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Barney Frank

The Story of America's Only Left-Handed, Gay, Jewish Congressman

Stuart Weisberg

Publication Year: 2009

In a survey conducted by Washingtonian magazine, Barney Frank was rated the smartest, funniest, and most eloquent member of Congress. A mainstay in the House of Representatives since 1981, he has come to be known for his talent as a legislator, his zeal for verbal combat, his imposing intellect, and a quick wit that both disarms and entertains other lawmakers. Most recently, as chair of the Financial Services Committee, he was instrumental in crafting a compromise bill to stem the tide of home mortgage foreclosures, as well as the subsequent $700 billion “rescue plan.” Based on interviews with over 150 people, including more than thirty hours with Frank himself, this biography reconstructs for the first time his life and career, from his working-class childhood in Bayonne, New Jersey, to his years at Harvard and in Boston politics, through his rise to national prominence. Stuart Weisberg captures Frank in all his quirkiness, irreverence, and complexity. He also examines his less appealing side—his gruff exterior, his legendary impatience, his aversion to wasting time. Weisberg reveals the pressure Frank has felt as the most prominent openly gay politician in the United States, one whose career was nearly derailed by a highly publicized sex scandal involving a male prostitute. Above all, this book shows Frank to be a superb legislator—a pragmatic politician who has dedicated his career to pursuing an unabashedly liberal agenda and whose depth of intellect and sense of humor have made him one of the most influential and colorful figures in Washington.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Title Page

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Table of Contents

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

This is a biography of perhaps the most fascinating and certainly the most entertaining political figure in Washington. It is a portrait of the complex life and career of Barney Frank, an outspoken liberal, Jewish, fifteen-term Democratic congressman from Massachusetts by way of Bayonne, New Jersey, a colorful, pragmatic, and effective legislator whose political career has been defined by depth of intellect and sharpness of wit, and who happens to be gay. As the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee...

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pp. 1-10

In most congressional offices, television sets are tuned to C-SPAN and play continuously when the House is in session so that members and staff can keep abreast of the proceedings on the floor. The volume on the television set is either muted or turned down so low it is barely audible. When Barney Frank’s face appears on the television screen, however, people in offices across the Capitol reach for the remote to turn up the volume and hear what he is...

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Chapter 1. A n Outspoken Voice at the White House Table

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pp. 11-21

It was the beginning of an extraordinary period of economic turbulence as Americans witnessed a series of financial failures that had seemed unimaginable. On Sunday, September 7, 2008, Treasury secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., exercising the stand-by authority he had been given by Congress only six weeks earlier, seized control of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage finance giants who together owned or guaranteed half of the nation’s mortgage debt...

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Chapter 2. Bayonne Born and Bred

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pp. 22-40

Barney Frank’s journey to Washington began about 225 miles to the north in Bayonne, New Jersey, a petrochemical industrial working-class city just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. He was born March 31, 1940 BT (that’s eleven years Before the Turnpike opened). Named Barnett after his paternal grandfather, he was called Barney by everyone. In the mid-1960s, he went to court and changed his name legally from Barnett to Barney...

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Chapter 3. A Decade at Harvard with Only a B.A. to Show for It

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pp. 41-66

In the fall of 1957, an idealistic and anxious seventeen-year-old kid who had never strayed far from his Bayonne roots followed his sister Ann to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to attend Harvard. About eleven hundred freshmen walked with him through the historic gate and entered the hallowed grounds of Harvard Yard for the first time. Barney arrived with several books from home so that he would have something to read...

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Chapter 4. Moving Seamlessly from Political Theory at Harvard to Hardball Politics at City Hall

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pp. 67-84

In the crowded ten-candidate field in the September 26, 1967, preliminary election for mayor of Boston, Louise Day Hicks finished first with just over 28 percent of the vote. Hicks, a South Boston resident and member of the Boston School Committee for six years, was a strong opponent of school busing for integration whose campaign slogan was “You know where I stand.” Kevin Hagan White, the Massachusetts secretary of state since 1961, finished a distant second with a little over 20 percent, trailing Hicks by about 13,500 votes. State representative John W. Sears, a reform-minded Republican...

