CBS ‘60 Minutes’: Barney Frank, ‘The Smartest Guy in Congress’

Lesley Stahl, CBS In a softball profile of the liberal Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank on Sunday’s CBS 60 Minutes, anchor Lesley Stahl led with: "Barney Frank has been called the smartest guy in Congress, which is lucky for us, since he works on some of the thorniest issues around. The 14-term, 68-year-old Harvard-educated Democratic congressman from Massachusetts is chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, which means his portfolio includes banks, housing, and now the auto industry. " Stahl later added: "...even the most hardened Republicans give him good reviews." Stahl never named any of those "hardened Republicans."

Stahl did offer some critical descriptions of Frank: "There are many ways to describe Barney Frank. I wanted to read you a sampling of descriptions of you. They almost -- they kind of come in couplets. We have, ‘impatient and anti-social,’ ‘sharp-tongued and downright mean.’" However, she soon followed up with positive testimonials of Frank’s non-ideological pragmatism:

Listen to what the financial community says. Here's Henry Paulson on Barney Frank: ‘He’s a market savvy pragmatist who looks for areas of agreement because he wants to get things done.’ Here’s a guy from JP Morgan Chase, he said, ‘He hasn't veered off into Crazyland,’ meaning liberalism. I've heard someone describe you this way: ‘You're liberal on social issues; you're a pragmatist on economic issues.’"

Near the end of the story, Stahl observed: "True to form, he's an equal-opportunity curmudgeon, also criticizing Barack Obama for not being assertive enough on the credit crisis." Frank explained: "Senator Obama has said we only have one president at a time. Well, that overstates the number of presidents we have at this time. We don't appear to have any." Apparently, saying that having President Bush is like not having a president is somehow critical of Barack Obama.

Stahl began by asking Frank about the auto industry bailout: "True to textbook liberalism, Barney Frank worked hard to keep the car makers out of Chapter 11..What about the idea that, in capitalism, if a company doesn't cut it, they die? It's over." Frank replied: "And that's what Herbert Hoover said. And Franklin Roosevelt said no." Stahl countered: "What we're now faced is with all the taxpayers having to prop up companies that made terrible decisions consistently...then you're talking about welfare." Frank replied: "Yeah, I'm for welfare. You're not? Are you for letting people starve?"

Stahl later asked about the mortage crisis: "But there are those who argue that reducing foreclosures would reward and encourage delinquencies. You have the guy who's working three jobs so he can pay off his mortgage. You have a guy who's delinquent. He gets help, this other guy doesn't get help. So isn't there an unfairness that you're setting up?" She even made brief mention of Frank’s role in causing the financial crisis: "Because of his support over the years of affordable housing for the poor, conservatives actually blame him for the whole subprime mortgage mess, saying he enabled Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to back riskier and riskier loans." Stahl played a clip of Frank’s recent shouting match with Bill O’Reilly, but never asked Frank directly about the issue.

Toward the end of the segment, Stahl turned to Frank’s personal life: "Frank has been a target of criticism for years, and not just because he's a liberal." Frank observed: "I'm gay, I'm left-handed, I'm Jewish. There's a lot of things that I'm supposed to do that I don't do." Stahl described how: "He grew up in blue-collar Bayonne, New Jersey, a Jewish kid in a predominantly Catholic community who was gay."

Stahl briefly mentioned a sex scandal involving Frank: "The lowest point of his life, he says, came two years later when he found himself in a sex scandal...An investigation concluded that Frank didn't know anything about it, but he was reprimanded and went to the floor of the House to apologize." Stahl then concluded: "And then he went back to work....delved into the intricacies of modern banking, becoming the authority on all things Wall Street."

Here is the full transcript of the segment:

7:04PM SEGMENT:

LESLEY STAHL: Barney Frank has been called the smartest guy in Congress, which is lucky for us, since he works on some of the thorniest issues around. The 14-term, 68-year-old Harvard-educated Democratic congressman from Massachusetts is chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, which means his portfolio includes banks, housing, and now the auto industry. He's been at the center of both the $700 billion rescue for financial institutions and the bailout attempt for the car companies that failed in the Senate. He worked on both this past week, pressuring Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to deal with home foreclosures and negotiating with the White House on the loan for GM and Chrysler. True to textbook liberalism, Barney Frank worked hard to keep the car makers out of Chapter 11. But I wonder why. Because when these companies finally get into bankruptcy, they can do the tough things that they can't otherwise do.

