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Coming Out of the Room

Barney Frank: The Story of America’s Only Left-Handed, Gay, Jewish Congressman

By Stuart Weisberg
University of Massachusetts Press, 2009

Note the subtitle of Stuart Weisberg’s authorized biography of Barney Frank: The Story of America’s Only Left-Handed, Gay, Jewish Congressman. For a book published by an academic press (University of Massachusetts), an obvious attempt at a familiar and irreverent tone is being made. The author comes clean in the introduction: he’s known and worked with his subject for nearly four decades. Such a relationship contains dangers for a biography, as we shall see, but it has helped Weisberg capture Frank’s persona vividly; I giggled on the train with this one. The humor catapults the book past its structural flaws as Frank’s story is told from the perspective of a friend and Washington insider, detailing his experiences from working, campaigning and legislating within state government to his highly vocal presence on the national political stage, one marked by victory and scandal.

Sure, the brief, breathless opening chapter about Frank’s central role in trying to untangle the current economic crisis will likely, and not unjustly, be smeared as hagiography. But what it does bring forward is that whatever is going on, Frank’s in it. He doesn’t shy from a fight. For readers and historians looking for gossip, this opening bit wallops on the cream, delivering a fascinating scene from the waning Bush White House. When John McCain famously “suspended” his campaign (a decision Frank called “the longest Hail Mary pass in the history of either football or Marys”) and returned to Washington to focus on the credit crisis, Bush was obliged to include the freshly nominated Obama in the meeting to avoid a show of partisanship. The room was stocked with the President, the Vice President, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, the presidential candidates, and of course Congressman Frank in his role as chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. By Weisberg’s account, Obama basically ran the show, speaking on behalf of the Democrats while showing his own mastery of the issues—it can be considered one of the moments where his presidency was truly born. But Frank was hardly on the sidelines, being especially vocal in his contempt of the politicization of the process of hammering out a bailout package. His comments about McCain were withering and, as usual, immensely quotable: “The man’s irrelevant to the whole process. No Republican mentioned his name. I’m the only one who raised his name. They winced when I did.”

Frank was not on the sidelines growing up either. Alan Dershowitz, who knew Frank through a friend in high school, has said that “Barney was a famous person at sixteen”—he was garrulous, fearlessly outspoken, and hugely active in student politics. Frank’s youth in 1950’s Bayonne is correctly cataloged as transformative and is one of the strongest parts of the book. To this day the Jersey accent remains. The liberal, urban influences of Manhattan, just across the water, did not counter the small town close-knit families of Bayonne. Neither diminished the otherness of being Jewish and gay during a historical period of heightened conformity; instead, these seemingly convergent confluences helped forge a strong and unique personality with core liberal beliefs.

Throughout his education Frank’s wit and intelligence were recognized by his peers and instructors. No less than Thomas Mann, in reviewing an issue of Harvard Review, commented that “this is the first article I’ve ever read in a Harvard Review that is just plain fun reading.” After Harvard, Frank was chief assistant to Boston mayor Kevin White for three years, and then pursued his law degree while simultaneously serving on the Massachusetts House of Representatives. In 1980, at the age of forty, he was elected to Congress.

But throughout the retailing of these relatively prosaic biographical notes, Weisberg’s ability to capture Frank’s humor and candidness are the saving graces of book. From a letter to his campaign contributors when gearing up for election time:

It is unlikely that I will be defeated…this year or in the foreseeable future…I am writing not to ask for anything, but simply to report on my congressional activities, which your efforts have helped make possible.

And indeed, Frank has been reelected thirteen times, and has not faced any real competition since 1982.

Weisberg reports that Frank relishes answering letters from cranks and bigots. When one person living outside his district sent him three long handwritten letters in one week filled with anti-liberal, anti-gay, and anti-Semitic tirades, Frank responded simply: “I’m sorry you’ve run out of medication before you ran out of paper.” When the same individual sent him a new seven-page rant, the Congressman replied: “I was surprised to find an absence of explicit anti-Semitism this time. Was a page missing?”

Best are the verbal barbs hurled on the floor of Congress or in response to reporters’ queries (he’s a much sought after source of commentary). A Republican congressman commented that his prostate surgery was “just not normal, unless maybe you’re Barney Frank.” Asked by the press to respond, a flippant Frank didn’t miss a beat, stating that during the operation his colleague “may have suffered a little slight brain damage.”

It’s in the college years where the larger of two problems with this biography emerge; most interestingly, the author lacks a sense of history. American politics is a three ring circus with Congress being but one branch of government; the executive branch, among other things, provides our country with the milestones around which we wrap our history, and it is these very milestones Weisberg studiously avoids as if they were orange cones during a driving test. Initially, while reading of Frank’s activism in his student days, I assumed I was so absorbed in the narrative that I must have skimmed past the assassination of President Kennedy. Impossible, I know, but when Johnson was suddenly President I skipped back a few pages to double check. Surely the author would record the impression such a tragedy would have on the young activist Barney Frank, in Massachusetts, studying at the President’s alma mater, having campaigned for him and thus inspired entered the civil rights moment. Nope. Weisberg skips what must have been a deep wound in the young Frank’s life, one that possibly even nailed shut the closet door a bit more; seeing such a reviled risk taker brought down might have inspired as much caution and dread as it did sorrow.

