Tom Foley, Democratic House Speaker between 1989 and 1994, died last week. The New Republic took to its wayback machine to pull up what’s probably the best-remembered story about Rep. Foley — Lee Atwater sending out an official RNC memo comparing Foley to Barney Frank (“Tom Foley, Out of the Liberal Closet”):
… Atwater said, “I don’t think it’s that big of a deal.” Lesser functionaries insisted that no sexual innuendo was intended. The closet metaphor, they maintained, was purely political: Foley is a liberal who pretends to be a moderate…
To accept these explanations one would have to begin by accepting the dubious theory that Frank is uniquely qualified to represent House liberals, even though he is known for the heterodoxy of his opinions (he recently advised liberals to forget about gun control, for example)… More to the point, one would have to believe that the memo’s authors were unaware (a) that the primary meaning of the phrase “out of the closet” is to denote the public disclosure of previously concealed homosexuality; (b) that Frank is a gay person who became nationally famous when he came out of the closet two years ago; or (c) that for weeks prior to the release of the memo Foley had been the target of a campaign of scurrilous but unpublished rumors suggesting that he too is gay, and perforce closeted. (“We hear it’s little boys,” an aide to Newt Gingrich, the House Republican whip, had been going around saying.)…
Barney Frank, by the way, knows about deterrence. At a conference of political operatives and reporters at Harvard last weekend, I found surprising unanimity that the decisive factor in squelching the anti-Foley smear campaign had been Frank’s threat to name five gay Republicans on Capitol Hill. I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have actually done it. But then, isn’t the purpose of possessing nuclear weapons to ensure that they never have to be used?
Frank, like many others, is unhappy about the underlying premise of the closet memo flap: That calling someone gay ipso facto a smear. “But the reality is that we still have a prejudiced society,” he says. “When FDR was being called ‘Rosenfeld’ and ‘Rosenstein,’ it wasn’t inconsistent with opposition to anti-Semitism for people to point out that he was not in fact Jewish.” In any case, Frank has done wonders for the “image” of gay people by facing down the bigots….
There’s all kinds of conclusions could be drawn from this twisted little epic, but I’ll go with these:
(1) Yes, American politics have always been pretty ugly;
(2) Barney Frank is a OG gunslinger; and
(3) Sometimes we do make progress. Twenty-four years ago, just suggesting a politician might be gay was considered a political death threat; being gay still isn’t a net positive in all parts of the country, but it’s been significantly defanged as a threat, largely due to the hard work of gay activists and politicians (like Mr. Frank).