Barney Frank: The Last Good Man Leaves Congress

New York Magazine’s interview with retiring Congressman Barney Frank is the most fun interview you will read today.

Okay, the headline’s a little misleading. I think there are still some good people in Congress; my own representative, Earl Blumenauer, may be the secret love child of Captain America and Orville Redenbacher. (Seriously, look at the photo on that link and tell me I’m wrong.)

But it’s impossible to read this extraordinary interview with Barney Frank and not sense that something genuinely important is being lost with Rep. Frank’s retirement from the House of Representatives. The fierce intelligence that comes through in this interview, the deep sense of principle, is inspiring. Most of all, what gets me is how little he talks like the bland, TV-coached politicians we’re used to. Repeatedly throughout the interview, he refuses to accept a badly-phrased question, and at one point he turns the entire interview around and begins grilling the interviewer, Jason Zengerle, on the role of the news media:

It seems like you’re leaving in large part because of this dysfunctional atmosphere.
I’m 73 years old. I’ve been doing this since October of 1967, and I’ve seen too many people stay here beyond when they should. I don’t have the energy I used to have. I don’t like it anymore, I’m tired, and my nerves are frayed. And I dislike the negativism of the media. I think the media has gotten cynical and negative to a point where it’s unproductive.

Is that a recent development?
It’s been a progressive development, or a regressive development. And I include even Jon Stewart and Colbert in this. The negativism—it hurts liberals, it hurts Democrats. The more government is discredited, the harder it is to get things done. And the media, by constantly harping on the negative and ignoring anything positive, plays a very conservative role substantively.

But isn’t part of that just because the media is expected to be adversarial?
Who expects it to be adversarial? Where did you read that? Did you read that in the First Amendment? Where did you read that the media is expected to be adversarial? It should be skeptical, why adversarial? Adversarial means you’re the enemy. Seriously, where does that come from?

Okay, maybe “skeptical” is the better word.
But that’s a very different word. You reflect the attitude: adversarial. And there is nothing in any theory that I have ever seen that says when you report events that you’re supposed to think, I’m the adversary, so that means I want to defeat them, I want to undermine them, I want to discredit them. Why is that the media’s role? But you’ve accurately stated it, and I think it’s a great mistake.

Do you think I just showed my hand there?
No, I don’t think you showed your hand personally. I think you reflected the Weltschmerz.

Okay, admittedly, I’m swooning a little at a politician who’s not afraid to use the word weltschmerz in a sentence. He’s not worried about sounding better-educated than the reader! Oh, Mr. Frank, if you weren’t a man… and engaged… and 73 years old… yeah, okay, it’s not the most practical crush in the world.

His personal story as the first openly gay congressman is addressed as well:

I want to go back to books. In addition to Caro’s, you mentioned that there was one other book you read as a how-to manual. What was that?
It was a biography of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., by Charles Hamilton. Adam Clayton Powell was not the first black member of the U.S. House, but he was the first self-respecting black member.

Powell got here in ’45, and he was told that he couldn’t use the swimming pool, the members’ swimming pool that was only for white people, he couldn’t eat in the House dining room, and he couldn’t get his hair cut. So he said “The hell I can’t,” and he did it. And Powell—my analogy was I was the first member of Congress voluntarily to come out, the second to come out: Gerry Studds was outed but courageously said that he was. So Gerry and I were sort of tied for being the first out members. And that was a line to walk, about how do you affirm your identity as a gay man without making too much of it. I had a partner at the time, and my view was, and I continue to believe this now—I’m about to get married to Jim—I don’t do anything just to make a point, but I don’t not do something so somebody else can make a point. It’s how to be self-respecting without being belligerent.

And that, that right there, the mixture of principle and pragmatism, of righteous anger and rueful acceptance, is what makes me call Barney Frank a good man. Well, that and arguing with his interviewer. I like a Democrat who fights.


Photo—Payton Chung/Flickr

About Noah Brand

Noah Brand is a writer and editor, and quite possibly also a cartoon character from the 1930s. His life, when it is written, will read better than it lived. He is usually found in Portland, Oregon, directly underneath a very nice hat.


