'An Evolution'

Democratic Rep. Barney Frank is known for his witty candor and his dedication to liberal causes, particularly gay rights. One of the few openly gay members of Congress, Frank had been in Washington six years before he came to out to his colleagues, and the nation, in 1987. Two years later he found himself embroiled in a sex scandal with a male prostitute named Stephen Gobie that thrust him into the spotlight--and before the House Ethics Committee. But Frank's constituency, Massachusetts's Fourth Congressional District, voted him back into office despite the scandal and the House of Representatives' reprimand. He has handily won every election since. In 1998, Frank fervently defended President Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the impeachment trial that followed. A film chronicling Frank's role during that time, "Let's Get Frank," directed by Bart Everly, played at a number of film festivals over the past year. It was released in New York City last Wednesday. Frank remains one of the Democrats' most respected members and continues to fight for gay rights, including same-sex marriage, an issue that has recently been in the news again. He spoke by phone from Washington with NEWSWEEK's Christina B. Gillham. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: As expected, the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage was defeated last Wednesday. So why was it important?

Barney Frank: The fact is it got many fewer votes than we thought it was going to get and fewer votes than George Bush thought it was going to get. The significance is that the public is not supportive of a constitutional amendment. We've had same-sex marriage in Massachusetts for several months; it's a lot harder to say it's going to be the end of the earth when it's already happened and nobody's noticed even a tremor.

Republicans still apparently plan to use this issue to their advantage, though. The day after the vote one supporter of the amendment told the Boston Globe that even though the legislation didn't pass, it "got people on the record," meaning presumably that opponents of gay marriage will use the incident against supporters. Is this going to be a big issue in November?

No, I don't think it will be a big issue because what we saw was the voters don't think it's a big issue. If you're a politician, what you're interested in is not just opinion but how strongly people feel. Are people going to care more about this than how the war in Iraq has been carried out. Or are they going to care more about this than losing health care or the economy? Frankly, I think [the Republicans] had one race in mind [in pursuing the amendment], and it wasn't John Kerry's, it was Tom Daschle's. [The Republicans] think, oh, in South Dakota this will cause him great trouble. The other thing is this: in 1996 the Republicans brought up a bill that banned same-sex marriage [The Defense of Marriage Act]. It passed overwhelmingly. There were 12 votes against it in the Senate. Eight years later there are 52 votes against.

John Kerry was one of those 12 who voted against the Defense of Marriage Act [DOMA]. Won't this enable Republicans to argue that he is out of touch with "mainstream" America?

They were going to try. But, you know, George Bush has been making a big thing about the fact that John McCain said he couldn't run as Kerry's vice president and that he's really supporting Bush. John McCain voted against the amendment yesterday. It's kind of hard to run John McCain up the flagpole for people to salute and then denounce John Kerry for having a position identical to McCain's here.

Both John Kerry and John Edwards opposed the constitutional amendment, and they support civil unions, but they draw the line at gay marriage. Isn't that sort of an easy way out?

No. Society doesn't get from point A to point Z instantly. In most cases--if you look at the women's movement, civil rights--there's an evolution. Kerry and Edwards have also said that, yes they are personally for civil unions, but they wouldn't prevent a state from [marrying same-sex couples]; that's critical. I disagree with the position, obviously, but I think it's reasonable to say there's a difference between being with us 100 percent, 80 percent and zero percent, and that 80 percent is a lot better than zero percent.

In the documentary "Let's Get Frank" you say that President Clinton's support of gays was of "historic proportions." But wasn't the gay community very upset by Clinton's compromise on "don't ask, don't tell" and his signing of the DOMA?

Yes, but those are outweighed by all the positive things he did. With regard to "don't ask, don't tell"--this criticism of Clinton is really unfair; he tried very hard, we just lost the votes. In fact, I was critical of people in the gay community because they didn't help lobby when we were begging them to. At the same time Clinton abolished the rule that had been in existence for 40 years that said if you were gay or lesbian you couldn't get a security clearance. He appointed openly gay and lesbian people to high positions. He said if you were living in a foreign county and you were being persecuted for being gay or lesbian, you could be a refugee here in America.

Some people think that except for President Bush's position on gay marriage, he has a good pro-gay record. Do you agree?

Oh, no, that's nonsense. People who say that don't know what they're talking about. He did one thing that was supportive of gay people and that was when a man who was a professional foreign service officer got to the point where he either had to be made ambassador or fired. Bush agreed with Colin Powell to name him as an ambassador. He has literally done not one other good thing for gay people.Saying that Bush has been supportive except for gay marriage is a little bit like saying he's a very nice man except for the time he murdered somebody.

This constitutional amendment is a pretty grievous assault.

Do gay issues or the "gay agenda" alienate some who might otherwise vote Democrat?

I think that's true of some, yeah, but I think it's a diminishing number.

And the gun control and abortion issues might do the same thing.

I think the gun issue, frankly, does more, and [also] abortion. But yes, there are people who would support the Democrats [on the economy] who do disagree. Of course, there are also some people who it attracts. There are gay Republicans who voted for George Bush last time who say they're not going to vote for him this time.

How do you feel about Log Cabin Republicans?

I've been very unhappy with them in the past because they've just been apologists. Bob Dole in 1996 returned their check and they still supported him. They supported George Bush in 2000 saying he would be more moderate--well, now we know they were wrong. I think they just couldn't admit how little progress they were making. I do admire now that at least some of them are saying, OK, this is it. This constitutional amendment is such an assault on us we're not taking it anymore.

One thing that struck me about "Let's Get Frank" is that nothing seems to have changed since the Clinton years as far as the level of personal destruction that some are willing to stoop to in order to achieve their political aims. How much has this aspect of politics changed since you first came to Washington 23 years ago?

It's gotten much worse. When Newt Gingrich was in the House he decided that the Republicans would never win as long as people thought the Democrats were decent people with whom the Republicans disagreed. He had to show that the opponents were corrupt and vicious and immoral and unpatriotic. And Gingrich began this whole notion of being personally denunciatory. He was very effective at it and unfortunately he succeeded and then it generated a counterreaction. Only when the people who perpetrate it get punished will it stop.

Are Republicans winning on the values front?

No. The Republicans haven't had a majority in the presidential election since 1988. We would have won the [2000] presidency if it had been a fairly conducted election and the ballot wasn't so screwed up. And then what happened was this terrible mass murder of innocent people on September 11. Any president who was in power was going to get a boost from that. What the Bush people did was cleverly manipulate the reaction to that.

You said in the film that when people write about you, they inevitably write about Gobie. Will that incident always be an albatross around your neck?

It hasn't been so much an albatross as an embarrassment. It's been almost 20 years since the event and it's been [more] an embarrassment.

You appeared to be enjoying your role in the Clinton impeachment trials. In some way, was that your revenge for the Gobie affair?

No. I couldn't live if I couldn't laugh and make jokes. I would just go crazy. I'd get bored.

You also have a sharp tongue. Is civility overrated?

Yes and no. I think this notion that we should all try to be in the center [politically] is overrated. I think it is important to make your differences on the issues, and not personal. There are some bad people, but they are very few, and I think it is very damaging to the democratic system to impute bad personal motives to people just because you disagree with them.

If Kerry wins in November, will you run for his Senate seat?

If the Democrats don't take the House back. If they take the House back, I'd be chairman of a major committee, and I'd stay. But if Kerry wins and the Democrats don't take the House, yeah, I'm going to run for the Senate.