Barney Frank: The Comedian's Politician
Retiring in 2013 after 32 years as a member of the House of Representatives, Barney Frank took on his greatest challenge yet: joining Ask Me Another at the Wilbur Theatre in downtown Boston for an evening of trivia.
But before the games began, the former congressman sat down with Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg to reflect on his accomplishments in Congress, explore the role of comedy in politics and chat about the perks of married life. He's pleased to have watched LGBTQ rights issues, an area for which he was a strong advocate, become more widely recognized during his three decades on Capitol Hill.
"As I left office, it struck me that my marriage to Jim [Ready, Frank's longtime partner and husband since 2012] was more socially acceptable than my being a Congressman," he said. "I'd like to think I improved the image of the one, but it's not my fault about the other."
Frank in particular is known for speaking his mind with acerbic one-liners. Having once considered an alternate career in stand-up comedy, Frank explained that as a politician, he had an easier time being funny. "I get up as part of a group of eight or 10 people who have been droning on, and people say, 'OK, keep me awake.' " He added, "Trying to be funny in my line of work, you hit a much lower bar."
With his talent for wordcraft in mind, Eisenberg and house musician Jonathan Coulton served Frank an Ask Me Another challenge called "Who Said It?" Given a series of quotations, Frank had to determine whether the speaker was Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, rapper Kanye West ... or Barney Frank.
About Barney Frank
Barney Frank served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1981 to 2013, representing Massachusetts' 4th District. While in Congress, he served as chairman of the House Financial Services Committee from 2007 to 2011, and was a leading co-sponsor of the Dodd-Frank Act for financial reform. Frank also contributed to the American Housing Rescue and Foreclosure Prevention Act, which was passed in 2008. Frank, a Democrat born in Bayonne, N.J., is widely considered the most prominent gay politician in the United States. He married his longtime partner, Jim Ready, in 2012.
In the video below, Barney Frank shares his contribution to the It Gets Better Project.
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
Welcome back to ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of puzzles, word games and trivia. I'm Ophira Eisenberg, and joining me is former United States representative Barney Frank.
JONATHAN COULTON: Welcome to ASK ME ANOTHER, Mr. Frank. Actually, let me ask you, how would you like me to address you?
BARNEY FRANK: Barney would probably be...
EISENBERG: Barney? You're going to go with Barney? Very good. So, obviously, this is not going to be a political-based interview. This is really lighthearted, plus I'm Canadian, so I know nothing. No, I know a little bit, but we're not going to grill you. I'm going to start by asking something, you know, nice and easy. How's married life?
FRANK: Great. I'm with Jim. He's up there.
FRANK: I say that with apologies to those people, I'm told out there whose marriages Jim and I somehow damaged. I don't fully understand how.
FRANK: I know you didn't. We turn to each other when you asked the question, which was Henry the V8.
FRANK: Because I've always felt, as I read about it, that to some people we're kind of like the character in the V8 commercial. And apparently, I gather this from, for instance, Justice Scalia, that eminent purist that...
FRANK: ...there are, I don't know, millions of happily married men in America and they hear about me and Jim and they say, I could have married a guy.
EISENBERG: You served in Congress for over three decades. And let's go back to the beginning though. Was there an inciting incident, a moment where you thought, I have to put my name on the ballot?
FRANK: Well, actually, I didn't have much time to talk, as you made clear with your question and answer. I was, on a Saturday in May of 1980, planning to run one more time to be state representative and be - like gone to law school and practice law and do some gay rights activity and some other work.
And I got a phone call that said you - no, actually, on the Sunday, that the pope had ordered Father Drinan not to run again. And I then had until 5:00 on the following Tuesday to come up with signatures. So there wasn't a lot of contemplation.
EISENBERG: When you look back on your accomplishments, what stands out to you as something that you are particularly happy about?
FRANK: Well, the financial reform bill was obviously important.
FRANK: You know, we have a great United States senator, Elizabeth Warren, who's a great friend and...
