HONORS 195: Rhetoric of Impeachment; Fall, 1999, John Dewey Honors Program, College of Arts & Sciences, University of Vermont
Alfred C. Snider, Edwin W. Lawrence Professor of Forensics
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Truth, Lies, Privacy
Throughout his eighteen-year tenure in the United States House of Representatives, Representative Barney Frank has received all types of criticism and praise, ranging from derogatory statements pertaining to his sexual preferences, to outstanding compliments similar to the ones received by the great orators in the history of our country. Many of these comments surfaced during the recent impeachment trial for President Clinton, where Representative Frank dazzled and enraged many of his political colleagues with his unique "laser-sharp wit and quips" (Alvarez, 1998).
Throughout his political career and most recently, the impeachment trial, Representative Frank freely voiced his opinion of the President and his actions with an almost invincible aura emanating with each comment. It is true that Representative Frank emerged as one of Clintons strongest defenders, but Representative Frank did not assume the typical role of a completely loyal and faithful supporter. Representative Frank made exhilarating arguments in defense of the President, and he publicly denounced the Presidents actions just as quickly when he did not agree with them. By supporting the President in such a fashion, it is hard to imagine why Representative Frank was not constantly under attack, but rather still able to clearly state his opinions to an audience that was still very eager to listen.
Of course like any other politician, Representative Frank has his allies and his enemies, yet he does not seem to weigh them as heavily as other politicians appear to. Enemies or simply people who do not necessarily see eye to eye with Representative Frank, have branded Frank as:
"very intimidating, harassing, with an ability to use humor that enables him to win debate on tactics alone, rather than substance,"says Jones."His style reminds me of a petulant adolescent who has to have his own way. He's a stand-up comedian in congressional clothes, a very funny guy in the Don Rickles/Jackie Mason mold"(Elvin, 1998).
Another one of Franks rivals, Howard Phillips of Conservative Caucus, who began debating with Frank in their undergraduate days at Harvard, stated that Representative Frank is:
"a person of great energy, and great passion, for the wrong causes. God gave him extraordinary talent and he's using it for evil rather than for good. Barney is a very capable fellow with a very distorted view of what's right and what's wrong"(Elvin, 1998).
Along with the negative criticism directed at Representative Frank comes a great number of positive, uplifting compliments such as the following by Representative Henry Hyde:
"He overwhelms you with rapid rhetoric,"says Hyde (R-Ill.),"but there is usually substance behind it. He's a fearsome adversary who appears to enjoy his work. He's quick, he's sharp and he's effective. Basically, Barney is a lot of fun" (Quinn, 1998).
Other members of Congress have described Representative Frank as:
"an almost universally acknowledged legislative superstar, and a national treasure, who ought to be preserved" (Kondracke, 1989).
On a more personal level, Representative Frank is described as:
"a largish man, with a tired-looking frame and a been-there-done-that air. He swears, doesnt wear a necktie, and doesnt seem to be selling anything or impress you like other politicians" (Dana, 1999).
So, the question now is: Why was Representative Barney Frank able to exercise that much freedom and achieve this much recognition in the House?
The answer is openness, honesty and logic. Representative Barney Frank has made a conscious effort to remain incredibly straightforward and honest when directing statements to the American public, reporters for the media, and his fellow members of Congress. Along with Representative Franks unarguably honest tone is his very direct approach to issues and questions at hand. Rather than regurgitating numbers and statistics or embarking on illogical monologues to avoid questions, Representative Frank responds with very direct logical answers that aim to satisfy every issue at question, such as this excerpt from an interview with Representative Frank following an impeachment hearing:
QUESTION: Do you think it now looks like they are going to force this into January?
FRANK: I don't think they know. I think they are torn between two conflicting political impulses. One is that it would be a disaster to have the new Congress in 1999 start off focused on impeachment in the House and in the Senate. On the other hand, their right wing appears to be very resistant to letting this thing die. And so that's why you're getting inconsistent and unpredictable actions. And I don't know how it's going to eventuate (FDCH, 11/20/98).
