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The Last Word: Barney Frank on Bernie Sanders, Bill O’Reilly and Hard Drugs

Former congressman discusses importance of pragmatism and why young voters felt the Bern

What’s the best advice you ever received?
It was from the attorney general of Massachusetts, Francis X. Bellotti. He said, “Just remember, at any given moment you are much more focused on you than almost anybody else is.” So don’t overreact to criticism in or out of the press. Have some confidence. Also, when you’re in office and people say bad things about you, you can raise money off it: “Look what they’re saying about me. You have to send me money to defend myself.”

Who are your heroes?
[Former Congressman] Allard Lowenstein. He organized the “Dump Johnson” movement in ’67 when a lot of people, myself included, told him it wasn’t going to work. He was the model of the pragmatic zealot. Also, Hubert Humphrey. Things went bad for him when he took the vice presidency, but in the Fifties and Sixties he was an extraordinarily important force for getting liberal ideas implemented.

Pragmatism is a key concept for you.
The more committed you are to your ideals, the more obligated you are to be pragmatic about implementing them. There’s a great quote from Lyndon Johnson about a group of people he thought were all talk and no action. He said, “These people are like pissing down your leg in a dark suit. You get a warm feeling, but nobody notices.”

I’ve seen you say that you don’t believe in small talk. Why not?
For one, it’s boring. Two, I’m a great believer in the logic of economics. Economists talk about opportunity cost. The opportunity cost of making small talk is that I can’t get a lot of other things done. Patience, to me, is not a great virtue, because it cuts down on the things you can do.

People say they want to vote for someone they’d enjoy getting a beer with, but you can be a bit gruff. How did you overcome that?
I learned to be superficially friendly. I’m lucky to have a good memory. “I know you know so-and-so…  I know so-and-so” or “I knew your father.” I’m also lucky to have a pretty good sense of humor. It’s easier to break off a conversation when people are laughing.

You’re from Bayonne, New Jersey. What’s the most Bayonne thing about you?
My accent. My voice is very distinctive, and I think that has been very helpful to me. Growing up, I worked at my father’s truck stop, and I was around a wide range of people. It was not racially various, but ethnically, religiously, socioeconomically it was very much integrated, and that was helpful.

What music moves you the most?
None. I listen to music as background.

You wrote in your memoir that in 1954 you loved loud music. What did you like back then?
“Rock Around the Clock,” by Bill Haley and His Comets. It was a two-sided single with “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” I never turn music on now – although I happen to like some musicals, which is maybe my one gay stereotype. My favorite is Fiorello! It’s very funny, with clever lyrics. I really like wordplay.

What’s the next frontier in progressivism?
We have got to repudiate this Cheney-McCain notion that it’s America’s mission to govern the world. That would reduce the military budget by well over $100 billion a year. We also have to provide a better economic situation for people who don’t make it as well in our current economy. And there’s tens of billions to be saved by us legalizing all forms of drugs. End the stupid drug war.

Should hardcore drugs like heroin and crystal meth be legal?
Yeah. We should outlaw a drug if it is likely to make you mistreat others. People don’t hit other people in the head because they’re on heroin; they hit other people in the head because they need to get money to buy heroin.

Why do you think Bernie Sanders appealed to so many young people?
One, because there is a sort of natural rebelliousness of youth and he was critical of the existing system. Secondly, and some of them get mad when I say this, because of their not knowing much. He sold a bunch of people on the view that things were bad because people in office hadn’t been trying.

African-Americans, Hispanics, LGBT people, people who had a serious grievance tended to not be for him because they were concerned with how he’ll get things done. His method was, “I’m gonna say what’s right, and say it and say it until people accept it.” That’s a more appealing posture if you don’t have anything seriously at stake.

What compels you to go on a show like Bill O’Reilly’s when you know he’s just going to scream at you?
I’m unwilling to have anyone think I’m afraid of him. That’s important for gay people. During the Eighties, we were constantly portrayed as victims. People don’t respect victims.

It’s clear O’Reilly despises you.
I take it as a mark of respect. He thinks I’m a threat.

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