PLAYBOY: A domestic problem you’ve frequently addressed is the lack of housing for the poor. Do you acknowledge it was the government’s encouragement and support of home ownership that set up many people to take on mortgages they couldn’t afford?
FRANK: I’ve always pushed for rental housing. Clinton and Bush were pushing home ownership, but I’ve always been skeptical of it. Owning a home is supposedly the American dream, but I think the American dream is having a place to live in that you can afford. People were sold a bill of goods. They were told that if you owned a home, you’d get rich as the house appreciated. But that’s not what’s been happening. For many people, renting is a better alternative.
PLAYBOY: Larry Summers, who was one of the president’s main economic advisors, argued that renting doesn’t help people. People need pride of ownership. He said, “People don’t wash rented cars.”
FRANK: Cars and houses are different, but people do wash leased cars. I think we should have spent this time building quality affordable rental housing rather than getting people into homes they couldn’t afford.
PLAYBOY: The entities that helped many Americans buy homes they couldn’t afford were the government’s lending institutions, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, which were under your purview as chairman. You were attacked for telling Americans that Freddie and Fannie were in good shape even as they were on the brink of collapse. At the time you said they “were not endangering the fiscal health of the country.” How do you respond to charges that you are partly responsible for people losing fortunes by investing in Freddie and Fannie?
FRANK: When I said they were in reasonable shape, I thought they were. I was too sanguine. I made a mistake. But when I said that, we were in the minority in Congress. I had no influence over anything. It didn’t matter what I said. When it did matter, the next year, when we were in power, I changed my position.
PLAYBOY: Do you accept any responsibility?
FRANK: Responsibility for what? I wasn’t in power then.
PLAYBOY: Bill O’Reilly attacked you on this. He said you were blaming everyone else. He called you a coward.
FRANK: He had no interest in a discussion about what really happened. It’s what he does.
PLAYBOY: Why would you agree to be on his show?
FRANK: If you don’t go on, he says those things unrefuted, but I wouldn’t do it again. He suffered for that behavior and apologized.
PLAYBOY: Whether it’s O’Reilly on the right or Lawrence O’Donnell on the left, do you worry political discourse has given way to shouting matches?
FRANK: I do. The climate has gotten meaner, and no one listens to one another. Politics has gotten meaner. Polarization isn’t good. It divides us and we don’t come together, which means we can’t effectively solve problems.
PLAYBOY: How has the internet affected discourse?
FRANK: You can’t make mistakes now. There’s no room for mistakes because everything will be out there instantly.
PLAYBOY: Sometimes politicians seem to forget everything will be out there. For example, what was your reaction when your colleague Congressman Chris Lee was exposed after sending a picture of himself with his shirt off to a woman he met on Craigslist?
FRANK: Well, sometimes people bring it on themselves by their stupidity. The internet isn’t forgiving. There’s a lot of good in the technology, but there are dangers.
PLAYBOY: Do some come in the form of WikiLeaks?
FRANK: Yes, and I’m concerned about it. There’s a need for people to be able to talk in private. I’m especially concerned about the leaked diplomatic cables. Diplomats have to make candid assessments that are private. Releasing them was a great unfairness. People were put at risk. I was amused that Mr. Assange was upset because some of his people are publishing a book about him, revealing his secrets. He said it was unfair and invaded his privacy.
PLAYBOY: How else has the internet changed politics?
FRANK: There’s good there. People know more and can be involved. It has also been part of a worrying trend, which is a merging of opinion and journalism. It’s harder to find objective journalism. It’s harder to find what we used to call real news in the middle of shouting matches and gossip. Journalists should be skeptical. That’s their job. In many cases now it’s about advocating for one side or the other. Also, now the competition is to find the worst news. Bad news sells, apparently. And the worse the better.
PLAYBOY: Let’s move on to some other issues. You were instrumental in the recent repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Is the final nail in the coffin?
FRANK: Absolutely, and it’s something I’m proud of. The Speaker and Senate majority leader essentially put me in charge of the strategy to get it through. It was hard to do, and it’s an important bill.
PLAYBOY: After the repeal, a right-wing journalist asked about the problems the bill will cause because openly gay men will be taking showers with straight men. You said, “We don’t get ourselves dry-cleaned.”
FRANK: I borrowed that from Alfred Hitchcock. A man complained to Hitchcock that after watching the famous shower scene in Psycho, his wife no longer took showers. Hitchcock said, “Have her dry-cleaned.” The fact is, after all the fuss about “don’t ask, don’t tell,” there’s been no great backlash against its repeal. As we go forward people will see that it has had absolutely no negative effect, and it will be an issue of the past. There are always predictions of horrible things that will happen, but repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” will have no negative consequences. We haven’t weakened anything. Gay men and lesbians in the military will serve with distinction along with the other soldiers.
PLAYBOY: Is the legalization of gay marriage next?
FRANK: I don’t see any change there. I don’t see Congress doing anything about it.
PLAYBOY: Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. Although states may allow same-sex marriage, only recently did Obama say the federal government would no longer defend DOMA in court.