BARNEY FRANK: There's only one thing you can do in bankruptcy that you can't do outside of bankruptcy: break your word, break your deals. It allows you to say to the small businesses who have been catering lunches for you, 'Sorry. We're not paying you.' It allows you to go to the workers and say, 'Sorry, we're not paying you.' The hearing will come to order.

STAHL: Barney Frank is a no-nonsense chairman who brought the heads of the Big Three auto companies before his committee and let anyone who wanted to vent.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: My fear is that you're going to take this money and continue the same stupid decisions you've made for 25 years.

STAHL: But there was never any doubt that Frank himself didn't want the car companies to go under. What about the idea that, in capitalism, if a company doesn't cut it, they die? It's over.

FRANK: And that's what Herbert Hoover said. And Franklin Roosevelt said no.

STAHL: That's what Darwin said.

FRANK: Yes, it's true. And Darwin was a very good biologist. I don't think he was much of an economist.

STAHL: What we're now faced is with all the taxpayers having to prop up companies that made terrible decisions consistently.

FRANK: No, we're not propping up companies. That's your mistake. We're propping up individuals. The world doesn't consist of companies. The world are people, the country is people. And yes, it is possible to argue that the government should stay out of-

STAHL: But then -- but then you're talking about welfare.

FRANK: Yeah, I'm for welfare. You're not? Are you for letting people starve?

STAHL: At a meeting on Tuesday, Frank listened to mayors of towns hit hard by car factory layoffs. You know, there's a theory out there that you, the congressmen, had this public spanking of these guys in order to cover yourselves-

FRANK: That's the kind of argument that people who do not have any idea what they're talking about like to make. That simply is-

STAHL: Are you telling me I don't know what I'm talking about?

FRANK: By making that argument, yes.

STAHL: Ouch. This could explain President Bush's nickname for him: 'Sabertooth.' There are many ways to describe Barney Frank. I wanted to read you a sampling of descriptions of you. They almost -- they kind of come in couplets. We have, 'impatient and anti-social,' 'sharp-tongued and downright mean.'

FRANK: I'm anti-social, there's no question about it. I think -- I love this job, but the biggest problem is there are thousands of people in Washington who earn their living by trying to waste my time. They repeat themselves. They ask you stupid questions.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN B: Well, Congressman Frank.

FRANK: Hi. We're a little rushed, so let's get started.

STAHL: And he can be sharp-tongued, a master of the put-down and a master of the dress-down.

FRANK: Regular order! Regular order! I ask the gentleman be seated!

STAHL: When we sat down, I escaped neither put-down-

FRANK: Television is apparently the enemy of nuance. But nuance is essential for a thoughtful discussion.

STAHL: -nor dress-down.

FRANK: Let me start with that second despicable comment you just made. And I am surprised at you that you would do something like that.

STAHL: Thwack. It's no wonder that when Sabertooth the liberal took over the committee that oversees banking, Wall Street shuddered.

FRANK: The hearing will come to order.

STAHL: But two years later, even the most hardened Republicans give him good reviews.

FRANK: I'm very proud of the fact, I think we've shown with the last two years, and we will show going forward, that you can be a liberal Democrat and cooperate in creating the kind of climate that's good for business, as well as for everybody else.

STAHL: You're pro-business?

FRANK: Oh, absolutely.

STAHL: Listen to what the financial community says. Here's Henry Paulson on Barney Frank: 'He's a market savvy pragmatist who looks for areas of agreement because he wants to get things done.' Here's a guy from JP Morgan Chase, he said, 'He hasn't veered off into Crazyland,' meaning liberalism. I've heard someone describe you this way: 'You're liberal on social issues; you're a pragmatist on economic issues.'

FRANK: No, I reject the notion that there is -- you're talking about two different things. That's like saying, are you more of a cook or are you left-handed? I am a liberal.

STAHL: That's what-

FRANK: What I'm rejecting is this liberal here, pragmatist there. That's like comparing Tuesday to ice cream.

STAHL: Oh, OK.