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Chapter 5. Coming to Washington

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pp. 85-96

Michael J. Harrington, a thirty-three-year-old Irish Catholic who had worked on a beer truck to pay for his undergraduate and law school education at Harvard, had been elected to Congress from Massachusetts’s Sixth District in a special election in September 1969, following the death of Republican William Bates. The Sixth District, which included Lynn, Haverhill, Salem, and the port city of Gloucester, was the home of the Saltonstalls, the Lodges, and other prominent, old-line Massachusetts families...

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Chapter 6. Running for the Legislature from Ward 5, Where Everybody Knows Your Name

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pp. 97-107

Several weeks later, in April 1972, Steve Cohen, whom Barney had hired several years earlier to work at City Hall, telephoned to inform Barney that he and his wife, Shelley, had gotten wind that Mo Frye was planning to retire as state representative from Ward 5. The Cohens and other friends urged Barney to run. Barney visited Frye at his office on Charles Street...

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Chapter 7. The Gentleman from the Back Bay

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pp. 108-150

In 1973, on the first Wednesday in January, the traditional opening day of the Massachusetts General Court, the formal name of the Bay State’s legislature, the 240 newly elected members assembled in the ornate chamber to begin the 168th annual session. The 1972 elections brought a new wave of Democrats to the legislature, a group of liberals who opposed the Vietnam War...

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Chapter 8. M r. Frank Goes to Washington with Help from Pope John Paul II and John Kerry

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pp. 151-200

In 1980, the year he turned forty, Barney felt “bummed out.” He was going through a mid-life crisis. He described himself to a colleague in the state legislature as “clinically depressed.” He was frustrated with his job in the legislature and frustrated with his personal life, and he began to take inventory. When he first ran for the state legislature, in 1972...

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Chapter 9. Rookie of the Year

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pp. 201-214

Barney Frank’s swearing-in ceremony and party in January 1981 was one of the few celebrations for liberals that year. Morris Udall called Barney’s election “one of the best things to happen to the House of Representatives in years.” Robert Drinan, who had joined the faculty at Georgetown University Law Center, attended the swearing-in of his successor...

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Chapter 10. Running against Heckler-Reaganomics

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pp. 215-258

Barney loved life in Congress, working on legislation to advance the values he believed in, making political deals, lobbying members to support his bills and amendments, and schmoozing with colleagues in the cloakroom near the House chamber between votes. He also enjoyed relaxing in the Speaker’s lobby off the House floor, puffing a cigar and chatting...

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Chapter 11. Barney, We Hardly Recognize Ye

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pp. 259-272

“I gain weight when I am nervous, which I usually am during campaigns,” Barney explained. “I was particularly nervous [during the race against Heckler] because I was afraid I couldn’t win.” Barney coped with the tension of the 1982 campaign by eating. “When you’re under stress...

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Chapter 12. Subcommittee Chairman Frank

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pp. 273-286

In January 1983, Barney, beginning his second term in Congress, ascended, on the basis of seniority, to the chairmanship of the Government Operations Subcommittee on Manpower and Housing. It is rare for a sophomore member to have enough seniority to land a subcommittee chairmanship, even with the proliferation of House subcommittees in the early 1980s. Barney explained how he came to make the transition...

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Chapter 13. A Frank That Relishes the Perfect Job

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pp. 287-319

On Thursday morning, January 12, 1984, Senator Paul Tsongas stunned the Massachusetts and Washington political establishment by announcing that he was retiring from the Senate after just one term, for medical reasons. There are five major sports in Massachusetts—Red Sox baseball, Celtics basketball, Patriots football, Bruins hockey, and running for political office, though not necessarily in that order. In many ways, politics in Massachusetts, like rooting for the Red Sox, transcends sports...

