Hampered Brilliance

Barney Frank
Barney Frank; drawing by James Ferguson

Barney Frank, who looks like Barney Rubble and talks like a speeded-up Will Rogers, was keeping something from us—not just, for a long time, his sex life, but his hidden formation as a professor. As a stellar graduate student at Harvard, he completed all the requirements for a Ph.D. except the dissertation, for which he had chosen a subject (the legislative process) and a director (Samuel Huntington). Later he added a Harvard law degree to his academic achievements. The models he had chosen to follow on the Harvard campus were John Kenneth Galbraith and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

Even as a teenager, Frank knew that he was irrevocably dedicated to two things that threatened to cancel each other out—men to love and politics to better the world. At that time, an openly gay person could not be successful in politics, and a closeted one risked exposure if he called too much attention to himself—Frank would, for this reason, dread campaigning as a minefield. He thought he might indulge both his passions if he stayed on the sidelines as a professor giving advice during frequent sojourns in Washington (the Galbraith-Schlesinger model). He knew that men in Congress often had spouses living in their districts, so a single man in Washington would not be anomalous.

Frank showed a genius for politics that was recognized even as a graduate student. He was a teaching assistant at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, director of graduate student affairs there, and organizer of the Visiting Fellows Program (which brought in major political figures to lecture at the school). In the latter capacity, he drove around campus the liberal activist Allard Lowenstein, who became his friend and recruited him for planning the 1964 Freedom Summer in Mississippi.

After finishing his Harvard course work that summer, he went to Mississippi, where his rapid-fire Jersey accent made him useless for recruiting blacks to vote; but he helped verify places on the alternate delegation the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was assembling for the Democratic convention that year. He noted with alarm that a principal selling point for this delegation to replace the all-white official delegation was that this one would be integrated. It was easier to claim that there would be whites in the MFDP slate than to get white men to risk action against the white establishment. Always a realist, Frank warned the MFDP representatives at the convention against making a boast they could not live up to. He made his warning effective with a multiple pun: “Hold your fire until we hear the ayes of our whites.”

As he returned to Harvard to take his Ph.D. orals, Frank stopped off in Washington to report on the Mississippi results to Joseph Rauh, the lawyer drawing up a brief for the MFDP delegation. Without money, he asked a young woman he had met at National Student Association meetings to put him up…

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