Colin Woodard is author of four books including “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America.” He is the state and national affairs writer at the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.
By Barney Frank
Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
387 pp. $28
With Rep. Barney Frank’s retirement two years ago, Congress lost not just a 16-term member of the House but also one of the most idiosyncratic, influential and entertaining people to serve there. Here is a man once simultaneously voted the funniest, brainiest and most eloquent member of his chamber in a Washingtonian magazine staff survey; a high-profile champion of the New Deal order and LGBT rights whom Republican colleagues six years ago managed to name to the Hill’s lists of the most partisan and most bipartisan Democratic members at the same time; a gruff bulldog, criticized for making reporters cry, who himself wept when a Boston crowd cheered him the day after he came out as gay in 1987, the first sitting congressman to voluntarily do so.
He was also the early 21st century’s answer to Mark Twain, churning out one-liners like: “Conservatives believe that, from the standpoint of the federal government, life begins at conception and ends at birth.” And: “The problem with the war in Iraq is not so much the intelligence as the stupidity.” The Republican caucus, he quipped, “consists half of people who think like Michele Bachmann and half of people who are afraid of losing a primary to people who think like Michele Bachmann.” When a speaker said the acronym LGBT sounded like a sandwich, Frank called out from the audience, “Sometimes it is.”
On retirement, Frank said one of the things he wanted to do was write, and so he has. His memoir, “Frank,” relates his rise from pumping gas for his father’s northern New Jersey truck stop to Boston City Hall, the Massachusetts legislature and, ultimately, the upper echelons of congressional power. The central, ironic theme: As Frank’s influence grew — and anti-gay bigotry withered — the New Deal order to which he was devoted cracked, crumbled and was scattered before a libertarian wind.
In 1954, 14-year-old Frank was coming to the fearful realization that he was attracted to two things that did not then go together: government service and other guys. “At the time, public officials were highly regarded,” he recalls. “I was a homosexual, an involuntary member of one of America’s most despised groups.” Fast-forward 60 years, and the situation had reversed. “Legal protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people were more popular than elected officials as a class.”
Frank traces both developments, providing an inside history of the legislative struggle for LGBT rights and a constructive critique of liberal political strategy since the 1966 midterms halted the advance of the New Deal agenda. Most intriguing is his refutation of the received wisdom on why the national liberal coalition shattered and his advice for how to put the pieces back together again.
When Frank started his political career, hiding his sexuality was imperative. President Dwight Eisenhower had issued an executive order denying gays security clearances. The Kennedy and Johnson administrations supported a successful congressional effort to explicitly ban foreigners “afflicted . . . with sexual deviation” from entering the United States. “My sexual orientation,” Frank writes, “remained highly unpopular even while government as a force for societal improvement was at a high point in its approval ratings.” At 14 he had resolved to hide his sexuality forever; even in 1987, his coming out was against the advice of many close friends, who feared that it would diminish his influence.
It didn’t, in part because his suburban Boston district included some of the most liberal communities in the country. (He first won the open seat in 1980 after his predecessor, liberal Jesuit priest Robert Drinan, was ordered to stand down by Pope John Paul II.) They even forgave his greatest humiliation, a 1990 reprimand for canceling the parking tickets of his former lover and roommate, a male prostitute who, apparently unbeknownst to Frank, was pimping women in Frank’s basement. He won reelection with 66 percent of the vote.
Frank relates his role in overturning many anti-LGBT laws and policies, from the security clearance and immigration bans to “don’t ask, don’t tell.” But while popular support for LGBT rights soared over his nearly 60 years in politics, faith in government action for the common good hit all-time lows. “My influence over the political system grew even as the system’s influence diminished,” he writes. “This was good for my self-esteem but bad for my public policy agenda.”
The reason for this decline, Frank argues, is not that the champions of laissez faire have used “God, guns, and gays” to persuade social conservatives — especially white working- and middle-class men — to vote against their economic interests. “In my view, white men reject activist government not because they reject a major role for the public sector but precisely because they support one . . . and have been punishing government for its failure to support that mission.”
This provocative thesis — that this critical bloc abandoned Democrats because they failed to uphold the pre-1965 principles of the New Deal Era — argues that Democrats should recommit to using the power of government to defend these voters from economic distress. A party that embraced environmental regulation, financial and trade deregulation, and affirmative action came to be seen as the killer of jobs for “people who worked with their hands.”
Movement conservatives have played their own hand brilliantly, “perfecting a politically potent two-step — delegitimizing the government while defunding it in a mutually reinforcing cycle.” By the time Ronald Reagan took office, his budget director, David Stockman, long ago revealed, his economic team knew that tax cuts wouldn’t pay for themselves by stimulating business activity and tax revenue. They went ahead anyway because the massive deficits they produced foreclosed to future presidents the possibility of properly funding the national liberal state. It’s no accident, Frank argues, that deficits spiked under the next two Republican administrations, leaving Democrats to pay them down by stripping away the machinery of the New Deal order.
“The anti-government feelings that followed,” Frank writes, reflected “the successful Republican effort to widen the gap between the demands made on government and its capacity to respond to them.” The key to reversing this pattern, he argues, is to reduce the military budget; end criminal penalties for drug users; and divert the $1.4 trillion that would save over 10 years to properly fund rental-housing programs, community colleges, and aid to impoverished children and the long-term unemployed.
Frank has long been seen as a liberal firebrand, the guy Democrats sent out to joust with GOP Speaker Newt Gingrich on the House floor. What’s less appreciated is his pragmatism, his willingness to embrace incremental progress and the compromises required to achieve it. Throughout this book, he exhorts his progressive allies to follow in his footsteps — especially those who engage in demonstrations instead of the more effective but far more tedious work of lobbying legislators and rallying voters.
The model: the National Rifle Association, which completely dominates the gun-control debate despite advocating positions supported by a minority of the public. “They urge all of their adherents to get on the voting rolls. They are diligent to the point of obsession in making sure elected officials hear from everyone . . . and they then do an extraordinary job of informing their supporters of how those officials cast their votes.” They win “at the ballot box, not in the streets” or through campaign contributions, whose relative influence Frank thinks is overblown.
In his conclusion about the political utility of demonstrations, he is as direct as ever: “If you care deeply about an issue, and are engaged in group activity on its behalf that is fun and inspiring and heightens your sense of solidarity with others, you are almost certainly not doing your cause any good.”