In responses such as these, Representative Frank expresses his honest opinion towards the situation and answers the question to the best of his ability. During the majority of the congressional hearings and interviews, Representative Frank conducted himself in a professional and business-like manner, careful not to let his guard down and always staying very composed.
Unfortunately, it is not always easy to be completely open and honest about your beliefs and ideas, especially if you are a politician. In many cases it takes an unusual incident or situation in which you or some aspect of your life is unexpectedly exposed to the public and their criticism. In the case of Representative Frank, this is exactly what happened.
Unlike many other politicians, Representative Frank has had several unfavorable incidents in the past which gave voters an open opportunity to view this private life and voice their opinions and attitudes toward Representative Frank. The first came in 1987, when Representative Frank made the decision to come-out-of-the-closet and publicly announce his homosexuality. At the time, Representative Frank had established himself as an influential member of the House and had a well-established reputation in his home state of Massachusetts, which enabled him to go public without much fear of jeopardizing his political career. Later in 1990, Representative Frank was reprimanded before Congress for his actions involving a male prostitute by the name of Steven Gobie. In 1987, Representative Frank had begun an eighteen-month long relationship with Gobie, a prostitute whom Frank had solicited for sex, and later hired as a valet. During this time, Franks Washington D.C. townhouse was used as a prostitution ring without the consent or knowledge of Representative Frank. This incident had a much greater impact on his political career and prompted several inquiries towards a resignation, all of which Frank rejected. Representative Franks reprimand also had a large impact on him personally due to his high esteem for his seat in the House and his colleagues. In a New York Times interview, Frank stated:
"I would tell you that having been reprimanded by this House of Representatives, where I'm so proud to serve, was no triviality. It is something that, when people write about me, they still write about. It is not something that's a matter of pride. I wish I could go back and undo it"(Alvarez, 1998).
With this event open to the publics criticism, Representative Frank instantly became quite vulnerable and put his political career in jeopardy. Quickly several gay and lesbian organizations voiced their opinions and support for Representative Frank with statements such as the following from the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus.
"We support Barney Frank because we know about his 20 years of public service and the tremendous amount of contributions he has made to the citizens of our commonwealth,"said Steven Tierney of the gay and lesbian
caucus."He has become an effective force for progressive causes and a nationally recognized political leader"(McNeilly, 1989).
As Representative Frank battled with the possibility of resignation, he was urged not to resign by Ronald Brown, the Democratic National Committee Chairman, as well as many other groups such as the Council for a Livable World who stated:
"To be blunt, even a Barney Frank, whose effectiveness in Congress is somewhat diminished this year, still ranks among the most effective members in the U.S. Congress. We hope you will choose to continue your good work in Congress" (Bass, 1989).
Finally, with the reprimand in his past, and acceptance and support from his peers and his public, Representative Frank could continue his political career without living a hidden private life. Representative Frank still does not offer much information about his private life, but he is able to perform his duties as a congressman without fear of someone discovering a secret in his past.
After realizing the severity of the reprimand and the amount of damage that could have occurred if he had been removed from office, Representative Frank began to approach Congress and the American public in a direct manner that would not incriminate him or provoke any other sort of problems. With this comfort zone now well established, Representative Frank is able to conduct himself in the House with a sense of freedom and confidence that is rarely exhibited by other politicians. Representative Frank has clearly stated his positions on many of the issues debated in Congress, so that all of his constituents and peers have no doubt on which way he will vote and which candidate or argument he will support. With his views open to the public as well, Representative Frank doesnt have to waste money campaigning to gain a firm backing either. In fact, Representative Frank has enjoyed a rather competitor-free career in Massachusetts, not having to make a campaign commercial for television in over 16 years (Quinn, 1998).
With this type of support and relationship with the public and Congress, Representative Frank is able to openly speak and make comments without worrying about the consequences. This is not to say that Representative Frank can say or do as he pleases, rather that Representative Frank does not have to aim to please certain groups of voters or politicians when he speaks. Representative Frank is able to make statements that are logical and well thought, instead of basing his comments on results gained from opinion polls and focus groups as many other politicians may.
