your enemies is fun and often rewarding; standing up to your friends is stressful and often costly.” Agreed, Longbottom. Ten points to Gryffindor.