The House of Representatives is losing its least-typical member: Barney Frank announced Monday that he will retire at the end of next year. This is sad news for Congress, an institution that has faded to gray over the last generation. Sad, but predictable.
Frank (D-Mass.) was a throwback to a time when members stood out for their unique personal characteristics. He never pandered, and sometimes insulted. “I’d rather be rude than bored,” he said on many occasions, and he provided plenty of evidence that this was true. But he was also an accomplished legislator, a congressman who made a difference. He was usually the smartest man in the room, and the funniest.
In Washington, typically, reporters get to know politicians by covering them once they’ve arrived here, but this reporter met Barney Frank when he was 21 years old, and I was 18, half a century ago. We were both delegates to a long-forgotten event called the National Student Congress. Frank was the delegate from Harvard who knew Robert’s Rules of Order backward and forward, and who seemed conversant with all the big national issues of the day. The hard thing, then as now, was deciphering the words that poured out of his mouth like bullets from a Gatling gun, disguised in a thick New York-ish accent that revealed his Bayonne, N.J., origins. We have maintained friendly relations ever since, so readers should be on notice that this article may want for objectivity.
Frank differed from the Washington norm in one way after another. Consider:
●He made a political career that now spans 44 years in Massachusetts, a place famous for its own unusual accents, without ever hiding his unique, learned-in-Bayonne approach to the mother tongue, and to life in general. He was a Jew in a Catholic state. He had two (and nearly three) degrees from Harvard, which gave him a local credential, but one that wasn’t always applauded in the Bay State. He had just two really close elections in four decades of running for office; usually he won in a walk.
●He learned politics from the vantage point of the people who are now often the most important actors on Capitol Hill — the staff. The typical modern member either has no prior political experience, like many of the new tea party Republicans in the House, or came to Congress after holding a succession of lesser elected offices that usually put them at the center of public attention. Frank learned the game in the office of Kevin White, mayor of Boston from 1968 to 1984. Frank ran the office in White’s first term, when he was supposed to be completing his PhD in government at Harvard. He learned how to make things happen before he held an elected office or had a formal responsibility. This gave him an appreciation for accomplishing things, which he always liked more than making speeches and raising campaign money.
●He then moved into electoral politics, again with a unique credential. He won election to the Massachusetts House in 1972, on the unlikely coattails of Sen. George McGovern, the Democratic candidate for president that year. “I was one of the few politicians in America to benefit from McGovern’s success,” he joked for years. Frank ran behind McGovern in his own district — in the only state that McGovern carried that year.