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Chapter 14. Accompanying Yelena Bonner Back to the USSR 

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pp. 320-326

On September 5, 1985, Barney led a group of half a dozen members of Congress to the Soviet Embassy in Washington to deliver a letter to Soviet officials concerning the plight of Andrei Sakharov and his wife, Yelena Bonner. Sakharov, a distinguished physicist who had helped develop the Soviet hydrogen bomb, a 1975 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and an outspoken dissident and victim of Soviet persecution, had worked courageously...

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Chapter 15. Coming Out

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pp. 327-353

At a Holocaust Memorial dedication in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in May 1998, Barney told the religiously and ethnically diverse audience that as a twenty-year-old he had had an interest in public service but because of the pervasiveness of anti-Semitism in the United States at the time, it seemed to him unlikely that he would ever have the opportunity that he did have...

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Chapter 16. I \n Surviving a Washington Sex Scandal, the Importance of Being Frank

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pp. 354-396

In January 1987, Barney Frank had left the Employment and Housing subcommittee to chair the Judiciary Subcommittee on Administrative Law. Two years later, he rejoined the housing subcommittee. Since he was not chairing the hearings, he was more relaxed and more approachable. But because he was no longer the chairman, he was more partisan, combative, and unrestrained in his questioning of witnesses...

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Chapter 17. A Frank Compromise on Gays in the Military

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pp. 397-406

During the administration of President Ronald Reagan, the longstanding ban on homosexuals serving in the military began to be aggressively enforced as thousands of gay men and lesbians were discharged from the armed forces. On July 31, 1991, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney appeared at a House Budget Committee hearing to discuss defense policy...

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Chapter 18. The Most Hated Man in Gingrichdom

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pp. 407-419

Soon after his first election to Congress in 1980, Barney found himself frequently paired with Republican Newt Gingrich of Georgia on political talk shows and issue debates on news programs. Although the two men were polar opposites ideologically, there were several similarities. They were about the same age (Gingrich was born in 1943, Barney in 1940); they were elected to Congress about the same time (Gingrich in 1978, Barney in 1980)...

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Chapter 19. Defending the President against Impeachment

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pp. 420-443

In late July 1994, Barney became involved in the investigation of Whitewater as a member of the Banking Committee and began defending President Bill Clinton against accusations relating to the failed Arkansas real estate venture. “Robert Fiske, Kenneth Starr, and Jay Stephens have investigated all of this and have come up with no misdeeds against the Clintons. . . . With all the investigating . . . no one has yet brought...

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Chapter 20. The Gay Washington Monument

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pp. 444-462

Barney Frank’s career as a legislator has paralleled the history of the gay rights movement. Barney was elected to the Massachusetts state legislature in 1973, three years after a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, touched off what became known as the Stonewall riots, an episode that brought the gay community out of the closet and into the streets and marked the beginning of the gay rights movement...

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Chapter 21. Talking Frankly and Not Beating around the Bush

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pp. 463-484

Barney took the 2000 presidential election results in stride. Speaking at an ADA counter-inaugural ball and fund-raiser, he told the gathering, “John Ashcroft went to the world capital of bigotry, Bob Jones University, and accepted an honorary degree. They gave him a hood and it was white and it had eye holes in it.” He also said that he hoped that Ralph Nader, who played the role of spoiler in the election, and Gale Norton, who favored...

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Chapter 22. A Committee Chairman at Last

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pp. 485-502

After twelve years of being in the minority, the Democrats finally regained control of the House following the 2006 elections, and Barney Frank became a House committee chairman at last. It had been a long time coming. According to Robert Kaiser, the associate editor of the Washington Post and a friend from NSA days, every two years since as early as 1996, with unwavering optimism...


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pp. 503-514

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781613761748
E-ISBN-10: 1613761740
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558497214
Print-ISBN-10: 1558497218

Page Count: 584
Illustrations: 16 illus.
Publication Year: 2009

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Subject Headings

  • Legislators -- United States.
  • United States. Congress. House -- Biography.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1945-1989.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1989-.
  • Gay legislators.
  • Frank, Barney, 1940-.
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