Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage

 

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To Jim, who made “better late than never” my all-time favorite cliché

 

1

FROM BAYONNE TO BOSTON

In 1954, I was a fairly normal fourteen-year-old, enjoying sports, unhealthy food, and loud music. But even then I realized that there were two ways in which I was different from the other guys: I was attracted to the idea of serving in government and I was attracted to the other guys.

I also realized that these two attractions would not mix well. At the time, public officials were highly regarded. The president, Dwight Eisenhower, was one of America’s most admired and respected military heroes. I was a homosexual, an involuntary member of one of America’s most despised groups. I knew that achieving success in any area where popularity was required would be impossible, given the unpopularity of my sexual orientation.

If this were fiction, a spoiler alert would now be appropriate, because the story ends with a dramatic turnabout. When I retired from Congress in January 2013, the divergent reputations of elected officials and homosexuality persisted, but with one major difference: The order was reversed. Legal protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people were more popular than elected officials as a class. Congress was held in particularly low esteem. While I did not do any polling on the subject myself, I was told that my marriage to my husband, Jim Ready, scored better than my service in the House.

When I first entered public life in 1968, I had to figure out how to keep the public’s negative feelings about my sexual orientation from interfering with my political effectiveness. By the time I’d overcome that obstacle, a larger one appeared: the growing unpopularity of government itself, and the consequent diminution of its capacity to assist the unfortunate. My influence over the political system grew even as the system’s influence diminished. This was good for my self-esteem but bad for my public policy agenda.

This book is a personal history of two seismic shifts in American life: the sharp drop in prejudice against LGBT people and the equally sharp increase in antigovernment opinion. During my six decades in the public realm, Americans have become more accepting of once-despised minorities but also more resistant to coming together through government to improve the quality of our lives. How did this happen and what can be done to further the victories and reverse the defeats?

The many years I’ve spent advocating unpopular causes have taught me that it’s important to begin with your best case, not in the hope of making instant converts but to persuade your audience that there is room for debate about a subject. Fortunately, when it comes to attitudes toward government, that case is even better than a no-brainer—it is a pro-brainer: the story of the millions of children who have been protected from brain damage by federal rules that were adopted over the vehement objections and dire predictions of affected industries.

Before 1970, lead was a major component of paint and gasoline. Its corrosive effects, which are uncontested today, had their worst impact on the very young, impairing in particular the development of the brain cells known as neuroglia. All young people were exposed to lead, and poorer children were the most exposed, since the paint in their homes was more likely to contain lead and to chip, and because they often lived in crowded urban areas adjacent to heavy traffic flows.

Over the objections of private industry, many public health advocates, especially those focused on children, pressed for action. They were successful. The process began in 1970 with the Clean Air Act, which was followed by the Lead-Based Poisoning Prevention Act a year later. A series of amendments and implementing regulations steadily increased the restrictions, culminating in 1978 with a ban on lead in paint, and a statute enacted in 1990 and effective in 1995 prohibiting lead in gasoline.

Critics of government regulation should heed all of this carefully. As the prohibitions came into effect, the incidence of death and illness from lead ingestion dropped drastically. Between 1975 and 1980 and 2007 and 2008, lead levels in children’s blood dropped 90 percent. In 1990, the FDA estimated there were already seventy thousand fewer children with IQs below seventy because of the rules.

The paint and gasoline industries denied that lead was harmful in the amounts present in their products and predicted severe economic harm if they had to remove it. They were never able to explain why banning lead in fact coincided not just with fewer brain-damaged children but also with their own continued prosperity. Lead-damaged brains still exist, sadly, and there is more to be done to reduce the number. But the undeniable fact is that millions of Americans have healthy brains today in large part because, contrary to the old joke, some people from the government did come to help them.

*

In 1954, the government was still popular, but homosexuals were held in universal contempt. This had been made explicit the previous year when President Eisenhower issued an executive order decreeing that people like me could never receive security clearances. We were too inherently untrustworthy to help protect our country from its enemies.

