Life Advice from Barney Frank

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What man most changed your life?
Actually, it was Pope John Paul II. In 1980 I was a member of the state legislature of Massachusetts. I figured I had nowhere to go politically, so I was going to leave office, start a law practice, and come out. (I was closeted at the time.) But that spring, Pope John Paul ordered a Jesuit priest, Congressman Robert Drinan, not to run again – the pope didn't think it was right for priests to be in politics. And on two days' notice, I moved to the city of Newton and replaced him. So, if not for the pope, I would not be a congressman.

What's the best advice you ever received?
To understand that we live in a world of limited possibilities. I learned that as a junior in college, and it has served me well ever since. John Dunlop, a professor of labor law at Harvard who went on to become secretary of labor, said that the easy decisions are good versus evil. The toughest decisions in life involve the trade-off of good things. The second most important piece of wisdom is in the same vein, and it came from the 20th-century philosopher Henny Youngman, who joked, "How's your wife?"/"Compared to what?" Except I've updated it with me and my friends to "How's your husband?"

What have you learned about campaigning?
That it sucks. It's the most godawful human activity that doesn't involve physical pain. It's high tension, and it's boring and difficult work – begging people for money and debasing yourself. I've known people who claim they've enjoyed it, but I think they're lying.

What should everyone understand about the political system?
That they have more power than they think! That people in my business are much more willing to listen to the voters than the voters understand. The problem is that voters don't often speak. Small-town democracy works better than people know. Big money is very important, but on issues that the voters speak out on, they will kick big money's ass.

How should a man handle getting old?
By accepting the good side of it. People are more solicitous; other men aren't as challenged by an older man – there's less machismo involved. You shouldn't try to stay young. You can't. You'll fail. You should enjoy old.

How should a man treat his enemies?
As enemies.

What's the best way to win an argument?
Carefully analyze what people say and throw it back at them. People say all kinds of things they don't realize, and if you listen, they will, at some point, be inconsistent or inaccurate.

What's the best way to handle regret?
With acceptance. My ­biggest regret is that when I was still closeted, I was undisciplined about it and did not have proper control of my emotions and physical drive. I should have come out earlier. I am a much better openly gay man than I was a closeted one. My other regret is that I haven't written more. I am easily distracted. It doesn't take much to drive me away from a blank page.

How should you endure scandal?
By being as open as possible about what happened. What happens in all these scandals is that you are accused of both what you did wrong and many things you didn't do. The lawyers come and tell you not to admit anything. But you can't deny some things and be silent on others. Just be completely open: Deny what's not true and admit what is.

What human characteristics are overrated?
I think patience is greatly overrated – and directness, which is sometimes called rudeness, is greatly underrated. Too much patience and not enough directness make you ineffective. I couldn't get nearly as much done if I followed the conventional views on both of those.

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