Nor is this a single misstep. Nixon’s impeachment is almost completely ignored. At the time, Frank was getting his law degree and focusing on state politics, but really, for a man who later masterfully diffused the impeachment against Clinton, weren’t some lessons were learned? A showdown with Clarence Thomas complete with charges of sexism seems solid foreshadowing for Thomas’ Supreme Court nomination hearing but that too is skipped over (as is 9/11 and most of the last eight years). It’s true we are all deeply fatigued by the Bush years. You could safely say the entire planet is working hard to forget that guy. Yet it’s a disservice to let Barney Frank’s opposition to such a devastating yet dominating figure go mostly unrecorded.

The Clinton years are well covered, well regarded, and honestly assessed. Some of it covers the same ground as Bart Everly’s rollicking 2003 documentary Let’s Get Frank. Clinton’s concessions to Don’t Ask Don’t Tell leave a stain on his presidency to this day, and there are some who feel he strengthened the anti-gay platform of the Republican Party like no one else since Anita Bryant. But Frank argues that Clinton did more good than harm:

Bill Clinton’s role in advancing fair treatment for gays and lesbians is at least equal to and I think better than John Kennedy’s in pushing the civil rights agenda. Neither one had perfection but was enormously important in the context of his time.

Lest we forget, Clinton rid the government of Eisenhower’s noxious decree that gays couldn’t hold federal jobs because of the possible security risk of extortion. Frank has both executive orders framed side-by-side in his office.

The other problem with the book: how the heterosexual Weisberg tackles Frank’s homosexuality. Historian Barry Worth proved with The Scarlet Professor, his biography of Newton Arvin, Truman Capote’s lover and a literary figure in his own right, that a straight man can capably write about a gay subject while getting the nuances right, especially the paranoia and loathing from earlier time periods. Weisberg, however, is not nearly as successful—this is where Frank has been able to influence the narrative, steering Weisberg away from anything he might deem too personal. Weisberg offers up homosexuality as a clear dichotomy: in the closet/out of the closet. Translation: Frank was a eunuch until a publicly aired indiscretion occurred—then came tears, terrible press and exuberant Republicans. Censure in the House and healthy, open relationships followed. All pretty late in the book.

But this was a revealing scandal. Frank had begun buying sex from a male prostitute named Steve Gobie. Frank then befriended Gobie and, in an attempt to lift him from his lifestyle of drugs and sex, paid him to run errands and even gave him use of his car and house. Gobie repaid Frank by using the congressman’s house to turn tricks and then by going on Geraldo. Weisberg, though, portrays this event as a simple consequence of Frank still being in the closet. Of course, being gay isn’t black and white and the closet is rarely a place of abstinence. Clearly, Weisberg is a wee bit clueless on this point and I’m sure an either uncomfortable or impish Barney Frank was a spirited enabler during their multiple interviews. Any tentative gay encounters (save one pass in college) are absent from the initial chapters. A quick run through of major relationships before he met his current partner in the latter third of the book makes for a too tidy package. Still, it’s fun to read of the historically quick-witted Tip O’Neill’s befuddlement when Frank confirms the rumor that not only is he gay but considering going public to head off a scandal, stating to MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, his press secretary at the time: “We need to be prepared to deal with press inquires. I think Barney Frank is gonna come out of the room.”

That this life-defining scandal comes rather late contributes to the book’s off-kilter chronology. Biographers need to sculpt, choosing what is germane to the story of the life they want to explore. The passage of time is always tricky: decades need to be felt in order to truly convey lessons learned, wounds healed, revelations made relevant. Bluntly put, said scandal needed to be placed smack dab in the middle of the book for an appropriate narrative arc to have been achieved, and in avoiding it for so long, the author demonstrates his own shortcomings, in both craft and investigative prowess. What remains is an ambling train wreck of neat anecdotes and historical tidbits, not to mention reams of hilarious quotes and the aforementioned political gossip.

Barney Frank: The Story of America’s Only Left-Handed, Gay, Jewish Congressman exists mainly as good source material for a future biography—one that I bet will be quite a bit leaner and better organized than this massive tome. Biographers can suffer from too much empathy. Exposing a few more of Frank’s warts would take nothing away from his important legacy and inimitable personality. Who knows, maybe someday a gay biographer will ask the right questions to set the record straight.

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Tom Cardamone is the author of the speculative short story collection, Pumpkin Teeth, recently nominated for a Dark Quill Award, as well as the erotic fantasy novel, The Werewolves of Central Park. He has edited an anthology, The Lost Library: Gay Fiction Rediscovered, out this spring.