Barney Frank on Why Today's Right-Wingers Are the Worst of All Time

The gay rights icon and ex-Massachusetts congressman visits Portland for some 'Frank' talk.

By Zach Dundas March 24, 2015

Image from the jacket cover of Frank by Barney Frank (Farrar Straus Giroux)

Retired Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass) is on a campaign trail of a different sort these days, talking up his new memoir/manifesto, Frank. We spoke to the ever-feisty first closet-free gay congressman before his March 28 appearance at Powell's City of Books.

What do people want the Frank wisdom about these days? People are asking a lot about coming out and gay issues, and they want to talk about how unpopular government is. And one of my central themes in the book is that even as prejudice against gay and lesbian people has diminished so dramatically, prejudice against any idea or move to make society as a whole better has increased exponentially. It’s gotten to the point where we’re really hurting ourselves as a nation.

But what can be done about that? Well, I have a couple of ideas. First, we need to spend government money more wisely. We spend far too much money on the military. If we hadn’t engaged in that extremely foolish war in Iraq, our national debt would be trillions of dollars less than it is now. And we waste money up and down the scale, from federal to local levels, locking people up for smoking marijuana or doing cocaine. I don’t think it’s a good idea to do those things, but treating them as a criminal offense is a terrible idea. I think that if we stopped wasting government money and started spending it in ways that improve the common good, the attitude toward government in general would improve.

Those do sound like great ideas, at least to me, but what chance is there in the current climate? The House Republican budget boosts defense spending and slashes food stamps. There’s actually better news than people think, because there’s an internal fight going on within the Republican Party over military spending. Not everyone in that party wants to spend more and more on the military. Things can turn around more completely than you’d think.

How does Congress today compare to the institution you were elected to in 1980? It bears no comparison to Congress then or, in fact, to any period of American history that I’m aware of. Never before have you had one party—in this case the Republican Party—so thoroughly controlled by a faction that is so zealously anti-government. They don’t just want to cut government here and there or reorganize or reform government. They’re just against it. This as extreme and as ideological as Congress has ever been. The only solution is for voters to weigh in on that. If that tendency turns out to be popular and electable, then I guess it is what it is. But I don’t think, over the long haul, the American people will buy into it.

Our new governor, Kate Brown, is apparently the first out bisexual governor in any state. As a gay rights pioneer, any advice for her? I don’t think anyone who has done that well in state politics needs advice from someone who’s not from the state. My advice to her is to keep doing what she’s doing: be herself, don’t be ashamed of it, and keep doing great work.

Your book in a nutshell, Congressman? We should be extremely proud of our progress on LGBT rights in this country. But in a larger sense we are doing ourselves a great disservice by not working together for the common good.

Barney Frank will read from his memoir Frank, published by Farrar Straus Giroux, at Powell's City of Books on Saturday, March 28 at 4pm. 

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