Skip to main content
Expand AU Menu

Media Relations

Rep. Barney Frank, School of Public Affairs Commencement Speaker

Text of Speech (as delivered)

Barney Frank speech

A "word cloud" representation of Rep. Barney Frank's speech.

I am deeply honored, because American University is a school that I admire a great deal. It makes an enormous contribution to the life of this city, and to the nation, and I am the uncle of an alumna from ten years ago. And so I am very glad to get the degree. And I recognize that the price of the degree is the speech. Now let me be very clear, I have a very good understanding of the role of a commencement speech.

When you are invited to give a commencement speech it is kind of like singing the star spangled banner at a ballgame. Not here where it is was so beautifully done. But at a baseball game, when you sing the Star Spangled Banner, nobody came to hear you. It’s just they can’t start the thing until you’ve done it. 

And the only time anybody will remember it is if you screw it up badly.

So now I am going to talk about what those of you who will be involved in public careers will encounter, and I have just given you the first lesson. Whenever possible, lower expectations about your performance.

Now, that’s because our friends in the media set a benchmark and then measure you against the benchmark. So that if they expect you to win a primary by 64 percent and you win it by 63 percent, a large win becomes a loss.

Now, there is some justification for doing that, because if you are involved in public policy either as a member of the private sector, because no serious issue in America gets resolved without cooperation between people in the public and private sectors each of whom understands the integral need for us to work together in those areas.

The problems that will get the most attention are the worst problems, they are the most serious ones and they are what people tend to forget. The solution to a problem cannot be qualitatively more elegant than the problem itself. Really messy problems do not have clean solutions. There is a tendency for people to critique the solution while forgetting what the problem is. I am continually sent letters, I read papers, I hear speeches, in which people spend about 95 percent of the time telling what’s wrong with what you have proposed and five percent promising to get back to you with a better idea. In fact, you have to take into account the nature of the problem.

Now, that leads me to urge you to follow the advice but to adopt the approach to problems that was formulated by one of the great philosophers of the 20th century. Some of you that are younger won’t know who he is, some of the older members will. His name was Henny Youngman.  He was called the “king of the one liners.” He was a very funny comedian and I think his most profound statement was, “How’s your wife? …Compared to what?”

That’s the way you have to approach every public policy solution… “Compared to what?” Because you do not have the luxury of creating a perfect situation. Now, I envy my friends in the economics profession. By the way, it is too late to give you advice you are about to graduate; you shouldn’t listen to me anyway. But if you go on to further work and you want to get involved in public policy, I will tell you the most important thing to know is accounting.

Fifty percent of what we fight about is accounting issues and people use accounting to throw dust in your eyes. But economics is also important for its way of thinking. And one of the important tools economists employ--which we in public policy can employ intellectually but we can’t use politically--is called the counter factual. A counter factual is what economists do when they are analyzing a proposed solution or a proposed action and they think about what would be the result if you took the opposite situation. What is the counter factual, if you did this—that is the factual. What would it be if you did that?

Now that will often make the solution look less worse than otherwise. But it is a hard one to deal with. It is certainly hard for politician, very often the result of the counter factual is to show that while things are unsatisfactory in this case—they would be much worse in that case. The politician who goes before the voters and says, “listen you should be very glad I did this. Because as a result of what I did things are awful, but boy would they have been worse if I didn’t do it.”

That is not a 60 second ad that anybody has ever been able to produce. And I mean all of this very seriously, understand that you will have to do a "compared to what analysis." But people are not comparing it to reality they are comparing it to what’s in their heads. So, you have to approach it with an understanding that things may be a little frustrating. Now part of that is the fault of our friends in the media.

Although, I must say I am undergoing kind of an interesting moment. When you are the subject of the media for many years, you tend not to like them very much. Especially because, you know there was an old story, an old line: No news is good news. Well the reverse is true to me: Good news is no news. They say, we don’t write about success. We only write about the plane crashes. The problem with that is that if, 999 planes land and one crashes and they only write about the crash. People will get the misleading impression. So, I do think they have more of an obligation to write about things that go well, but what I think about their obligation is irrelevant.

I am now sort of regretting… you know how someone you kind of didn’t like and then he dies and you feel a little bit guilty… I am starting to feel that way a little bit about newspapers because they are having a hard time and I am not what you would call an early adopter.

My boyfriend, Jim, is here and he is my technological assistant and my ambassador to newer technological world. I would find it very hard to do my job in a world without newspapers. And I am reaching the point of retirement some point in the foreseeable future, my fondest hope is that I do not outlast newspapers. I would find it very hard to do my job if it became required that I "tweet."

Well now let me come to a close. I really mean what I said about the job, your hardest problems will be the hardest ones to resolve. You will have to satisfy yourselves with having made bad situations a little bit better. Look, we got very good news yesterday—pretty good news. A half a million people lost their jobs. But, the previous months it had been six-and-seven-hundred thousand. A decrease in the rate at which things are going bad is a very significant accomplishment and of no use to you whatsoever politically.

