With authenticity and intelligence, Barney Frank made his mark in Congress

November 28, 2011

ESSAY

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.

When Frank first ran for the House in 1980, the campaign almost unhinged him. He already knew that he would never enjoy campaigning — he was thin-skinned, and disliked trying to charm people he didn’t know or care much about — but the ’80 contest against a conservative dentist and former member of the John Birch Society brought out some of his worst characteristics.

His campaign manager that year was Jim Segel, a former student of Frank’s at Harvard who had been his colleague in the Massachusetts House. “Part of our job,” Segel later told Frank’s biographer, Stuart Weisberg, “was to keep Barney away from people. He was alienating everyone he came in contact with. . . . If he wasn’t such a good friend, I would have walked out. You have to love Barney Frank to like him.”

But he won, and won a second difficult race two years later when redistricting forced him to run against a popular Republican incumbent, Margaret Heckler. By then he was a national political figure, thanks to his clever quips and insights, both beloved of political reporters everywhere. Because of his brainpower and his political agility, he had also impressed his colleagues. When polled by news organizations, they chose him as the most promising freshman member in 1981.

●He was an unusual human specimen in the Washington public life of the late 20th century, because he was gay. Frank first told some intimates that he wanted to come out of the closet in 1980, but they discouraged him from doing so, arguing that this would end his political career. When he told a wider circle that he was going to come out in 1987, many people (including me) were surprised. But he was determined, and the results were far better than he had feared. He loved to tell the story of how his mentor, Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, the speaker of the House, took the news. O’Neill was shattered, not because Frank was gay, but because “I thought you would be the first Jewish speaker.”

●Frank mastered the subject matter. This is rare, probably increasingly rare, in the modern Congress. Frank mastered complicated subjects, particularly in the realm of financial regulatory reform. The work he did on what became the Dodd-Frank bill, one of the most substantial pieces of legislation passed in many years, made him an expert “on subjects I never wanted to know about,” as he once joked. He knew about housing policy, and took a lonely position for many years in favor of more federal aid for rental housing, when the fashion was to favor homeownership for all, or nearly all, Americans. Some people, Frank argued, shouldn’t own; for them, renting is fine.

He also learned civil rights law, and worked fiercely to advance gay rights however he could. He has lately been studying the defense budget, which he thinks needs to be cut substantially as part of any effort to reduce budget deficits. In the words of his pal Segel, who worked for him from 2007 until this year as a political aide, Frank “has passion and political skill. He had no illusions, but he had the passion to go after big issues and the skill to effect real change.”

●And finally, he maintained a healthy, jaundiced view of public opinion, which he knew to be fickle and often superficial. When a reporter asked him a dumb question, he would sometimes say, “That’s a dumb question.” Constituents at town meetings occasionally got similar treatment.

And when people complained to him about politicians, those corrupt, lazy, good-for-nothing bums, Frank had a stock reply: “You know,” he’d say with a twinkle in his eye, “the public is no bargain, either.”

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