I do not remember being specifically aware of the order at the time, but as an avid newspaper reader growing up in Bayonne, New Jersey, I must have seen the
New York Times
headline that referred to us as “perverts,” and I was fully aware of what awaited me if my true nature was known. (I say “true nature” for the edification of that dwindling set of bigots who justify mistreating us because we “chose an alternative lifestyle.” Being hated is rarely an experience sought by teenagers.)

At fourteen, I decided I would keep my sexual identity a secret forever, although I didn’t give much thought to how that was going to work. Terrified by the obloquy that would come with being found out, I regarded total concealment as my only option. The recognition that there could be no role for a “queer” in public life had an additional and deep emotional impact: It is very probably the reason that I later approached every tough election campaign with the assumption I would lose.

A televised Senate hearing first inspired my fascination with government. My father was what we now call an “early adopter.” When I was born in 1940, he celebrated by buying a television set—before almost everybody else and before there was much to watch. I have early memories of Western movies, the second Billy Conn–Joe Louis fight,
Howdy Doody
, and Senator Estes Kefauver’s investigation into organized crime. I enjoyed all the programs, but I never wanted to be a cowboy, a boxer, or a puppeteer. I preferred the idea of sitting behind an impressive dais grilling colorful Mafiosi. At ten, I was more intrigued than instructed, but when another set of hearings came on the TV four years later, I was hooked by both the spectacle and the subject matter. This was the Army-McCarthy brawl.

In 1954, Senator Joseph McCarthy turned his demagogic attention to the U.S. Army. The army had just finished fighting two Communist regimes in Korea—but this did not stop McCarthy from deeming it soft on communism. The army hired the Boston lawyer Joseph Welch as its lead counsel in the Senate hearings that were held on McCarthy’s accusations.

Welch became a hero to Americans in general, and liberals in particular, for the deftness of his anti-McCarthy thrusts. One of the deftest was his sly allusion to the sexual orientation of McCarthy’s chief aide, Roy Cohn. A closeted gay man, Cohn would angrily denounce any attempt to “out” him until the day he died of AIDS-related illnesses decades later.

In questioning one of McCarthy’s assistants, Welch asked him if he was contending that a certain photograph had come from “a pixie.” Unwisely trying to turn Welch’s sarcasm against him, McCarthy intervened and asked Welch to define “pixie.” Welch pounced. “A pixie,” he gleefully explained, “is a close relative of a fairy.” This devastating use of anti-gay prejudice to demean Cohn added greatly to Welch’s reputation and went wholly unrebuked even by those liberals who rightly considered themselves America’s staunchest opponents of bigotry.

I was among the nonrebukers. I was glad to see Welch score heavily against the McCarthy side. I accepted the widespread contempt for homosexuals as an indelible fact of life. It never occurred to me to fault Welch for expressing it. Indeed, those hearings—in which an anti-gay slur played such a highly praised part—made a very favorable impression on me and kindled my interest in public life.

That interest was greatly intensified by the murder of Emmett Till. Till, an African American from Chicago, was about my age. While he was visiting relatives in Mississippi, some men thought he had been disrespectful to a white woman. No one alleged that he had done more than whistle at her, and even that was disputed, but the price he paid was to be brutally murdered. It was clear that local law enforcement knew who had killed him. They had no objection to his death, and certainly no intention of doing anything to the killers. I was outraged. I soon learned that the federal government could do little to prevent such horrors because Southern senators had successfully filibustered antilynching laws passed by the House. I took from this an enduring belief in the need for a strong federal government. After all, Southern racists were able to protect murderers only because their legislators exploited fears of centralized power. Changing this reality would be an important goal for me.

Civil liberties and civil rights were not the only causes that inspired strong convictions. My parents were not involved in politics, but they were staunch liberals. In our very Jewish but largely secular household, the nearest thing we had to a Bible was the then very liberal
New York Post.
I supported the Franklin Roosevelt–Harry Truman tradition of active government intervention to make our society a fair one. My interests did not become wholly political, but they broadened. By the 1954 midterm elections, I was rooting equally for the Democrats and the Yankees.

I was also thinking more often about how much I would like to take part in governing. The fast-paced verbal combat I’d seen on TV appealed to me. I was good at talking in class, arguing politics and sports with my peers, and making people laugh, often at the expense of my debate adversaries. After the Till murder, I also wanted to make America conform more closely to my ideals.

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