But there are just a couple other things I would want to say in closing. I do have two specific pieces of advice I will give you at the end. But first, I want to urge you to reject certain opposites. I am a great believer in free speech. I would let people say all kinds of things about each other. I would let them show pictures of each other doing various things, as long as we are talking about adults. If I could ban speech I would do a couple of things: First of all, I would make it illegal to use metaphors in public policy debates…that’s a part. I would also make it felony to say “Oh, you can do that because you are pragmatic but I am idealistic.” Understand that the more deeply you hold your ideals, the more you are morally obligated to be pragmatic. Because ideals that are not implemented do nothing but make you feel morally superior. They never fed a hungry kid, they never cleaned up a polluted river, they never built a road that got people anywhere. So yeah, you should be pragmatic after you are idealistic. Pragmatism in the service of idealism is what you need. Idealism without pragmatism is just a way to flatter your ego.

Secondly, you have a business school graduation later; you have a school of public affairs here. Are you for the private sector or the public sector, the answer is yes. We are a society in which public sector and private sector cooperation is necessary and we are married to the past by too much of one or too much of the other. Our job right now, by the way, in the financial area is what Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson did in the early 20th century…what Franklin Roosevelt did in the 30s…We have to do it today. It is for the public sector to look at innovations in the private sector which are generally value producing. They won’t have survived if they weren’t. But because they are innovations, they are operating in a field of no rules. And our job, as was Theodore Roosevelt’s and Woodrow Wilson’s with anti-trust, and Franklin Roosevelt’s with security exchange commission, is to come up with rules that provide a framework in which many of the innovations we now have can do there good and do less harm. So you need public sector, private sector cooperation.

Last, one I want to talk about, I want to speak…I am a member of a group that has historically been belittled, subject to discrimination, and deemed it not respectable to be a member.  I am a partisan Democrat. We have, and I speak now on behalf of partisanship, not being a Democrat. This notion that there is something wrong with partisanship is deeply flawed. Before I became a politician….oh, I will give you one piece of career advice. Which is, try and find a job where you are strengths count and your weakness don’t? I was going to be an academic. I was studying for a PhD in political science. I care a lot about it, I enjoyed it. But, I realized that there was something that made me less suited to be an academic and to write and more to be a legislator. I mean this; it is a case where a defect in the one area became a source of strength in the other. I have a short attention span. That is a serious problem if you are trying to write a PhD thesis. It is a necessity if you are a legislator dealing with eleven things, and I mean that very seriously. So, go with your strengths.

But, as I studied one thing became very clear to me there has not been a self-governing polity in the history of the world where you didn’t have political parties. Not because anybody wanted them but because you just can’t have people milling around like they are at a shopping mall when you are trying to govern. And there are some natural divisions. I am a great admirer of President Obama, but I know there are sharp differences between the Democrats and the Republicans and when he announced in the campaign that he was going to be post-partisan, I got post-partisan depression.

I think we have seen this. Now, by the way, one other corollary. People said, "Oh, but there is no difference between the parties anymore." In fact, the two parties are more sharply differentiated on the whole range of issues today than they have been since the Civil War when they were shooting. And I will tell you this one thing for sure, anytime, anytime someone tells you how much better things used to be in the old days. Please remember that they weren’t. People use a mythical past to beat up the present because they don’t want to make their arguments on their own merits. Yes, you should be partisan and you should be bipartisan. There are issues which legitimately call for partisanship. Where there is a serious and honest intellectual and philosophical difference. The problem with partisanship is not that it exists, it is necessary for rational governance. But it becomes so embittering that people when they differ on one set of issues can’t cooperate on the other. Now I was very pleased. Some people may have thought that was odd when one of the Capitol Hill newspapers last week listed the most partisan Democrats and the most partisan Republicans and the most bipartisan. And I’m the only one who was on both lists. I was the most partisan Democrat and the most bipartisan Democrat. And, I was very proud of that because there were issue where you should be partisan and issues where you shouldn’t and the important thing is not to have them run into each other.

Last point, two pieces of practical advice for those of you who are go on into public life. If you go into public life or if you are prominent in some other way. You will from time to time be asked to attend an event. You would like to go to that event for as short a time as possible. Because you have to be there but, you don’t really enjoy it. Now, you often hear people read letters, “Oh, I cannot be with you in person, but I am here in spirit.” More often if you go into politics, you will be places in person where you are not in spirit. But when you do those things I have one important piece of advice: Never let anyone take your coat. Because the time will come when you want to sneak out early, and through the room will ripple the cry “Where is the Congressman’s coat?”

Secondly, you will from time to time be given things as a token of people’s appreciation. Unless you wish to have a room full of T-shirts with silly slogans, leaky pens, and mugs that will inevitably chip, you would be well advised to get rid of them fairly soon after you are given them, but that's one rule that I violated once and paid a price for. And this the last piece of practical advice I will give you if you go into public life. Never throw anything in the garbage within one mile of where you were given it.

Thank you.

Rep. Frank was one of five commencement speakers. Click here to access transcripts and watch video of all commencement speeches.