The Democrats and Barney Frank

IN the courts, testimony against self-interest is particularly credible. When politicians criticize themselves, their comments, too, carry special weight. Thus, when one of the top people in the Carter administration, Stuart E. Eizenstat, tells us what's wrong with the Democrats, it grabs our attention. Mr. Eizenstat, Carter's domestic policy adviser, sees worsening days ahead for the Democrats unless they deal with the following ``disabilities'':

``We are not trusted to manage the economy. We are not trusted to protect our country's national security interests abroad. We have lost a sense of middle-class values and seem to blush or look condescendingly at patriotism, family values, and concerns about sex and violence on television, so insistent are we on the fullest exercise of individual actions.''

Only a few hours after Eizenstat's comments at a conference on the Democratic prospects for 1992 had been reported, political analyst Norman Ornstein was telling reporters over breakfast that he thought Eizenstat had delivered his message ``mainly to wake up the Democrats.''

Here a questioner pressed in on whether Democrats were failing the ``family-value issue.'' He asked specifically, how Mr. Ornstein, a friend of Barney Frank's, viewed Representative Frank's admission of a two-year relationship with a male prostitute. Ornstein's response:

``The more Barney Frank is in the news, the more it hurts the Democratic Party because the American public already believes the Democrats are out of sync with the nation's values.''

Mr. Frank, highly respected by his Democratic colleagues as a congressional leader and spokesman, shows no signs of resigning. He's going to tough it out, it seems, relying on his liberal constituents to reelect him.

Whether this persistence in hanging on to his job would hurt many of his fellow Democratic congressmen, running in regions where voters are less forgiving of such sexual behavior, doesn't seem to have crossed Frank's mind.

Recent presidential elections do show the public more trusting of Republicans when it comes to dealing with the economy and foreign affairs. But the most serious problem Democrats have is with the widespread perception that they are weak on family values, particularly in their alliance with the gay community.

It is quite apparent to voters that homosexual power is an important part of the Democratic coalition. Particularly high proportions of gays vote. And they are generous in providing money for those who espouse their cause.

But Barney Frank and those who support him should know that there are millions of people outside of Frank's Massachusetts district who don't feel comfortable with the gay life style - not yet, anyway, and, perhaps, never.

Additionally, many of Frank's critics are wondering how his dealing with a homosexual prostitute differs from that of a heterosexual congressman who hired a female prostitute. If those acts were divulged, they argue, his political career would be over - particularly if it was also disclosed that that female prostitute conducted business while living in the lawmaker's house.

Years ago, while stationed at Keesler Field, Mississippi, during War II, I got to know Merle Miller, who, with an article in the New York Times some 35 years later, ``came out of the closet'' with a disclosure that did so much to help others to openly declare their homosexuality.

The Miller I knew (years before he became a well-known author and biographer of Harry Truman) was a brooding, often angry fellow. This abrasive demeanor, he explained in the Times article, was the result of the frustrations of having to pretend to be something he wasn't.

I sympathized with Mr. Miller when I read that article. I sympathize with all homosexuals. I can see that their lot isn't an easy one. But I'm a political writer who must deal with what has become a cliche: the political realities.

The political realities are that there are a great many Americans who will accept homosexuality as a problem and even sympathize with the homosexual but who are not willing to accept homosexuality as normal. Further, these people fear that gays and those who promote gays are undercutting their way of life, their own cherished family values. And therein lies a big and growing problem for the Democrats

But will the Democrats be delivered of the Barney Frank burden?

Asked the other morning whether he thought Frank should ``hang tough'' or ``hang it up'', Democratic National Committee chairman Ron Brown said he was unable to make a judgment until he had ``all the facts.''

The next morning one of the Senate's most respected members, Lloyd Bentsen, said he had been much too busy dealing with such matters as capital gains to have paid much attention to the matter.

Thus, many top Democrats, publicly at least, are not turning their backs on Barney Frank. This may be enough to reinforce Frank's apparent resolve to stay on the job.

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