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.”