Although Representative Franks private life was made public, he very strongly agrees that what someone does in the privacy of their home should be completely separate and irrelevant to their performance as a professional. With this said, there is no wonder why Representative Frank played such an active role in the defense of President Clinton throughout the impeachment trial. Representative Franks defense of President Clinton did not just begin with the impeachment, it began in 1994 when the Whitewater hearings first made headlines. In 1994 Representative Frank became the "Presidents point man in the House on Whitewater questions, when he used his trademark comic one-liners to defuse Republican attacks on the administration" (Zuckman, 1994). Although sex was not the issue in the Whitewater case, Representative Frank sympathized with Clinton because of personal and ethical questions involving the President and First Lady. In an interview concerning Whitewater, Representative Frank stated:
"It makes me sensitive personally to people being unfairly attacked,"Frank said."I can remember when everyone had me hanged. I felt some empathy for Josh Steiner and George"Stephanopoulos"and some of the others" (Zuckman, 1994).
Clearly Representative Franks reprimand had a very significant impact on his life and the way in which he views attacks on other people when their private lives are being judged. Representative Frank eagerly joined the defense of the President once the Lewinsky scandal came to surface. This time, the indictments against the President were obviously much closer related to the incident Representative Frank had encountered in 1990, and the confident Frank prepared to take the stage once again.
Throughout the impeachment process, Representative Frank bitterly argued with the Republicans to settle on a decision of censure for the President as opposed to impeachment. During the trial Representative Frank became enraged when Republicans downplayed the importance of a censure for its lack of severity. In an interview, Representative Frank stated that "he doesnt understand those who say censure would mean nothing to the President,"
"the notion that Bill Clinton doesn't care what people think about him is nonsensical. Of course he does. He cares about what history says about him. I've never heard anybody suggest before that when the House or Senate censures or reprimands someone it's irrelevant. I was reprimanded. It was a very sad moment for me"(Quinn, 1998).
The similarity between the Representative Franks incident and that of the President allowed Representative Frank to provide a powerful argument in defense of the President. In a 1998 article in the National Journal, Representative Frank and three law professors were credited with presenting the best arguments against impeaching the president when they argued that:
" privacy is lost when lawyers are able to force anyone to answer questions about intimate details. They also argued that perjury is rampant and thousands of police officers lie under oath every year" (Taylor, 1998).
Representative Frank also argued that:
"we erode privacy"when we allow anyone who files a lawsuit to compel the president (or anyone else) to answer under oath questions about"intimate details of [his] life"that are"peripheral"to the lawsuit. The implication was that
the seriousness of President Clinton's lies at his Jan. 17 deposition in the Paula Jones lawsuit was mitigated by the unwarranted intrusiveness of the laws under which he was questioned (Taylor, 1998).
Throughout the impeachment trial and the committee hearings Representative Frank clearly stated that his previous personal experience with a sex-related scandal had a large impact on how he viewed the President. In an earlier interview Representative Frank stated:
"I am a little bit bemused,"he says,"by people denouncing him for lying about private sex, because they denounced me for telling the truth about it" (Quinn, 1998).
Despite the fact that Representative Franks reprimand did not prove fatal to his career, the verbal punishment proved to bring "discredit upon gays and lesbians" throughout the United States (Alvarez, 1998). When commenting on why he decided to utilize his own personal experience in defense of the President, Representative Frank stated:
"To do something that allows other gay and lesbian people to be attacked because of me, that made me feel terrible,"said Mr. Frank, 58, who was first elected to Congress in 1980."So I thought throwing my own personal experience into the pot that way was a little bit of expiation. This is one more way of saying, 'I know that I screwed up'"(Alvarez, 1998).
Now it appears easy and almost common for Representative Frank to publicly acknowledge his reprimand. Over the course of the last eight or nine years the issue has become less and less painful to discuss publicly for Representative Frank. Regardless of the elapsed time since the reprimand, "delving into his personal life, he said, was not something he relished doing" (Alvarez, 1998).
"I hate to talk about personal things, I resist them, but it became terribly relevant, and it would have been cowardice not to,"Mr. Frank said in an interview (Alvarez, 1998).