FRANK: She and I, you know, it was all, I think, more of our joint efforts than any other that we had for the first an independent consumer financial bureau that stands up for the consumer vis-à-vis the banks, and that's important.
One thing that was important and negative, I played a major role, because of the committee I was on - you know, this is not some random choice thing - in helping to block the effort to drive Bill Clinton out of office, with the impeachment of Bill Clinton.
FRANK: And when I got to Congress in 1981, the notion of any kind of political support for what we then called gay rights was unthinkable. And, well, I guess I'd put it this way, when I got into politics, I was afraid that my being gay was going to be a hindrance to my being in government.
Because I knew that serving as a congressman, as a senator, you know that was a great respectable thing. Being gay was not. As I left office, it struck me that my marriage to Jim was more socially acceptable than my being a congressman.
FRANK: I'd like to think I helped to improve the image of the one but it's not my fault about the other.
EISENBERG: Obviously, even from that answer, it is so clear you have often been cited as one of the wittiest people in Congress, obviously very funny. I read somewhere a rumor that you had once thought of an alternate career, perhaps in standup comedy. I am a comedian. I would love to know what kind of act you would want to do.
FRANK: Well, look, I have an advantage, seriously, Ophira, over you, which is you get up, maybe you're on a bill with three or four other comics. People have paid money and they say, okay, lady, make me laugh. I get up as part of a group of eight or ten people who have been droning on and people say, okay, keep me awake.
FRANK: Trying to be funny in my line of work, you hit a much lower bar than in yours.
EISENBERG: But I think we share something in general with dealing with both of our crowds, is that we also have to tell all the drunk people to be quiet.
EISENBERG: Do you have to deal with that too?
FRANK: Except on Election Day, when I tell them to vote.
FRANK: Well, look, I got to be very friendly, in 1995, when he got elected to Congress, with Sonny Bono. And we would talk about dealing with an audience, whether you're a politician trying to sell an idea or you're a comic, and there are similarities there.
EISENBERG: Yeah, it's all about seduction.
EISENBERG: It is. It's all about seduction and making them laugh and for a brief second, people go, oh, I feel good. All right, whatever you want to do, I'll do. Yeah. I feel like you must have had a pretty competitive family. Your sister, senior advisor for Clinton, I mean obviously you're both very articulate and...
FRANK: Well, yeah, and my younger sister, Doris Breay, she and her late husband were my campaign treasurers for years. I'm very proud, 32 years, 16 elections. You know, many millions of dollars went through and never any problems. She was the one who kept me honest.
My younger brother was a speechwriter in the Clinton administration. But it's always been mutually supportive. You know, we've been very lucky that we've had - whenever one of us is doing something, the others have always been...
EISENBERG: Held each other up. Did you guys play board games at home or anything? Scrabble?
FRANK: No. It was a lot of newspaper reading.
EISENBERG: No time. No time.
FRANK: Yeah, and political talk. But the most interesting member of my family, I have to tell you, is my mother, who would never have been involved in politics, graduated from high school in 1929, the beginning of the depression. Her parents died. She just became first a legal secretary and then, you know, a 50s and 60s housewife, 40s and 50s, raising four kids.
In 1982, when I was running for reelection in a tough race - well, I was for gay rights and I was against censorship on sex grounds, and I was for legalizing marijuana. There were suggestions that I was really not in tune with family values. And so the smart people running my campaign said, well, we've got to show that you are.
So we got this nice handsome older woman to sit in an easy chair and talk about how good I would be for all the people. And at the end she says, with a somewhat embarrassed smile, and if you want to know why I'm sure that Barney will be so good for us older people, he's my son. It was my mother who then launched a great political.
FRANK: At the age of 70, she then went on for the next 15 years to be a major elderly political leader. So that was a further example of the collaboration.
EISENBERG: That's amazing. I want your family.
EISENBERG: All right, Barney, would you like to take an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?
FRANK: I said I would.
