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.