Although Representative Frank showed a large amount of support for the President throughout the trial, he clearly believes that the Presidents actions were wrong and worthy of punishment. Representative Frank acknowledged his disapproval of the President when he stated:
"The normal sanction for the kind of irresponsible behavior and terrible judgment and dishonesty that Bill Clinton has shown is that you get defeated in the next election. That's the ultimate penalty that a politician pays. . . . If Bill Clinton were not beyond electable sanctions, then I think people would not feel as frustrated because there would be a way to punish him"(Quinn, 1998).
Due to the fact that President Clinton can not be reelected, Representative Frank felt that censure would be the next appropriate resolution.
When trying to understand the connection between Representative Frank and President Clinton, it is quite clear as to why Representative Frank emerged as such a stalwart defender of Clinton. It was not due to a friendly or admirable relationship that had begun much earlier in their careers. Rather, it was based on ethical issues concerning ones right to a private life. Unlike many of the prosecuting Republicans and Democrats for that matter, Representative Frank had received a formal reprimand before Congress and knows what it felt like to be subjected to this type of punishment. Representative Frank more than anyone else, understood the severity of censure and decided that a vote of impeachment was much too harsh for this situation. As for the allegations against the President concerning the obstruction of justice, Representative Frank agreed that:
"it's pretty clear that the president was taking steps to delay the discovery of the truth. And I believe that's obstruction of justice. That's why I support articles of impeachment"(FDCH, 12/12/98 Consideration and Censure).
If the President had been found guilty on the charges of the obstruction of justice, it would have been very likely that Representative Frank would have agreed with the punishment.
Representative Frank is again able to make statements such as the one above due to his freedom to voice his honest opinions of the President and not have to worry about betraying his Party or the President. Many other politicians were not able to agree with the Presidents actions in some cases but not in all such as Representative Frank does. For many of the politicians it was all or nothing when supporting the President.
Clearly Representative Frank learned his lesson about lying and trying to keep secrets about his private life hidden from the public and his peers. It would have been very interesting to see what would have happened if President Clinton had adopted the same straightforward, honest policy of Barney Frank when the Lewinsky scandal first arose. By being open and direct with his ideas and views, Representative Barney Frank presented a logical and just argument in defense of the President and was able to argue and present views that many politicians could not, largely due to their conscious efforts to preserve their political reputations and careers.
Alvarez, Lizette. "Testing of a President: The Defender; A Lawmaker Uses His Own Shame as a Guide." The New York Times 13 Dec. 1998: sec. 1 pg. 45. Lexis -Nexis.
Bass, Janet. "Frank urged to tough it out." BC Cycle 18 Sep. 1989: Lexis-Nexis.
Dana, Will."Being Barney Frank."Rolling Stone 4 Feb. 1999: i.805 pg. 43(4). InfoTrac.
Elvin, John. "Ann and Barney Defend Clinton." Insight on the News 30 Nov. 1998: pg. 18. Lexis-Nexis.
FDCH Political Transcripts. (Dec. 12, 1998). U.S. Representative Henry Hyde Holds Hearings on Impeachment of the President Consideration of Articles of Impeachment and a Possible Censure Resolution. Washington, D.C.: Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. Lexis-Nexis.
FDCH Political Transcripts. (Nov. 20, 1998). U.S. Representative Barney Frank Holds Media Availability. Washington, D.C.: Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. Lexis-Nexis.
Kondracke, Morton. "In defense of Barney: the importance of being Frank." The New Republic 9 Oct. 1989: v. 201 No. 15 pg. 10(2). InfoTrac.
McNeilly, Jonathan. "Mass. Gay, womens groups urge Frank not to resign." The Boston Globe 22 Sep. 1989: pg. 22. Lexis-Nexis.
Quinn, Sally. "Rep. Barney Frank, Minority Wit; Clinton Backer Goes Straight to the Point." The Washington Post 18 Dec. 1998: D01. Lexis-Nexis.
Taylor, Stuart Jr. "The Best Case Against Impeachment." National Journal 5 Dec. 1998: v. 30 p.2826(1). Lexis-Nexis.
Zuckman, Jill. "Advocate Frank: Wits about him." The Boston Globe 13 Aug. 1994: pg. 3. Lexis-Nexis.