Barney Frank memoir long on career, short on his life

By Burton Boxerman, Special to the Jewish Light

Barney Frank’s “Frank: A Life in Politics From the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage” is the political autobiography/memoir of a former congressman whose reputation as a bellicose and intimidating lawmaker is well known.  

Frank, who was born in New Jersey in 1940 and became a bar mitzvah, but acknowledges that he is not a practicing Jew.  He demonstrated his interest in politics at an early age, when he worked on Adlai Stevenson’s unsuccessful bid for the presidency. 

Frank graduated from Harvard University, first with a degree in political science and then a law degree from Harvard Law School.  He worked as a mayoral aide in Boston and was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1972.  

“At the age of 14, I realized that there were two ways in which I was different from the other guys,” Frank writes. “I was attracted to the idea of serving in government, and I was attracted to the other guys.”  

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After serving four terms in the Massachusetts House, Frank was elected to the U.S. House from Massachusetts’ 4th Congressional District, winning 52 percent of the vote. Two years later, Frank was forced to run in a newly configured district and won with 60 percent of the vote. 

From 1984 until 2008, he won re-election 12 times with at least 67 percent of the vote, although his large Jewish constituency in Newton and Brookline was gerrymandered into a neighboring congressional district. In 2010, when he ran for his final term, public opinion polling showed him facing his first credible challenge since 1982. Yet he won again, 54 percent to 43 percent.  On Nov. 28, 2011, Frank announced that he would not run again in 2012.

Frank writes candidly of his struggle to build a political career while keeping the truth regarding his sexuality under wraps. He adopted what he called a hybrid 

approach to his sexuality: open to the LGBT community and intimates but closeted to everyone else. 

By 1987, however, Frank decided that it was his responsibility to give full civil protection to sexual minorities, and he came out as gay, the first member of Congress to do so voluntarily. He made one of his legislative priorities the fight for lifting the ban on gays in the armed forces, a fight which ultimately led to the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”  policy.  He was also in the forefront for challenging the Defense of Marriage Act and for same-sex marriage equality.  

In addition to fighting to secure civil rights for people of all sexual orientation, Frank expanded his efforts in the House on behalf of economic fairness and personal freedom. In the midterm elections of 2006, the Democrats regained control of the House and Frank became chairman of the powerful House Financial Services Committee just as the housing bubble burst.  This was followed by the collapse of Lehman Brothers, causing the country to descend into economic crisis. In the last quarter of the book, Frank discusses the passage of the controversial Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and his co-authoring of what he calls “the most important financial reforms since the Great Depression,” the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.

Frank begins and concludes his memoir with an ironic observation that troubles him: the prejudice toward gay people has decreased while cynicism toward government has greatly increased.  He laments that compromise today in Congress is almost impossible.

In July 2012, Frank married his longtime partner, James Ready, and the couple divide their time between Ogunquit, Maine, and Newton, Massachusetts. 

Frank’s memoir has many positives.  Readers will it entertaining and revealing.  Frank’s writing style is crisp but scholarly as he explains the origins and passage of the financial reform bill.  His passion for politics and justice is clearly obvious, and the reader is able to receive an exceptional overview of American political life.  His sense of humor and his keen observation of the political process are obvious throughout the book, and his use of anecdotes gives an unusual backstage look at the political scene.  

Finally, Frank is frank in assigning blame for the failures of government over the past couple of decades.  

“Both the Democrats and the Republicans have played their part for betraying – from ineptitude or convenience – the American people whom both sides are, in theory, there to serve.”

The book is not without its flaws.  Readers desiring the personal Barney Frank might be disappointed because Frank is very reticent about his personal life.  There is little discussion about Frank’s childhood, as he begins the book when he is a teenager.

More importantly, Frank glosses over his 1989 involvement with a male prostitute, Stephen Gobie, for whom he had done various favors. While the House reprimanded him for his “dealings,” Frank provides few details, instead referring readers to the  report of the Committee on Standards of Official Conducts that absolved him of the “more sensational, inaccurate accusations.”

Despite these flaws, readers will find Frank’s memoir worth reading. But this is a memoir. It would be very interesting to read a biography of Frank, which hopefully would be both objective and thorough.