FRANK: There are lawsuits against it that I think will win anyway, because the federal government can’t discriminate. Beyond that I don’t see anything about gay marriage happening on a federal level. More and more states will go that way, though. When they do, people will see, as with health care and the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” that there are no negative consequences. Places that have gay marriage have had none of the negative consequences that people warned us about. Zero. The divorce rate hasn’t gone up. There have been no calamities. Marriage hasn’t lost its meaning. Same-sex marriage as a divisive issue is losing its steam. Overall I think antigay prejudice is on its way out.
PLAYBOY: Even from the religious right? The virulent attacks continue.
FRANK: But they aren’t taken seriously. It’s changing. It’s just evolution.
PLAYBOY: What’s behind the evolution?
FRANK: People are out. More and more people know people who are gay. People have gay friends and relatives; it’s not kept in the closet anywhere near as much as it used to be.
PLAYBOY: Antigay sentiments are still expressed, often from the conservative right and especially from the Christian right. There are still hate crimes against gays.
FRANK: Yes, and we have to deal with them. We passed a bill to add crimes against gays and lesbians as hate crimes. Hate crimes, whether against gays or anyone else, can’t be tolerated. Overall, antigay prejudice is diminishing. It won’t be used by the far right the way it once was. It just doesn’t work anymore. But I worry about what will replace it. I think they will increasingly focus on abortion, escalating it as their issue to inflame people. They’ll work on whittling away the right to have an abortion, striking down any federal funding.
PLAYBOY: You’ve said abortion foes “feel as if life goes from conception to birth.” What did you mean?
FRANK: They say no abortion, but they don’t want to take care of the kids when they’re born. They don’t want to help mothers raise their children. They don’t want to feed or educate kids. But they’ll increasingly use abortion as an issue in coming elections.
PLAYBOY: Looking to the next presidential election, what’s your take on the likely Republican contenders? Were you surprised to hear that your old adversary Newt Gingrich may be running?
FRANK: We Democrats have not lived lives sufficiently pleasing to God to have Gingrich be the Republican nominee in 2012.
PLAYBOY: Sarah Palin?
PLAYBOY: What’s your impression of Palin?
FRANK: There’s less there than meets the eye.
PLAYBOY: Then to what do you attribute her continuing prominence?
FRANK: She presents better than the reality. She does fit the current mood, but there isn’t much substance there.
PLAYBOY: Mitt Romney?
PLAYBOY: Is there anyone who could be a threat to President Obama?
FRANK: Not in the current crop. An American saying goes, “You can’t beat somebody with nobody.”
PLAYBOY: If he wins reelection, what would you like Obama to push for as a second-term president?
FRANK: The same as now—financial reform, protecting health care. I’d like him to take on defense. I’d like him to do better helping poor people. It’s another thing I disagree with him on. In his budget he cut things that will hurt the poorest of the poor to show his bona fides as a budget cutter.
PLAYBOY: You’ve pushed for legalizing marijuana. Can you see the president joining you on that one?
FRANK: That’s not likely. Marijuana is clearly a case where the public is way ahead of the politicians. The current policy is ludicrous. It’s unfair and wasteful. It contributes to the illegal trade, the cartels and the big traffickers. I’m disappointed in some of my liberal friends for not moving on marijuana. It’s generational; changes are coming.
PLAYBOY: What should be done with the war on drugs?
FRANK: All that money should be spent on prevention and treatment. The war on drugs doesn’t work, it doesn’t stop people from using, and we spend a fortune.
PLAYBOY: After the Tucson massacre, is new gun-control legislation likely?
FRANK: No. Nothing will change on that. The only thing that could happen is more monitoring so it’s harder for people who shouldn’t have guns to get them. I hope.
PLAYBOY: Clearly you have a long list of issues about which you still feel strongly, yet you had planned to retire after this term, at least according to some reports. Were they accurate?
FRANK: I thought of stepping down, yes.
PLAYBOY: You recently announced you’ll run again. What changed your mind?
FRANK: If the Democrats had held the House, maybe I would have retired. I thought it might be a good time. But we lost, and there’s too much at stake. I would have felt I was abandoning the battle when we were under siege.
PLAYBOY: After 30 years in this job, you’ve encountered many times when things were going well for the country and many when they were going badly. Is this just another swing of the pendulum, or are you particularly worried now?
FRANK: The threat to public policy is serious. We had a financial meltdown and were able to stop it. We put in place regulations that could prevent it from happening again. If it does happen again, we don’t know if we’ll be able to stop it. And yet the Republicans are trying to reverse the regulations. They’re inflaming anger rather than seeking rational solutions. We’re at risk of being unable to fix the problems we need to fix—education, health care, the deficit and many others. Yes, I’m worried.
PLAYBOY: In The New Yorker Congressman Scott Garrett, a Republican on the Financial Services Committee, was quoted as saying about you, “Barney has a great deal of faith in government to solve people’s problems. The question is whether that faith is justified.” Is it?
FRANK: The truth is I don’t have faith in government to solve problems. What I do have faith in is our ability to come together to solve problems. It’s what’s hanging in the balance now. There’s no outside entity called government. It’s all of us, collectively and jointly. Will we be able to solve America’s problems? That’s why we’re elected. All I can tell you is that I’ll keep trying.