Hey Bernie! Listen to Barney

If you’re already in awe of the fact that rogue Senator Bernie Sanders has been drawing as many as 10,000 people to hear his speeches about running for president, here’s an episode from Barney Frank’s memoir, Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage (Farrar), that may be of interest.

Barney Frank

Barney Frank

Early in the 2000 presidential campaign, Frank, the irreverent and tough-minded Democratic congressional representative from Massachusetts, sent a memo to Al Gore’s advisers about Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate.

Although observers were saying the vote between Gore and George Bush would be close, few worried about Nader’s effect on the campaign — except Barney Frank, bless his iconoclastic heart. He believed that Nader could pull enough votes away from Gore to give Bush the win.

Ralph Nader

Ralph Nader

So Frank came up with this great idea. He sent a memo to Gore’s advisors proposing that a group of high-level Democrats meet with Nader to convince him to drop out of the race before he could become a real threat to Gore.

Of course, Nader considered Democrats loathsome and ineffective and surely would have refused any such meeting. So, Frank writes, “I suggested that Ron Dellums, Pat Schroeder and I — an African American, a woman and a gay man — become core members” of a delegation Nader could not turn away.

It was a prescient move on Frank’s part, and it kind of wrenches the gut to read about it in his book, since we know that Gore could have won if Nader had dropped out of the running and encouraged his supporters to vote Democratic.

But no. “The (Gore) campaign’s first reaction,” Frank recalls, “was not to have one. My memo was ignored,” and as a result, nobody held Nader responsible for the consequences of his continued candidacy, and Bush creaked into office.

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders

And what a cautionary tale it is! Every time Socialist-turned-Democrat Bernie Sanders hits these high numbers, a little voice from 2000 is saying, Well, hooray this early in the campaign for a guy like Sanders whom many people love. But let’s learn from the RALPH NADER FIASCO OF 2000 (not Barney Frank’s words) that there IS a difference between Republicans and Democrats so we can be sure to make the pragmatically correct move and help Sanders step out when the time comes.

Warning: Policy Wonk Gobbledygook

Glimpses behind the scenes like the Nader memo are everywhere in Barney Frank’s memoir and should make this book more fun to read than it is. We expect it to be entertaining because in person, Barney Frank is a genuinely witty political presence. (About Ronald Reagan falling asleep during meetings, Frank once announced, “It’s not the dozing off of Ronald Reagan that causes us problems. It’s what he does on those moments when he’s awake.”)

Barney Frank chaired the House Financial Services Committee

Barney Frank chaired the House Financial Services Committee

Frank’s publisher describes him as a “disheveled, intellectually combative gay Jew,” so he’s been accustomed, he writes, to “being in the minority.” And yet even with that garbled New Jersey accent, after 32 years in the House of Representatives (he retired in 2013), Frank’s ability to surprise and delight makes him oddly charismatic whenever he speaks into a microphone.

The problem is that whenever Barney Frank puts the same material down in book form, his message is so burdened with policy-wonk gobbledygook that the eye glazes over midway through every sentence.

Here, for example, is what he says about the long-term problems of having an idealist like Ralph Nader around in 2000:

“My fervor in this effort was stocked by more than my fears of a Bush victory. Throughout my career, I’d been troubled by my allies’ tendency to choose emotional gratification over tangible, albeit insufficient, progress. The fact that Nader appeared eager to help the right regain the presidency because he found the Democrats imperfect perfectly illustrated what was wrong with this approach.”

Wait. You what? They who?

What he means is that the Naders of the world use “extreme negativism” as a kind of “game theory” that says, “never let the other side think you’re satisfied.” When you play this game, you “maximize your gains in fact by minimizing them in characterization, until and unless you are 100 percent successful.”

Okay, the gobbledygook turned bippity-bappity there but his point is that if you complain about your opponents giving you anything, they’ll “soon realize they can obtain the same response by giving nothing at all,” and that would be the end of negotiations.

I tried listening to Frank read his story for the audiobook version from Macmillan Audio, and the experience is much better. His jowly marbles-in-the-mouth way of speaking keeps the ear intrigued in parts where the eye would stumble.

Barney Frank and Tip O'Neill in 1982

Barney Frank and Tip O’Neill in 1982

For one thing, you can’t help but laugh when Frank tries to do his impression of the Irish accent that made Tip O’Neill famous as the Speaker of the House when the two became friends during Frank’s early years in Congress.

One very touching scene occurs when Barney was forced to come out as a gay man in the early ’80s before the release of a book that would have exposed his homosexuality. In those days being “outed” could ruin a politician’s career, so Frank sought help from the influential O’Neill, who didn’t know much about gay life or gay language but promised to help. Approaching sympathetic members of congress to support Barney when he came out of the closet, O’Neill, also famous for his malapropisms, told his aides, “We might have an issue to deal with. I think Barney Frank is going to come out of the room.” (Frank’s reading: “I tink BAH-ney is gonna come outta da rum.” )

Surprise in San Francisco

There are plenty of surprises in the book, especially for San Franciscans who remember the exhilaration that spread across the city and the national LGTB community when Mayor Gavin Newsom decided to legalize gay weddings in 2004. Despite the many ways Barney Frank strengthened the gay rights movement throughout his career, he reacted like a negative fuddy-duddy when Newsom proposed the idea in a phone call to Frank early on.

Gavin Newsom and newlyweds

Gavin Newsom and newlyweds

Opening City Hall to same-sex marriage would be a “well-intentioned mistake,” said Frank, and even today he believes it was a “drastic move” by Newsom that “regrettably bolstered the GOP argument than an antimarriage amendment was needed.”

In fact, Frank says, the backlash that occurred after photos went viral of gay couples celebrating outside San Francisco’s City Hall crippled the whole gay-marriage movement so much that Newsom’s actions “made no substantive progress at all.”

Man of the People

Well, you don’t have to agree with him to admire Barney Frank’s reputation as a man of the people, whether “the people” liked the way he represented them or not. Take his dislike of folksinger Pete Seeger’s hit, Little Boxes, written by Malvina Reynolds in 1962. “The song was a mockery of the postwar housing that had been built for working-class and lower-middle-class Americans,” Frank says. Even at the time, “I recognized (that disliking it created a) gulf that divided me from many others on the left.”

And he hated the lyrics, Little boxes on the hillside / And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky / And they all look just the same. “At one concert I attended at Harvard, most of the audience — filling Harvard’s largest venue — appeared to find this a hilariously accurate critique. They were oblivious of the fact that these ‘little boxes’ had been built on a large scale to be affordable by families who would not otherwise have been able to be homeowners.

Pete Seeger sings 'Little Boxes'

Pete Seeger sings ‘Little Boxes’

“The aesthetic disdain Seeger and many of my fellow students felt for these units was not, I knew, shared by the occupants, most of whom were happy — and proud — to own them…But Seeger, and many of his listeners, preferred to think that the capitalist profit-making system was depriving people with limited incomes of the chance to live in large, individually designed houses — which they of course could not afford.

“When I insisted that the inhabitants of this ‘ticky-tacky’ were very satisfied with their ‘little boxes,’ I was often told that they did not have the knowledge — or the sensibility — to know they were being mistreated.”

Goodbye, Barney

Goodbye, Barney

Well, good for you, Barney Frank, fighter for the little guy you have been from the start, and always on your terms. I just wish you had written this book a little more — oh, how to say it — down to Earth, where you always leveled with us before.