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How Barney Frank used government to fight inequality

For more than half a century, Barney Frank was one of America's loudest voices for progressive policies, both financial and social. Economics correspondent Paul Solman spends a day in Boston with the famous former lawmaker and financial reformer to discuss his new memoir, “Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage.”

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Next: a profile of a crusading voice on financial reform who also became a public figure in the debate over gay rights.

    It's the story of former Congressman Barney Frank, son of a mob-connected New Jersey father. He went on to Harvard and to volunteer as a Freedom Rider in Mississippi. His public and private story, including his long tenure as a lawmaker, is the subject of his new autobiography.

    Economics correspondent Paul Solman caught up with him in Boston for tonight's installment of Making Sense, which airs every Thursday on the NewsHour.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    For 32 years, perhaps the country's most controversial, quick-witted congressman, Barney Frank, now improbably lolling in semi-retirement.

    But for almost half-a-century, his was one of the America's loudest voices for progressive policies, both economic and social, a devotee of using government to help redress inequality.

    His new autobiography sums up his half-a-century of effort, and the two stunning surprises of his long career, the revolution in attitudes toward government and sexuality.

    So, you start out, government in high repute, homosexuality…

    FORMER REP. BARNEY FRANK (D), Massachusetts: In low repute.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Contemptible.

  • BARNEY FRANK:

    Yes.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    And now it's the other way around.

  • BARNEY FRANK:

    Well, as I have said, by the time I retired in 2012, my marriage to my husband, Jim, got a much better public response than my chairmanship of the committee that wrote the financial reform bill.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    When Frank began his political career here at Boston City Hall, it was unheard of to be openly gay. So, he remained in the closet, a bright-eyed Harvard-schooled reformist assistant to Boston Mayor Kevin White in 1968. His government goals?

  • BARNEY FRANK:

    Personal freedom, an end to discrimination, particularly race at that time, because gay rights wasn't even on the agenda, and diminishing economic unfairness.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Were you already conflicted about fighting for these things, while yourself hiding the fact that you were gay?

  • BARNEY FRANK:

    Yes.

    Actually, it wasn't — I didn't feel the conflict so much at first, because it was just such a one-sided question. There was just no — there was no possibility of being openly gay and having any kind of an impact on the rest of the society. It just was so overwhelmingly anti.

    Remember, I already brought a lot of unconventionality to the table.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Yes.

  • BARNEY FRANK:

    I was from New Jersey, I talked too fast, I came from a Harvard Ph.D. program, and I'm Jewish.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    But when he won a seat here in the Massachusetts Statehouse, government was losing its luster.

  • BARNEY FRANK:

    Yes, when I got to the legislature, government was a popular thing.

    I saw it begin to lose public support as the '70s went on, as economic factors started to hurt the average American.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Interminable lines at the gas pump, rampant inflation and high unemployment at the same time, they prompted the defection of Democrats to Ronald Reagan and the Republicans.

  • BARNEY FRANK:

    The people we have lost are working-class people. So, when their economic position, their relative economic position and, to some extent, their absolute economic position, deteriorates, they blame the government for not helping.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Frank now ran for, and won, a seat in Congress, his hair-trigger tongue soon getting national attention.

    Your wit, that certainly helped you, right?

  • BARNEY FRANK:

    It does, in two ways.

    First of all, it keeps me from being bored out of my mind, which I would be in danger of doing in some cases. And, secondly, it's a good weapon. People don't like to be laughed at. So, if you can come up with something that makes other people laugh at the people you're debating, they shy away.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Take this 2009 exchange at a town hall meeting about the Affordable Care Act.

  • WOMAN:

    My question to you is, why do you continue to support a Nazi policy?

  • BARNEY FRANK:

    I am going to revert to my ethnic heritage and answer your question with a question: On what planet do you spend most of your time?

    (LAUGHTER)

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    As the quips and years ticked by, Frank became a champion of his party's left wing and a frequent guest on this program, his shape and stature morphing with America's views toward both public and private affairs.

    Finally, when, asked in a 1987 interview in the liberal Boston Globe if he was gay, he responded, "Yes. So what?" Two years later, his sexuality became a national scandal.

    A conservative newspaper revealed that Frank's partner was running a male prostitution ring out of their apartment.

  • BARNEY FRANK:

    There was, in my life, a central element of dishonesty for about 40 years.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Though censured by Congress and humiliated, Frank pressed gamely on, and was reelected in 1990, rose to become the powerful chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.

  • BARNEY FRANK:

    So, I become influential, frankly, partly because I have seniority, partly because I'm good at it, and one other reason, process of elimination.

    I continued to be a strong believer in liberalism and the government as a positive force, at a time when I didn't have a lot of competitors.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    And then came the crash of '08.

  • PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:

    Chairmen Barney Frank and Chris Dodd have worked day and night.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    And Frank's lead role in government, co-authoring the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, which increased regulation, created a new bureau to protect consumers. But it has subsequently been charged with adding onerous costs to the economy, and especially to smaller banks.

    You are the Frank of Dodd-Frank. There's been huge criticism of that bill and some modification of it, no?

  • BARNEY FRANK:

    Very little modification, one that dealt with the ability of banks to do their derivative activity within the bank. And that was — that was very controversial. But there have been no other legislative changes.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    And has it worked? Hasn't it worked?

  • BARNEY FRANK:

    Oh, I think it's worked very well so far.

    For example, I think the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been a great success. I believe that the financial institutions in America are much better capitalized now than they were before.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    How hopeful are you about our economic future, median income stagnating, inequality widening, fewer jobs out there as robots take over?

  • BARNEY FRANK:

    There are plenty of things, if we have the will, that we need to do for each other collectively, so we can hire people to do things, provide services, that we will be fine.

    I'm optimistic in the sense that I think it is doable, pessimistic about the near-term political prospects, but largely agnostic, because it doesn't make a difference to me. I'm determined to do what I can to bring about these changes. Whether I'm hopeful or not hopeful, what else I got to do?

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Well, working out, taking it easy. But the irony of Barney Frank's career never leaves him.

  • BARNEY FRANK:

    As I said, I started out with a great disparity between the popularity of homosexuality and the popularity of government. I ended my career with the same disparity, but the order had reversed.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    This is economics correspondent Paul Solman, reporting for the PBS NewsHour from Boston, Massachusetts.

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