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Rep. Barney Frank, Minority Wit

Barney Frank Rep. Barney Frank, left, debates with Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde during the panel's impeachment proceedings. (Rich Lipski — The Washington Post)

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  • By Sally Quinn
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, December 18, 1998; Page D01

    "I thought you two should meet," Barney Frank said as he introduced his silver-haired mother to white-maned Henry Hyde. "In case either of you ever needs a hair transplant."

    That was pure Barney Frank -- the nine-term Democratic congressman from Massachusetts who has emerged as one of the leading figures in the fight against impeachment. Humorous. Cordial to his political adversaries. Not one to shy away from sensitive issues. And most of all, master of the one-liner.

    In defense of the president at the House Judiciary Committee hearings, Frank put on a tour de force -- interjecting procedural questions, leaping on points of order, deftly zinging an opponent, cracking jokes when the atmosphere became particularly poisonous. Known throughout Congress for his ability to simplify the issues, Frank characterized the proceedings against the president as an issue of "what did he touch and when did he touch it?"

    "He overwhelms you with rapid rhetoric," says Hyde (R-Ill.), "but there is usually substance behind it. He's a fearsome adversary who appears to enjoy his work. He's quick, he's sharp and he's effective. Basically, Barney is a lot of fun."

    "He's a cross between Louis Brandeis and Buddy Hackett," says his friend Ed Markey (D-Mass.).

    Frank didn't sway any Republicans in the Judiciary Committee, which voted on straight party lines. He'll try again today on the House floor. "Barney has raised the bar day by day for those who think they will escape with a free vote," says Rep. Markey.

    According to Frank, his role will be "to help present the case" and "to keep my powder dry in terms of rebuttals."

    Last week he stated very firmly that "impeachment will fail." But that was then.

    "It was a miscalculation," he said. "I underestimated the right wing's ability to ignore reality. There are Republicans voting for impeachment who I thought would not. And there probably were a couple of dozen Republicans who thought maybe they'd get lucky and the world would end on Wednesday."

    They may well have gotten lucky. In terms of heading off a vote, going to war was the next best thing.

    On Clinton

    Barney Frank, who argued heatedly with Hyde during the Judiciary Committee proceedings, is actually a friend and an admirer of the committee chairman. This kind of collegiality is more common in Washington than most people realize.

    The 58-year-old lawmaker, who is openly gay, is even cordial to his nemesis Dick Armey, who once publicly referred to him as "Barney Fag." Though the House majority leader (R-Tex.) later apologized, saying it was a slip of the tongue, Frank remained distant -- until recently. When The Washington Post misidentified Armey as Frank in a photo caption, "I went up to him on the floor," says Frank, "and I asked him, 'Which one of us is going to sue?' "

    "The thing I like about Henry Hyde," says Frank, "is that he didn't come here to head up a posse. He came here to make public policy. He's good at what he does. And he's smart and he knows how to argue so he's prepared to argue it out. He's the kind of guy who likes the legislative process and understands it.

    "People are often surprised that political opponents get along sometimes better than political allies," Frank continues. "In the midst of impeachment some of us are making a conscious effort to keep it personality-free. Henry and I have made a point of it."

    Frank's words are not so kind for the man he is defending. He does not hesitate to be critical of the president.

    "He screwed up," says Frank. "Bill Clinton is entitled to fairness but not indignation on his behalf. He's not a purely innocent person having suddenly been mugged. The guy's done something he shouldn't have done and he should have known better."

    For that he deserves "censure. Strong censure."

    This will be Frank's chief argument in today's debate: that impeachment is a move to throw the president out of office. Republican efforts to imply that the vote doesn't count because the Senate won't vote to convict are, he says, "like having your cake and eating it, too."

    Frank says he doesn't understand those who say censure would mean nothing to the president. "The notion that Bill Clinton doesn't care what people think about him is nonsensical. Of course he does. He cares about what history says about him. I've never heard anybody suggest before that when the House or Senate censures or reprimands someone it's irrelevant. I was reprimanded. It was a very sad moment for me."

    Frank is referring to the scandal eight years ago in which he was reprimanded for improperly using his office to help a male prostitute who was doing business out of Frank's house.

    Frank has made it very clear in the committee hearings that his own experience with a sex-related scandal has had a great influence on how he views the Clinton scandal.

    "I am a little bit bemused," he says, "by people denouncing him for lying about private sex, because they denounced me for telling the truth about it.

    "I do think he over-lied about it. He should not have gone on television and said, 'I never had sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky.' "

    Frank thinks it is important "for the sake of the tone of the country that there should be a statement that this is an improper way to behave and that we are critical of it and you pay a price for it, the humiliation, degradation. . . .

