Frank, Barney

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FRANK, BARNEY (1940– ), U.S. congressman. Frank was born in Bayonne, n.j., to a politically active family. His sister, Anne Lewis, was a long-term Democratic Party activist, serving both in the Carter and the Clinton White House. Frank received his undergraduate and graduate education at Harvard and his political initiation from Allard Lowenstein. He worked as coordinator at Harvard for the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964, a cornerstone of the Civil Rights Movement, recruiting college black and white students – the whites overwhelmingly Jewish – to go down South. He was the chief assistant to Boston Mayor Kevin White (1967–71) and later on the staff of Michael Harrington, a liberal Boston congressman. Frank then sought office on his own, serving in the Massachusetts House of Representatives from 1973 to 1981. He excelled in the House and was an important early liberal voice on women's and homosexual rights.

He first ran for Congress in 1981 in an open district and won a narrow victory. In Congress, Frank was known for his liberal views. He was widely admired by the Asian community for his services as chair of the subcommittee that oversaw the bill granting compensation to Japanese-American for their internment during World War ii. In the mid-1980s, the frumpish, overweight Frank gradually changed his appearance, losing 75 pounds and suddenly dressing stylishly. He came out of the closet after another congressman died of aids. He was thus the first openly gay congressman in the United States. He rose to the defense of others when they were attacked for their purported sexual practices. He often warded off attacks by threatening to "out" those who were hypocritical, attacking gay rights while secretly pursuing their homosexual lives. He would not attack those who chose to keep their behavior private as long as they did not engage in gay bashing.

Scandal struck when Frank was accused of employing a former male prostitute and fixing parking tickets on his behest. Local newspapers and even national columnists called for his resignation. Frank admitted that he had been suckered and asked the House Ethics Committee to investigate. Some urged expulsion or censure. In the end Frank apologized and was reprimanded. He was reelected in 1990 by a two to one margin.

Frank advised President Clinton on the issue of gays in the military; suggesting a middle way, commonly known as "Don't ask and don't tell." His compromise satisfied neither side. He was a staunch defender of President Clinton during the impeachment hearings where his wit often diffused tension. Political professionals rated him an outstanding legislator.

[Michael Berenbaum (2nd ed.)]