  1. Sorry, I just can’t help laughing at all the people dissing Rep. Frank. And especially the commenter who said Ron Paul is a “good man”. (I mean, really? He supports ending everything from public roads to social security, public education to the environmental protection agency. He also has a history of supporting racist backers, and advocating racist agendas.)

    Barney Frank is one of the *few* — and I mean very few — congressmen left who actually care 1) about their constituents, and 2) about the country in general. He’s worked within the system for decades to support everything from Free Speech, civil rights/civil liberties, criminal rehabilitation instead of retribution, legalization of marijuana, and financial regulation. Shoot, even though Rep. Frank opposes the bloated defense budget and war-hawk spend-thrifts, he still has the chutzpah to fight for his constituency to benefit from any military spending while it exists! He’s equal parts practical and progressive.

    Also, it’s extremely telling that the commenters here who dislike Rep. Frank can only make non-specific, generalized statements of dislike which is evidence of woeful ignorance regarding the man’s record.

  2. samrathin says:

    Ron Paul is the good man. People, media, articles like this one who tout barney frank to be the “last good man” in Congress need to educate themselves on economics and politics….no wonder the American empire is incrementally self-destructing – people in this country are highly misguided, unaware and not educated on documented facts in really realms of life whether they be politics, economics, education, foreign affairs, etc. Amazing after the kinds of things we’re going through in this financial crisis, people like this writer still haven’t waken up. Look up barmey frank’s record outside of the mainstream media and form your own conclusions.

    • Hang on a moment…American empire? Surely you can’t mean that as a compliment.

    • Copyleft says:

      It’s the unshakable belief of many fanatical Ron Paul followers, if not many libertarians in general, that disagreement with them must always be due to ignorance of politics and ecnomics. “Only stupid people would disagree with me; if you don’t agree, you must not understand X” is the cry of the fanatic.

      • AnonymousDog says:

        Isn’t that Rep. Frank’s complaint, in essence? That the people who disagree with his positions are unreasonable?

        • Anonymous,

          Well he’s made that point regarding people who believe Obama is a Nazi/fascist/socialist/Marxist. Because those people ARE unreasonable to suggest something patently false.

          But Rep. Frank doesn’t a complaint “in essence” about everyone. He tends to only hold specific opinions and policy ideals based on specific issues. Perhaps you should do some research on the man’s record?

  3. AnonymousDog says:

    Poor, whiny, Barney Frank, leaving Congress because neither the media nor the Republicans are willing to kiss his ass anymore. Breaks my heart.

  4. Anthony Zarat says:

    A promoter of divisive politics and government discrimination. Not a good man.

  5. No offense, but Barney Frank is no more a “good man” than most any other politician, left or right. For very good reasond, politicians are at the bottom my and most people’s lists of “good” men or women. And, the longer they stay in politics, the better they play the game and more corrupt they tend to get. 

    He, like most other politicians (especially Washington ones), he has an agenda and doesn’t seem to care much about those who happen to not fit into it.

  6. It isn’t too often I see a word I don’t know, but I LOVE weltschmerz, and it is actually a feeling I’ve had for my entire life.

    As for the topic at hand, it is definitely sad to see a good member of Congress go. Our institutions of government are filled with so many who are neither intelligent nor care about doing what is good for the country. Statesmen are becoming a truly rare breed in government and that is bad for everyone.

  7. great interview. Sad to seem him go but I hope he is happier and emotionally healthier in retirement.

  8. “Oh, Mr. Frank, if you weren’t a man… and engaged… and 73 years old… yeah, okay, it’s not the most practical crush in the world.”

    Right there with you, Noah. 🙂

  9. Copyleft says:

    I’ve always marveled at the people who complain about their congressional reps “He acts like he’s better than me.”

    Well, of course! Why wouldnt we want our legislators to be the very best and brightest of America? Where’s the virtue in sending an average schmuck to office to muddle around and accomplish nothing? If you’re not voting for a candidate who makes you feel vaguely inferior, you’re doing it wrong.


  1. […] the Good Men Project: Barney Frank leaves […]

Speak Your Mind