MARGARET WARNER: Finally tonight, another in our series of conversations with retiring lawmakers — tonight, Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank.
The congressman, who’s served for 32 years, is known for his sharp intellect and blunt style. As chairman of the Financial Services Committee, he co-authored the Dodd-Frank reform law regulating banks in the wake of the financial crisis. He was the first openly gay member of Congress, and recently married his longtime partner.
Before that, in the 1980s, his career was marred by scandal involving his relationship with a male prostitute.
But Frank weathered that and went on to win reelection by wide margins.
NewsHour economics correspondent Paul Solman sat down with him last week.
PAUL SOLMAN: Congressman Frank, welcome.
Why Congress? What did you hope to accomplish when you came here first?
REP. BARNEY FRANK, D-Mass.: To make this a fairer country.
I had always been interested in politics. I had assumed, for a variety of — well, for two reasons, being Jewish and being gay back in the late ’50s, early ’60s — that I would never be elected or anything, but I would participate as an activist.
And it’s to make it fairer, fairness in the sense of people not going hungry and being deprived through no fault of their own, or even it was their fault, but not letting people sink to that level of misery, ending discrimination, not interfering with people’s personal freedom.
And then when the congressional seat opened up, it was a natural forum to kind of increase my scope of activities to make this a better country.
PAUL SOLMAN: What grade do you give yourself one to 10?
REP. BARNEY FRANK: Oh, I give myself a 10 for being smart enough not to answer that question.
Either you sound humble in a way that is literally incredible, not credible, or you sound arrogant. I will say none of the above.
PAUL SOLMAN: What do you consider your successes?
REP. BARNEY FRANK: The financial reform bill, I believe, will hold up very well. I had a major role in that, with some others.
I am very proud of the role I played in getting legal equality for people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, and in helping get rid of the prejudice by being visible about it, helping to block the conviction of Bill Clinton of impeachment.
I have done a lot of work for affordable housing, rental housing. I understand the rap on me and other liberals is, oh, we push poor people into homeownership. And it’s exactly the opposite of the case. We were trying to prevent those kinds of bad loans.
And I’m beginning to see a substantial reduction in America’s military budget and doing away with this notion that, 65 years after World War II, we continue to have to protect the whole world.
PAUL SOLMAN: No concern that Dodd-Frank, on the one hand, goes too far, as some people say, and on the other hand, as others say, doesn’t go far enough?
REP. BARNEY FRANK: No, I don’t think that in any area it goes too far.
As to the regulators, I would have been worried if Mitt Romney had been elected, because he would have appointed non-regulators. But I think the people in place under President Obama who helped write the law believe in it. And much — the common theme in the bill, as I saw it, was to say to, a great extent, people who make decisions that are risky, which should be done in the business community, will not be able to escape the consequences of poor decisions because, that way, they will make better ones.
PAUL SOLMAN: Failures, regrets.
REP. BARNEY FRANK: Yes.
I should have voted for the first Iraq war. George Bush did that one very well. I had been skeptical. I was afraid that George Bush was going to treat the first Iraq war the way his son treated the second. In the housing area, I was late, along with a lot of others, to see the housing bubble, but that didn’t affect the action.
PAUL SOLMAN: You told me once when I asked you this question that you had a regret about when you came out, I think it was, or your general posture with respect to homosexuality and the timing of it.
REP. BARNEY FRANK: No, I wish I could have come out earlier. I don’t think it would have been possible.
Look, I regret that, while the time I was closeted, I behaved irresponsibly and got hooked up with a hustler and made myself vulnerable to a guy who turned out to be a shakedown artist, and got scammed by him into thinking that there was something personal there. That wasn’t part of my governmental duties.
I came out in ’87. I now think, if I had come out a couple of years earlier, it would have been better. There was a problem there, because my colleague Gerry Studds. . .
PAUL SOLMAN: Right.
REP. BARNEY FRANK: . . . was brought out in ’83. And we represented adjoining districts in Bristol County, Mass.
The notion that there would only be two gay members of national parliaments in the world, and they would represent adjoining districts, people would have been checking the water.
PAUL SOLMAN: Are you amazed at the extent to which this country has turned around on this issue?
REP. BARNEY FRANK: Not amazed. Pleasantly surprised.
There’s a pattern here that I have said before. I filed the first gay rights bill in Massachusetts history in 1972 in the legislature, one of the first in the country. In the 40 years since then, I have consistently underestimated the pace of reform. But, yes, it’s gone a little faster than I thought it would.
PAUL SOLMAN: And yet we’re in an institution here which is more toxic than ever, at least to all appearances.
REP. BARNEY FRANK: It got toxic when the Tea Party won.
What happened was, the American people were in a bad mood because of the crisis, because of the bailouts for a whole lot of reasons, and they elected in 2010 wildly irresponsible extremists. And that caused the dysfunction. I don’t think it’s permanent and institutionalized.
I think it was the result of one election, and I think, as a result of the 2012 election, it’s already beginning to recede.
PAUL SOLMAN: So fiscal cliff will be resolved?
REP. BARNEY FRANK: Not right away. It will be resolved ultimately.
The entrenchment of people who don’t believe in government and the damage they have been able to cause because of that is diminishing.
PAUL SOLMAN: You haven’t been particularly pugnacious today, but has it cost you, do you think, to have been as pugnacious as you have been over all these years?
REP. BARNEY FRANK: No.
This is probably the media stereotyping. I can’t think of any achievement I tried to accomplish — I guess people aren’t as hypersensitive as that question would assume, that — by which I mean the notion that people wouldn’t go along with an important public policy because I hurt their feelings, I don’t think that’s true.
PAUL SOLMAN: What are you going to do next?
REP. BARNEY FRANK: I’m going to write two books, I hope, one on liberalism, one on the history of the gay rights movement, give lectures for pay, do some TV commentary, and, I hope, teach.
PAUL SOLMAN: Stand-up comedy? We once talked many years ago about your fantasizing about that.
REP. BARNEY FRANK: No, that’s too hard. That’s too hard.
Going before an audience of people who expect you to be funny is tough. Going before an audience that expect you to be boring, and then being a little funny, is much easier. I prefer easier.
PAUL SOLMAN: Barney Frank, thank you very much.
REP. BARNEY FRANK: You’re welcome.
MARGARET WARNER: Barney Frank may just stick around the Capitol Hill a little longer. Shortly after Paul finished that interview, there were reports that Frank may be appointed to temporarily fill John Kerry’s seat if the Massachusetts senator is confirmed as secretary of state.