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‘Compared to What’ Prompts Barney Frank to Look Back (and Forward)

Seeing one’s life unspool before you on the silver screen would undoubtedly make anybody take stock in whom they had surrounded themselves with, what all had been accomplished and perhaps what, if anything, there is left to do.

It certainly did for retired Rep. Barney Frank.

‘Compared to What’ Prompts Barney Frank to Look Back (and Forward)
(Warren Rojas/CQ Roll Call)

The Massachusetts Democrat mentally ping-ponged through the space-time continuum while watching, “Compared to What,” a documentary about his political and private life that debuted this past weekend at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

In the movie, Frank credits the late Rep. Allard K. Lowenstein, D-N.Y., with motivating him to travel to Mississippi in 1963 to champion civil/voting rights, and is later shown wrestling with a decision to break the news about his sexuality to friend and mentor Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr., D-Mass.

During a post-screening Q&A with co-executive producer Alec Baldwin, Frank revealed that he was, in fact, close to a number of lawmakers, both past and present.

The members he said he missed most include:

  • Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif.
  • Ex-Rep. Howard L. Berman, D-Calif.
  • Former North Carolina Democrat-cum-Federal Housing Finance Agency Director Melvin Watt
  • Ex-Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo.
  • Ex-Rep. Ronald V. Dellums, D-Calif.

He also expressed affection for Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine — an e-vangelist who, apparently, helped drag Frank into the 21st century.

A devotee of traditional newspapers — the voracious reader is seen devouring different sections of his beloved New York Times in just about every scene of the film during which he’s not being directly interviewed — Frank noted that he once borrowed a tablet from Pingree. That experience evidently gave him a new appreciation for the public fascination with e-readers.

“I’m going to get the Kindle,” he alerted the assembled film aficionados at Tribeca.

So Much to Say

Now that he’s done working, Frank can make all the personal lifestyle changes he wants.

Too bad his mind continues to wrestle with unresolved policy priorities.

He told Baldwin, for instance, that were he still walking the halls of Congress, he’d devote himself to getting languishing anti-gay discrimination in the workplace curbs finally inked into law. Shearing defense spending — “The military can’t create democracy or end corruption,” he asserted — also remains high on Frank’s wish list.

Frank suggested, however, that the party might have more pressing concerns.

He foresees a rocky road ahead for Democrats in the upcoming midterm elections — billing Senate races in North Carolina, Arkansas, Louisiana and Michigan as particularly dicey — but held out hope the 2016 election would ultimately tilt back in their favor.

“I think Hillary Clinton will be a very strong candidate and will win the nomination if she wants it,” he predicted, noting, “I think Democrats can win presidential elections without a lot of white guys voting for us. But it’s not socially healthy.”

Turning back to the film, Frank said he had no issue with the intense focus on his past loneliness — he dubbed it “fair” — but stressed that there’s still much more to say about his legacy as a housing watchdog. (Look closely, and you just might catch a glimpse of now-CQ Weekly Editor Benton Ives gracing the screen during a sequence surrounding Frank’s handling of the TARP negotiations.)

“I would’ve liked a better chance to refute the right wing nonsense about Fannie and Freddie,” Frank stated, pointing to the portions of the film focusing on his work on the House Financial Services Committee. “The fact that they [House Republicans] were the ones who didn’t pass anything about Fannie and Freddie for 12 years, and when I became chairman, in the first year, we did it. And, you know, I will be talking about that in my book.”

[Frank told Baldwin he had just sent the forthcoming autobiography to his editors; he predicted the intimate tome would likely be out in early 2015.]

He was, on the other hand, pleased by the mutual affection displayed by former Rep. Mike Oxley, R-Ohio, and retiring Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., both of whom were top Republicans on the Financial Services Committee during his time on the panel.

“I’m glad that people see that. Because this notion that partisanship took over . . . it took over when the tea party took over,” Frank said of the tectonic shift that’s taken place on Capitol Hill in recent years. “In fact, poor Spencer in 2007 tried to work with us, and they threatened him. They went to [House Majority Leader Eric] Cantor [R-Va.] and [House Speaker John A.] Boehner [R-Ohio] and said, ‘Remove him as ranking member unless he stops cooperating.’ That’s when it broke down.”

Still, Frank maintains the rise of the tea party did not influence his decision to officially move on.

“People said, ‘Oh, did you quit because of the rancor?’ Frankly, I’m very good at rancor. I didn’t mind that,” he suggested. “I quit because I was too old and too tired.”

The film, luckily, allows him the opportunity to fight on without having to knock on doors like he would have in the old days.

“I hope it would establish a legitimacy of political activity,” Frank said of the movie.

Filmmaker Michael Chandler demurred on what the next step for the film might be — co-director Sheila Canavan mapped out plans for a wider theatrical release, followed by a possible migration to television or streaming video — but pledged to get it out there ASAP.

“We want as many people as possible to see this,” he shared.

According to Canavan, that exposure will almost certainly include a screening in D.C. at the headquarters of the Motion Picture Association of America.

A Man of the People

Condensing Frank’s seventy-odd years on the planet into a 90-minute movie took a lot of doing. And Canavan only wishes they could have shared even more of what they learned with the audience.

“We left out a lot of that extra stuff that would’ve shown more of his character. But he had a long career and we had to strike the right balance,” she said of the executive decision to stick with mostly work accomplishments.

Christine Kopsachilis, who admitted to not being particularly well versed in politics, wound up catching the flick with 13-year-old son, Matthew.

‘Compared to What’ Prompts Barney Frank to Look Back (and Forward)
(Warren Rojas/CQ Roll Call)

Neither of them were that invested in Frank prior to the screening — “He [Matthew] didn’t know. I read about him [Frank] before I came,” she said of their limited experience — but emerged as full-fledged fans.

“I like how he’s for the people, you know, for the working people. That’s important,” she suggested.

Jim Ready couldn’t agree more.

‘Compared to What’ Prompts Barney Frank to Look Back (and Forward)
(Warren Rojas/CQ Roll Call)

“He’s a real American hero . . . one of the greatest congressmen of all time,” the fiercely loyal partner told Baldwin about the love of his life.

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