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When Congressman Barney Frank ’61-’62 landed in racially-charged South Carolina for a weekend visit with his college roommate—his first visit to the South—he immediately approached the “colored” water fountain and deliberately bent his head down to take a drink.
“It really showed a lot about his personality,” said Hastings Wyman Jr. ’61, the roommate whom Frank was visiting. “It showed his courage, the same courage that he has brought to his job for all these years. And it showed his impatience for ideas he believed were wrong, a trait that is still clear in his politics.”
One of the most notable fights of Frank’s career—a career which will end when he retires in 2013—has been for gay rights. In 1987 Frank became the first U.S. Congressman to voluntarily announce that he is gay.
In the more than 50 years since that day in the airport, Frank has made a name for himself as not only one of the most effective members of Congress, but also one of the fiercest and most formidable.
A LIBERAL ON CAMPUS
Frank, who was raised in a working-class household in New Jersey, came to Harvard already a fierce political debater with ardent opinions and an expansive knowledge of politics.
“When I first met him, I was struck by his encyclopedic knowledge of American government,” said Charles R. Halpern ’61, who was Frank’s freshman year roommate. “More than just facts, he understood how it worked.”
Halpern and Frank maintained a strong friendship in college and roomed together until Frank took a semester off in the fall of his junior year.
Frank quickly immersed himself in the political scene at the College. In that circle, Frank “was perceived as someone who was very interested and knowledgeable about politics,” according to R. Corbin Houchins ’61, who lived in Frank’s entryway in Matthews in their freshman year.
Frank would often engage in debates with students who held more conservative beliefs, including his roommate, Wyman.
“He and I used to argue all the time,” Wyman said. “But it was not out of anger, it was out of an interest in the topics.”
James W. Segel ’67, who later went on to serve as an adviser to Frank, first met the congressman when Frank was serving as a government tutor in Winthrop House, and Segel decided he was someone worth knowing.
“He would sit with a big cigar and talk about politics,” Segel said. “The good thing was he took people seriously. He didn’t treat them as anything but serious, and he’d argue [with them].... It was what college should be about, actually.”
Frank returned to the South in 1964 to participate in Freedom Summer, a campaign to register black voters in Mississippi, where the black vote had historically been repressed. That summer, at least six people, including two white Jewish volunteers from the North, were killed in Mississippi.
“The first time I met him, he had just returned from Mississippi [Freedom] Summer,” Segel said. “I respected that he had the physical and moral courage to go down there.”
Though Frank leaned far to the left on many political issues, like those of civil rights, he was highly critical of the socialist movement.
“It led me to understand that some of what I wanted to do, politically, was [to] make sure liberals, politically, did not help people that were sympathetic to the socialist union,” Frank said. “[People] who were not insistent that freedom of speech and democracy had to be preserved.”
Although Frank pictured himself entering academia after college, Halpern said that he knew very early in their relationship that Frank would be best suited to the political arena.
“It was obvious that he was going to major in government and that that would be his career,” Halpern said. “He had the style of a politician and his own style of speaking.”
THE FIREBRAND OF THE HOUSE
Despite his early involvement in political activities both on and off campus, Frank did not believe voters would ever select him for public office.
“Being both gay and Jewish, it never seemed possible that I could be elected to anything,” Frank said. “Both were obstacles to an elected career.”
But despite his own doubts, Frank was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1972 and then to Congress in 1980.
Frank’s friends said that the same traits that had made him a leader in the political sphere at Harvard characterized his time in Congress as well.
Halpern noted that “his wit, his politics of empathy and community, and a mind that works faster than most people’s” served to make him a formidable politician.
“He was kind of a go-to guy on the floor of the House,” said Segel, referring to Frank’s ability to decimate an opponent in debate. “He doesn’t have a peer on the floor.”
Frank is often voted one of the funniest and smartest members of Congress by his peers, traits that, when combined with his short temper, can result in a brutal conversational style.
At one town hall meeting, Frank responded fiercely to a woman who angrily questioned him while holding a picture of President Barack Obama with a Hitler mustache.
“You stand there with a picture of the president, defaced to look like Hitler, and compare the effort to increase health care to the Nazis. My answer to you is, as I said before, it is a tribute to the First Amendment that this kind of vile, contemptible nonsense is so freely propagated,” he said. “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.”
But his career has more substance than soundbites.
At one point serving as chair of the House Financial Services Committee, Frank has attributed much of his understanding of economics to his education at Harvard.
“What changed me at Harvard was not the political science courses I took but the economics courses,” Frank said. “I learned that liberalism and the free market were entirely compatible.”
THE POLITICIAN AT HOME
Frank’s lifelong advocacy for gay rights has helped shape a world in which he prepares to wed his longtime partner, James “Jim” Ready, in July.
For a long time, Frank’s political success came at the cost of his personal life.
“He really didn’t have a home life,” Ready said. “He just had a work life.”
Yet despite his hectic schedule, family members said that Frank was always a loving and supportive presence. In recent years, they noted that his stress level has gone down and the transformation has been significant.
“He’s a different person now,” Ready said. “He’s happier, he smiles.”
His selection as one of this year’s Class Day speakers, Ready added, brought him joy.
Ready also affectionately noted his partner’s clumsiness.
“Phones or doors or windows—you know how people just touch things and break them? He’s really good at that,” Ready said.
“I’m good at fixing things,” he added.
Madeleine L. Frank ’13, Frank’s niece, said that she loves her uncle’s sense of humor.
“He’s great with everyone,” Madeleine said. “He has a sense of humor that is appropriate for any setting.”
She also said that she admires “the effort that he puts into really spending time with family.”
His loved ones also noted that they are excited about his impending retirement.
“We all know that we’ll get to spend a lot more time with him and he’ll get to spend a lot more time with [Jim],” Madeleine said. “I know he’s very excited.”
For both Ready and Frank, retirement will be a welcome change, one that will only add to the happiness of their summer wedding.
When asked about Frank’s most striking quality, Ready joked, “I don’t think you can print that in the paper.”
—Staff writer Mercer R. Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Maya S. Jonas-Silver can be reached at email@example.com.
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