Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage

  • Author: Barney Frank

  • Published: March, 2015





Frank, by former Massachusetts Congressmen Barney Frank, follows the well worn path of most political auto-biographies I’ve read. First, the author explicitly details all of the times they were right.  They then highlight your victories and gloss over their failures. They move quickly on to breeze through complicated policies, never forget to say “I told you so,” and of course, name-check as many famous people as possible. The culmination of this approach leaves for a disatisfying memoir, miles away from the highs reached by Obama in “Dreams from My Father”. But luckily for the reader, while Barney Frank may not be much of a writer, he was a hell of congressman, and as a “man in the arena” from 1980-2013, a sharp-tongued liberal gay jew at that, his battles and stories often make up for what is at times stuffy and unimaginative prose. 

As an overweight Jewish kid who learned he was attracted to public policy and other boys at the tender age of 14, Barney accepted early on that his life would be anything but conventional. Fresh out of college, and with a fierce determination to combat racial injustice, he cut his teeth in politics as chief assistant to Boston Mayor Kevin White. He would go on to become a congressional aide, part time teacher, Massachusetts State representative, and earn his law degree from Harvard. He pursued his law degree so that in policy discussions, when someone would inevitably ask him “Are you a lawyer?” he could respond “Yes” and continue to press his case. 

Frank ran for and won a seat to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1980, beginning what would become a storied career fighting on behalf of liberal causes. His victories are many; Winning redress and reparations for victims of Japanese American internment during WWII, the 1990 Immigration Act which ended the practice of denying immigrants entry based upon sexual orientation, staunchly defending Bill Clinton during his impeachment, playing an instrumental role in the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and of course, winning passage of Dodd-Frank, the comprehensive financial reform laws put into law in the wake of the 2008 crisis, among many others.

Unfortunately, despite these fascinating legislative battles and his ever present penchant for hilarious one-liners and take-downs of hypocrisy, Frank holds his readers at arms length, never allowing them to get to know the man underneath the bluster and bravado. He frequently cites passages from his colleagues memoirs and books to prove his case, and refrains from speaking candidly about his peers, family, voters and personal trials. The most glaring omission is his complete refusal to go in-depth into his pay-for-sex scandal involving male prostitute Steve Gobie. The demurral reminds me of Ted Kennedy’s memoir True Compass, where he also chose to merely skim over the events and fallout of that fateful night at Chappaquiddick. Given each man’s relentless drive and ambition, it’s not surprising that both share a mindset of “don’t dwell on the past." But the best relationships between authors and readers are intimate ones. Too often politicians fail to remove their lapel pins before sitting down at the writers desk, and their prose suffers for it. We do learn that Barney hated campaigning, but what normal person wouldn’t?

Frank’s best passages often dote on his late-in-life husband Jim Ready, and detail the relief he felt when he publicly came out of the closet. Both portions give a glimpse into the giant heart buried inside the man. Frank also provides interesting glimpses into his political approach when he discusses game theory, and why he thinks middle class white men have largely absconded from the democratic party. (in a nutshell, economic disenfranchisement).

As Frank blazes through his life’s work of battles lost and won, you get an idea of the relentless drive he possessed. This was a man who obviously wanted to get things done, and we need more in public life like him. Frank refreshingly calls out his fellow liberals for too often abandoning the political process in favor of protests and publicity events. Frank makes it clear, despite all of the money in politics, nothing trumps the power of the ballot box. As he eloquently puts it, “Money is very helpful in a political vacuum, but when members are forced to choose between their voters and their contributors, votes kick money’s ass.

Ever the politician, Franks ends his book with a call for scaling down the defense budget, and ending the prohibition on drugs for personal use. This, he contends, would free up the billions of dollars needed to repair our middle class, fund more social programs and begin to tackle the deficit. It’s a compelling case, made by a master politician, and made me wonder if a dissertation on his solutions for what ails America might’ve made for better reading. After all, crafting winning policy is what Barney does best.