Barney Rumble: Superficial Doc Revisits Clinton’s Gay ’90s


Bart Everly’s doting portrait of openly gay Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank dispels current notions about the so-called return of the culture wars: the idea that the struggles over morality and identity that defined the late ’80s to early ’90s were summarily dismissed with a voluptuous blurt from Bill Clinton’s feel-good saxophone, kept at bay by a decade of comfy prosperity, and reappeared only recently in the form of red-vs.-blue polarization, whipped up in anticipation of the pending national referendum on Dubya’s job performance. Frank’s role as Clinton’s defender during the impeachment hearings connects the dots between the Republican attempts to denigrate the Democrats and to put the kibosh on increasingly mainstream movements for gay rights. Everly reframes L’affaire Lewinsky as not merely an interparty power struggle, but an integral component in a right-wing crusade to counteract the liberalizing of American social values. As Frank puts it, the period saw nothing less than “fundamental battle for almost the soul of the country.”

Beyond this proposal, Let’s Get Frank falters. Indiscriminately shot, set to insufferably caffeinated trip-hop, and edited with the superficial pep of a television magazine show, Let’s Get Frank conveys its congressional star as a personality, but not quite a character. All too skillfully playing to the camera, Frank cuts the figure of archetypical Massachusetts politician in the no-bullshit, common-sense-liberal Tip O’Neill tradition: working-class non-rhotic accent, portly physique, a puckish jabber-jaw, quick with the comebacks. Indeed, Frank’s ability to defuse Republican bluster with well-timed witty banter may have even deeper roots: In a Conan O’Brien interview, Frank outs himself as kin to the obscure fourth Stooge, Shemp Howard. Yet frustratingly scarce time is given to the circumstances of Frank’s pioneering public announcement of his homosexuality, or his prior political career. Even less attention is paid to the details of Frank’s own 1990 sex scandal, prompted by his involvement with a male prostitute. Considering that Frank’s emergence as key bulwark against the attacks on the president hinged on his own success in weathering similar events, the speedy rundown of Frank’s past proves unsatisfying.

Although Everly focuses on the ridiculousness of Jerry Falwell’s denouncement of the Teletubbies as subliminally pro-gay and the hypocrisy of anti-Clinton moralists Bob Barr and Henry Hyde (both hid their own adultery scandals), no mention is given to the fact that Clinton OK’d both the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gay soldiers and the national Defense of Marriage Act, which set federal definitions of marriage as hetero-only and excused states from recognizing any future same-sex marriages allowed in fellow states. Certainly the Bush administration has done enough damage to make the Clinton years now seem like a progressive paradise in comparison, but Let’s Get Frank is hardly frank enough.