FRANK: As a liberal, I am morally obligated to be pragmatic. What good do I do poor people, elderly people, people who are being discriminated against because of their sexual orientation, if I'm not realistic about accomplishing something?

STAHL: And he does accomplish. This week, he shuttled from a hearing on the bank rescue package-

FRANK: I did vote for this.

 

STAHL: -to negotiating and strategizing on the car loans, to briefing Tim Geithner, Obama's choice for Treasury secretary. He was so busy, he didn't have time to tie his shoes. It's been like this ever since the credit crisis hit and he worked hand in glove with Treasury Secretary Paulson to write the rescue plan for the banks. Then he pressed and prodded his colleagues in Congress to get it passed.

FRANK: All of us had to put up with this terrible financial problem. They had to put up with the financial problem, and me.

STAHL: The relationship between Frank and Paulson has soured lately, since Paulson hasn't spent any of the rescue money to help struggling homeowners.

FRANK: Secretary Paulson is refusing to use the money that Congress voted to reduce foreclosures. The bill says he's supposed to. He won't do that.

STAHL: OK, wait, wait. I have to stop you right there.

FRANK: Yeah.

STAHL: You wrote the bill. You're the, quote, 'smartest man in Congress.' How did it happen that you wrote a bill that the secretary of the Treasury has the power not to fulfill in the way you wanted it fulfilled?

FRANK: Because -- there's a metaphor that works here: You cannot push on a string. There is no constitutional way to force them to do things.

STAHL: But didn't you write the bill in a way that allows him to do this? And now you could have written it differently-

FRANK: No. There's no way you can force people to do things.

STAHL: But there are those who argue that reducing foreclosures would reward and encourage delinquencies. You have the guy who's working three jobs so he can pay off his mortgage. You have a guy who's delinquent. He gets help, this other guy doesn't get help. So isn't there an unfairness that you're setting up?

FRANK: Well -- yes, there is.

STAHL: And why shouldn't the guy over here who's been paying off his mortgage-

FRANK: Well, let me give you another unfairness-

STAHL: Why doesn't he deliberately stop paying it?

FRANK: Well, let me give you another unfairness-

STAHL: Well, wait-

FRANK: What about some--let me give you another unfairness. I want to see what you think about this.

STAHL: Well, wait. I'm asking you.

FRANK: What about someone -- what about someone who's been working hard 40 hours a work, maybe with some overtime, been going to work every day, and then his neighbor loses his job. The neighbor starts getting unemployment insurance. The neighbor who lost his job is getting money for nothing from the government. There's some unfairness there. I'll be meeting with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac on Friday.

STAHL: Because of his support over the years of affordable housing for the poor, conservatives actually blame him for the whole subprime mortgage mess, saying he enabled Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to back riskier and riskier loans. Here's Bill O'Reilly:

[EXCERPT FROM "THE O'REILLY FACTOR"]

FRANK: Oh, I'm not brilliant.

BILL O'REILLY: You're the brilliant guy who presided over the biggest financial collapse in federal history.

FRANK: Oh, no, no, no.

O'REILLY: Come on, you coward, say the truth!

FRANK: What do you mean, "coward"?

[END OF EXCERPT]

STAHL: It isn't every day you see a congressional committee chairman mud wrestle.

[EXCERPT FROM "THE O'REILLY FACTOR"]

FRANK: The problem was that we passed in 1994, in fact, the bill-

O'REILLY: Yeah, now we're back to 1994.

FRANK: Yes we are, because-

O'REILLY: This is bull. This is why Americans don't trust the government.

FRANK: I'm trying to tell you -- no, this is why your stupidity gets in the way of rational discussion.

O'REILLY: Right.

[END of EXCERPT]

STAHL: Frank has been a target of criticism for years, and not just because he's a liberal.

FRANK: I'm gay, I'm left-handed, I'm Jewish. There's a lot of things that I'm supposed to do that I don't do. How you doing?

STAHL: One thing he does do is get re-elected over and over as an openly gay man, though his district is in Massachusetts.

FRANK: You walk three steps and wave to the left, you walk three steps and wave to the right.

STAHL: We caught up with him in Fall River.

JIM READY: You look very nice today. You look very handsome.