    "If he were to be caught again having sex with someone other than Hillary in the White House, given what has happened, I think it would destroy his presidency. It might not be impeachable, but I think there would be strong pressure on him to quit.

    "The normal sanction for the kind of irresponsible behavior and terrible judgment and dishonesty that Bill Clinton has shown is that you get defeated in the next election. That's the ultimate penalty that a politician pays. . . . If Bill Clinton were not beyond electable sanctions, then I think people would not feel as frustrated because there would be a way to punish him."

    Family Ties

    Frank has one particularly close ally in the White House -- his sister, Ann Frank Lewis, Clinton's director of communications. Lewis is one of those credited with keeping the president's message front and center despite the chaos that engulfed the White House shortly after she started there last January.

    Frank and his sister talk often on the phone. Although they are perceived to be ideologically motivated, Lewis describes them as "the pragmatic caucus of the progressive wing." Their approach is, she says, "How are we going to get it done?"

    Though her brother freely condemns the president's behavior, Lewis has steadfastly refused to say anything critical. "She can't," Frank says. "She works there."

    "I'm an advocate," is the way she puts it. "And this is a wonderful opportunity to work for somebody I believe in. I still do."

    Lewis admits that she had a few bad moments after Clinton's Aug. 17 speech to the nation confessing he had indeed had an intimate relationship with Monica Lewinsky when she was a White House intern. "You think, 'Well, what am I going to do about this? Because I'm out there. Okay. What's this going to mean for me? How effective can I be? Do I want to continue doing what I'm doing?' And then you think, 'Of course I do.' These are still the issues you believe in."

    Not long after Aug. 17, she almost disappeared from the newspapers and television talk shows. Though in person she is gracious, soft-spoken and self-deprecating, on television she comes across as forceful and unyielding. Because she is constantly "on message," many reporters have turned hostile and given up trying to talk to her, and, because of her eroded credibility, the White House has all but stopped offering her as a spokeswoman.

    She concedes that her relationship with the press "has turned so adversarial. The press is such an enormously important part of what we do, so I'm sorry about that."

    "I think," she says, "that Barney is better at making personal connections with people with whom he disagrees on some of the most fundamental ideological questions."

    Both Frank and Lewis owe their political passion to their mother, Elsie Frank. She is a woman who devoted her early life to her children, went to work after they left home, retired at 70 and calls herself "an activist." She is extremely proud of her four children. (The other two are David, director of communications for the Department of Education, and Doris, who runs a program at Brandeis University.) "I think they're just being good people," she says, "a good asset to this country which I love."

    "The real Ann is feisty," she says with a smile. "Her manner is different from Barney's. Barney is tough, but he's got a heart of gold. The real Ann has a strong band of steel down her back. She is kind and she's sweet, but . . . don't cross her."

    Last December, the president and first lady had a surprise 60th-birthday party for Lewis in the family quarters of the White House. Elsie Frank describes the evening in glowing terms, talking about how wonderful the president was with the children and grandchildren. "It was just so down to earth," she says, "like a family reunion. He really makes you feel very comfortable. He was so kind and gracious, particularly to the young people. And then one month later this whole thing broke. We were all heartsick. It was devastating. He's two people. He's got a split personality."

    The Dynamo

    In a way Frank's popularity is confounding. On paper he is not anyone's idea of the ideal politician. He can be idealistic as well as pragmatic, sweet as well as rude, aggressive, childlike, exasperating, confrontational -- and then funny, honest, generous and brilliant. A Harvard Law School graduate, he has what Markey calls "a nuclear power plant for a brain."

    Spending several hours with him is like being caught in a verbal tornado. He is the world's fastest talker.

    His favorite campaign slogan years ago was "Neatness isn't everything." His office is an indescribable mess and his suits are rumpled, but his thinking process is immaculate.

    He loves sparring with reporters and takes great satisfaction in insulting them in interviews, almost daring them not to like him. During one interview session he accused this reporter of spouting "nonsense," being "ridiculous" and "irrational."

    He can't tolerate "sappy stories about how some politicians mow their lawns. And you say, 'Oh, how nice, they mow their lawns.' Most people are nice. Most people who get elected are nice people. It's kind of hard to get elected if you're grumpy all the time.

    "I work on it," he says, trying not to smile. "But it's hard."

    In general, he says, the press "treats me very nicely. But I dislike the reason they treat me nicely. My press has been very good mainly because I'm often a controversialist. But I would have preferred them to write about the substance."

    On the one hand, he'll sit still for a profile. On the other, he'll say, "I resist celebritization. I don't volunteer any of this stuff about my personal life except the fact that I was gay -- because that became a great distortion not to."

    Out and About

    Frank waited until he was "47 years and 3 months old" to come out of the closet. By that time, he says, "I was pretty sure that if I came out I would not lose my job in Congress. I thought it would diminish my influence in Congress. It did not." His base in suburban Boston, in fact, is so safe that he hasn't had to make a campaign commercial for TV in 16 years.

    He thinks the average American is "less homophobic than he thinks he's supposed to be and more racist than he's willing to admit."

    Frank credits President Clinton for doing "anything a president could do by his own executive action to fight anti-gay and lesbian prejudice." But his "biggest disappointment" with Clinton is on the "don't ask, don't tell" issue of gays in the armed forces, which he regards as a meaningless compromise. "I think because of his own problems, obviously with Vietnam, the one area of public policy where he almost always caved is the military."

    Unlike other aspects of his private life, Frank warms to the subject of his homosexuality, becomes softer and less irritable as he talks about it. He smiles and jokes and is generally more cordial.

    He recently broke up with Herb Moses, whom he referred to as his "lover," after a relationship of more than 10 years. The two are still friends.

    Frank delights in telling stories about their experiences. Once at a charity ball, a woman asked them to stop dancing together. "It was going to be a fast dance and it became a slow dance and we weren't very good at it. The music changed on us in the middle. There may be some people who were uncomfortable but we just said, 'Look, we're not.' Our rule was very simple. We almost never did anything to make a point. But we never not did anything to make somebody else's point. We just decided we're going to live the way we want to live and if that bothered people that was their problem."

    They made an exception once at a White House Christmas party when they saw then-Rep. Bill Dannemeyer (R-Calif.), "who was the arch, foolish homophobe," Frank says. "I noticed Bill Dannemeyer staring at us and I ran my fingers through Herb's hair, which, you know, I never did in public. And he looked a little sort of mildly puzzled, but then he kind of snuggled up to me. That was more to annoy Bill Dannemeyer."

    He is still amused by the "spouse pin" issue. Congress distributes these pins for parking and other amenities, and Herb Moses had one. But "a bunch of right-wingers" demanded that Gingrich rescind the perk for Moses. Ultimately, Congress issued him a "domestic partner" card instead. "Herb may have the only domestic partner card. And his will expire in three weeks."

    Frank says he is dating someone new but he's not yet ready "to be pinned." He doesn't know whether this will become another committed relationship, but he did take his new friend to the White House congressional Christmas party last week.

    Before her son came out of the closet 11 years ago, Barney Frank's mother didn't have a clue he was gay. Barney had dated women, though whenever things got serious he would break up with them.

    "He said he had something important to tell me and I was prepared for the worst," she says. But "to me that was not the worst. I was a little down, but not for long. I mean, he's still Barney."

    First Things First

    Frank insists that the Lewinsky scandal "hasn't been that much of a distraction. It really hasn't had much of an impact on the presidency."

    Yet when asked what issue he cares most about, he winds up citing an example that contradicts that assertion.

    "Global economy," he says without hesitation. He is a major supporter of what he calls "capitalism plus," which he describes as an effort to promote international free-market capitalism while at the same time imposing certain minimum standards to protect labor rights, the environment and other areas that might otherwise suffer. The Democrats, badly split over the issue in 1997, were moving toward resolving it.

    "Then," he says, "the Lewinsky thing knocked that out."

    "There was an agreement that we would work on this, and suddenly everybody's attention got turned away. . . . It's been one of the casualties of the Lewinsky thing. Clinton had agreed on it and that should have been the big story of the year. Instead Lewinsky became the big story of the year."

    Looking Ahead

    Ed Markey says Barney Frank "has been elevated to the status of the smartest and funniest member of Congress simultaneously, which gives him the power to influence every member in the House on every issue. . . . When Barney Frank talks to members, even the Republicans tend to start repeating what he says."

    This is ironic, since Frank never even thought he would have a career as an elected official because he was Jewish. "I also knew I was gay," he says, "but I had hidden it. I'd outed myself with a bar mitzvah, it was too late to be in the closet as a Jew."

    But today, he says, being Jewish is not a factor in politics, although "a Jewish president's still tough. . . . A Jewish vice president would have no problem. And I think a Jewish speaker would have no problem."

    When then-House speaker Tip O'Neill learned that Frank was gay ("I understand Barney's come out of the room," O'Neill told a colleague, garbling the expression), he expressed his regret, telling Frank if it hadn't been for that, he could have been the first Jewish speaker.

    It's still probably not in the cards. However, if the Democrats regain power, if he keeps on insulting reporters, excoriating his opponents and entertaining his colleagues, Barney Frank may make a different kind of history: as the first Jewish gay chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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