EISENBERG: So then yes.
EISENBERG: That's good enough for me. Barney Frank, everybody.
EISENBERG: Congressman Frank, Barney, throughout your career, you've been known as one of the most articulate and wittiest people in Washington. We thought we'd take you down memory lane and review some of your notable quotes.
EISENBERG: But to make it a game, we had to do a little something extra. So what we're going to do is read some quotes from two other newsmakers, Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann.
EISENBERG: And rap legend Kanye West.
EISENBERG: So it's your job to tell us who said each quote. Is it you, Michele Bachmann or Kanye West?
EISENBERG: And Jonathan Coulton here will help me with this game. And if you get enough right, we have a listener by the name of Sabrina Maser in Atlanta, Georgia, and she will win a Rubik's Cube. Stakes are high. Are you ready?
FRANK: I'm ready.
EISENBERG: The problem with the war in Iraq is not so much the intelligence as the stupidity.
FRANK: That's I.
EISENBERG: That's you. That's right.
COULTON: Okay, this is quote from Twitter. Somebody tweeted this. Was it you, Michele Bachmann or Kanye West? Fur pillows are actually hard to sleep on.
FRANK: Fur pillows? Kanye West.
COULTON: Kanye West is correct.
EISENBERG: What tipped you off on that one?
FRANK: Well, I don't tweet, so I got it down to two.
EISENBERG: Okay, that's good. That's good.
FRANK: Then I just went with my instinct.
EISENBERG: In 2009, who greeted Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele by saying, Michael Steele, you be da man, you be da man?
FRANK: I guess Michele.
EISENBERG: You guess right.
COULTON: In 2009, who said, ma'am, trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to argue with a dining room table. I have no interest in doing it.
FRANK: That would I.
COULTON: Yes, sir that was you.
EISENBERG: Would you like to provide context for that particular quote?
FRANK: Yes. She was a follower of Lyndon LaRouche, who was holding a poster of President Obama with a Hitler moustache and asked me why I was continuing to support the Hitler-like extermination policies of President Obama. I'm glad you asked me for the context, because you differentiate yourself as a news medium from Fox News, which always...
FRANK: ...always runs the answer without the question.
EISENBERG: Well I think you were very kind with the dining room table reference.
FRANK: You would understand as a comic. First of all, there is the rule of three.
FRANK: And the three syllables is better than debating a chair. I mean that was...
EISENBERG: Right. That's right, dining room table, already a winner. Punch line.
FRANK: On the other hand, who would have thought that having said that, Clint Eastwood would have taken me seriously three years later?
FRANK: To prove that I was right, I think the chair won.
COULTON: The Bible had, you know, 20, 30, 40, 50 characters in it. You don't think I would be one of the characters of today's modern Bible?
FRANK: Kanye West.
EISENBERG: That was one of his more modest days, by the way.
FRANK: He had a very condensed Bible I gather.
COULTON: Just about 50 characters.
EISENBERG: Finally, who said this, I'm used to being in the minority. Hey, I'm a left-handed gay Jew. I've never felt automatically a member of any majority.
FRANK: Well, if we weren't on radio, I'd just raise my left hand to show to be the one...
EISENBERG: Clearly, these were too easy and you won and you got them all correct. That means you are the winner.
FRANK: Thank you.
EISENBERG: Sabrina Maser will get her ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube. Thank you so much. Another huge round of applause for our VIP Barney Frank.
EISENBERG: Jonathan, what else do you have in store for us?
COULTON: I'm going to play a song for you. This is by the Pixies.
(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)
COULTON: Outside there's a boxcar waiting. Outside the family stew, out by the fire breathing. Outside we wait 'til face turns blue. I know the nervous walking. I know the dirty beard hangs. Out by the boxcar waiting, take me away to nowhere plains. There is a wait so long. You never wait so long. Here comes your man. Here comes your man. Here comes your man. Here comes your man.
EISENBERG: Jonathan Coulton.
COULTON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.