STAHL: This isn't one of the congressman's constituents. He's Barney Frank's boyfriend, Jim Ready. It must have been really hard for a gay kid in high school in the '50s.

FRANK: Well, it was hard internally. It wasn't hard externally because I just never told anybody I was gay. I mean, not anybody. Not a single human being.

STAHL: He grew up in blue-collar Bayonne, New Jersey, a Jewish kid in a predominantly Catholic community who was gay. Did you know it when you were quite young?

FRANK: I realized it -- I realized it when I was 13. And it was very depressing, very sad. And I was frightened about it. I just figured, OK, I will repress it.

STAHL: Which he did till his 20s. But he still kept it secret as he got into politics, first in the Massachusetts legislature, then as an up-and-coming congressman. But by 1986, enough people knew that he felt compelled to tell Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill.

FRANK: I said, 'I just want to alert you that there may be some stuff coming out about my being gay.' He said, 'Oh, Barney, don't be listening to that crap. They say all that stuff about all of us.' I said, 'Well, Tip, the point here is that it's true.' And he sort of slumped. He said, 'Oh, Barney, I'm so sad. I thought you might be the first Jewish speaker.'

STAHL: That was a serious reaction?

FRANK: Yes.

STAHL: But soon after, Frank decided to take a step no one in Congress had taken, to out himself. When the Boston Globe sent its reporter, Kay Longcope, Frank tried to make it no big deal.

FRANK: And Kate came and sat down and put a tape recorder in front of me and said, 'Are you gay?' And I gave what was a very considered answer. 'Yeah. So what?' Because that-

STAHL: 'Yeah. So what?'

FRANK: 'Yeah, so what?'

STAHL: Yeah, and that was it?

FRANK: Yeah. I wanted to be kind of butch.

STAHL: Didn't you think that it would kill your career?

FRANK: I thought about the House leadership. It became clear to me if I came out I would never be in the House leadership. And that's certainly the case, because I couldn't expect members from all over the country to then be voting for me and defending that in their own districts. On the other hand, it has not in any way diminished my influence as a committee chairman, so.

STAHL: The lowest point of his life, he says, came two years later when he found himself in a sex scandal. A male hooker Frank had hired told reporters that he had run a prostitution ring out of the Congressman's apartment. An investigation concluded that Frank didn't know anything about it, but he was reprimanded and went to the floor of the House to apologize.

FRANK: There was in my life a central element of dishonesty.

STAHL: And then he went back to work. This man, who composes letters by Dictaphone, not e-mail, and doesn't use a computer, delved into the intricacies of modern banking, becoming the authority on all things Wall Street.

STAHL: Where are you putting your money?

FRANK: Well, actually I can say, because it's a matter of public record, Massachusetts municipal bonds. One-

STAHL: Bonds?

FRANK: Massachusetts municipal bonds.

STAHL: You're out of the stock market? He said he's pretty confident the crisis will end in about a year.

STAHL: So you think we're going to be past all this by the end of '09?

FRANK: Oh, I think by the end of '09 or 2010, we will be.

STAHL: Part of the problem right now, he says, is that Secretary Paulson gave the rescue money to banks, but he's not leaning on them to lend it. So in other words, the Treasury Department is not going to hold their feet to the fire to lend this money?

FRANK: Absolutely. Not only right -- they're not only not going to hold their feet to the fire, they're telling them that the fire's out.

STAHL: So what are you really saying about Paulson?

FRANK: I am very disappointed in this. At first, I thought he was focused too much on the financial community's tender feelings; now I think he's focusing almost exclusively on them.

STAHL: True to form, he's an equal-opportunity curmudgeon, also criticizing Barack Obama for not being assertive enough on the credit crisis.

FRANK: Part of the problem now is that this presidential transition has come at the very worst possible time. We saw it coming. I don't know if there was any way to avoid it. Senator Obama has said we only have one president at a time. Well, that overstates the number of presidents we have at this time. We don't appear to have any.

STAHL: But we do have Barney Frank. We wondered what he thinks of the job he's done.

FRANK: The problem in politics is this: You don't get any credit for disaster averted. Going to the voters and saying, 'Boy, things really suck, but you know what? If it wasn't for me, they would suck worse.' That is not a platform on which anybody has ever gotten elected in the history of the world.

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC