Q&A: Barney Frank Lets Loose on Putin, Silicon Valley, and Obama Haters

by Isaac Chotiner | February 9, 2014

With the Olympics upon us, I decided to call up Barney Frank, the outspoken former Congressman. We discussed Vladimir Putin’s homophobia, the selfishness of the tech industry, the “morons” who compare President Obama to Hitler, and why Ruth Bader Ginsburg should retire.

Isaac Chotiner: I was just wondering what your feelings were about the Olympics. Do you think countries should boycott the Games because of Russian behavior?

Barney Frank: My general reaction is that I don’t have much reaction. I think it is one of the most overblown events. I regret the fact that all this junk has intervened. I’ve always been a strong believer that the less politicians have to do with athletics, the better.

As far as the boycott is concerned, it’s a little harder. The problem is that there are other countries that have policies that aren’t so hot that have had these things. I would not ask athletes to boycott. This is an important thing for them. I think it is legitimate for other people to boycott. I don’t think the country should have said, no no, we’re not sending you. I think that’s imposing our political ideas on individuals and it means a lot to these mostly young people and I wouldn’t get in their way.

IC: It seemed at first like gay athletes might get arrested or something like that.

BF: I don’t think that was ever realistic. Putin is not a nice man but he’s not a stupid one either.

IC: Our ambassador to Russia is leaving. I heard someone say we should appoint a gay ambassador because ambassadors don’t make that much policy, so they should be used to send messages.

BF: Well, I’m in favor of sending a message. I would say this about a gay ambassador—years ago that might have meant something, and we did at one point appoint a black ambassador to South Africa back when they were being terribly racist. I guess the compromise would be sending some gay people to the embassy, and I would make sure that they were people who were in couples, and whose spouses were with them.

IC: Why?

BF: To demonstrate our unwillingness to abide by prejudice and to give the counter-example. I would be very nice to have some same-sex high-ranking American diplomats over there hanging out.

IC: Did you ever meet Putin?

BF: No.

IC: You must know people who have met him. Do you have any sense of the way people in our government saw him, beyond the obvious?

BF: Well, we had George Bush, who got totally faked out by him.

IC: It’s very hard to take our paradigm of liberal and conservative and say, well, in a foreign country…

BF: So why bring it up?

IC: Why am I bringing it up? Because I have a question for you.

BF: OK, what is it?

IC: Obviously American conservatives don’t like Putin, but is there a way to use his homophobia to fight homophobia here? To brand people as having Putin-like views…

BF: No. During the Cold War, it was "you take the same position that the communists do, so therefore that’s a bad position." The problem is that’s all over the lot. By the way, if you’re looking for the parts of the world where homophobia is the biggest problem, it’s not Russia; it’s Nigeria and Uganda. The serious outbreak—life-threatening, freedom-denying oppression—is in Africa, and that unfortunately or fortunately goes in the other direction because generally the left has been more supportive of Africa, and I think it’s important for us to spend a lot of time being critical of that.

But no, I don’t think you gain anything domestically because of positions that people take overseas. Look, for a while, one of the most homophobic leaders in the world was Castro. That didn’t buy us anything.

IC: Two of your former colleagues, Henry Waxman and George Miller, are both retiring and I was just wondering if you thought this was just sort of a coincidence or if you think there are trends that are forcing guys like that out.

BF: The coincidence is that they were both elected in 1974 and they’re old. I guess I’m a little surprised they stayed as long as they did. It’s kind of ironic: we must be the only profession in the world where people who are in their seventies are asked ‘why are you quitting?’

IC: People have been badgering John McCain to run for another term and, you know, the guy’s old. Did you see the piece in the Times about Mike Honda, the Democratic Congressman from California who is being challenged by a tech industry lawyer?

BF: I know about that. I was out there. I campaigned for Mike. Millions of dollars are gonna be spent in that campaign that could have been spent fighting the right wing. You talk about single-issue voters, the Silicon Valley people who are supporting Mike’s opponent—the political model appears to be the NRA. We have one issue, that’s all we care about, we want someone who’s 120% devoted to us and that’s all that counts and we don’t care how good anyone else has been. Honda’s been a very important guy in forging coalitions on civil rights. It’s appalling to me.

IC: They weren’t even saying that Honda had been bad, they were just sort of saying, "this new guy really understands us" without really saying what that meant.

BF: It does compare to something I’ve felt for some time now. It’s why the business community are so angry at Obama, where you had these morons talking about Nazi analogies. One of the things people want in government is psychic income. They want the people in government to say they’re good people and they do valuable things and that’s part of it. Part of it is Silicon Valley’s acting like, in other words, any other ethnic group. It’s time for one of our own. He’s one of our own.

But the other thing which is somewhat not as clear—they don’t talk about this as much—but there’s, I think, a little greed involved. I think they have been unhappy because Honda been a guy voting to tax very wealthy people. I believe, probably from what I’ve heard up there, they think Mike’s too much of a high taxer for rich people.

IC: This sort of Silicon Valley Democrat, the stereotype of them—you’ve got this interesting thing because they’re incredibly liberal on social things and all sorts of issues but they do have this reluctance to high taxes for rich people.

BF: Absolutely. And they have as good a record of tax evasion as anybody.

IC: When I was back in the Bay Area over Christmas, there was all this controversy about tech firms having their own transportation and coming into neighborhoods.

BF: Google buses.

IC: Yeah, what do you make of that?

BF: Well, I think first of all, you can’t object to people living places. There was one very specific thing—letting them use the bus stop for free I think is outrageous. These are people of enormous wealth both in corporate terms and individually. Letting them have those bus stops for no cost I think is a terrible misuse of public resources. I think they oughta have to pay for it.

I do wish that they would be more supportive of public programs to subsidize housing for people who would otherwise get priced out, but the free use of the bus stops is a terrible idea.

IC: On a different subject, did you see Boehner came out and said that Obama is untrustworthy and that’s why they can’t do immigration?

BF: That’s just a bullshit argument. That’s an excuse. By the way, the next time they talk about, "you can’t do one big bill, and that’s terrible," mention the farm bill. No, that’s not even remotely true. He can’t do immigration because his party is too split to do it. Did you see Bill Kristol saying, “Don’t do it. Politically, we’re in good shape now”?

Let me ask you this question: are they planning to pass an immigration bill that’s going to expire on January 20, 2017? Because Obama’s only going to be President until then. By the time the immigration bill gets passed, if it gets passed, they’ll be maybe a little over two years left in Obama’s term. Since when do you legislate only for one presidency?

IC: You’ve forgotten that Obama is a dictator who’s is not going to relinquish power.

BF: Yeah, I mean that’s the stupidity of these people. I sympathize with Boehner, he’s trying to be somewhat reasonable but the crazies…

By the way, John Boehner voted to put more of that debt on the books than I did. This notion that they’ve been allowed to get away with that being asked to pay the national debt is somehow a favor they are doing to the rest of us is just crazy. I didn’t vote for the Iraq War, I didn’t vote for the Bush tax cuts, I didn’t even vote for the drug bill, so literally, we could do a comparison.

IC: You mentioned Obama is going to be out of office in 2017. I was just wondering, it seems strange to me that Ruth Bader Ginsburg hasn’t retired.

BF: I agree, I wish she would.

IC: She’s obviously an amazing woman but this is about more than her.

BF: I absolutely agree. Look, she should follow the example of Sandra Day O’Connor. She said, I remember reading, on election night that she was happy that Bush got elected, which of course she helped him do, because then she could retire. She waited for Bush to retire.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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