On the left, the Massachusetts Democrat has been a hero for his effort to rein in the nation’s largest banks and for his role in promoting gay rights, having been the most prominent openly gay member of Congress. On the right, Frank became a stand-in, alongside Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the late senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), for attack lines designed to gin up conservative activists.
Behind the scenes, however, Frank — who was first elected in 1980 — became one of the most important lawmakers of his generation, a successful backroom negotiator who knew how to broker critical deals. With his announcement Monday that he will not seek reelection next year, he will leave a legacy that goes beyond simple politics.
Few lawmakers can claim, as Frank can, to have won the trust of both the George W. Bush Treasury Department and the gay rights movement.
“This country has never had a Congressman like Barney Frank, and the House of Representatives will not be the same without him,” President Obama said in a statement.
After the announcement, there was an outpuring of tributes for a politician who brought a unique style to Congress, much to the chagrin of opponents and delight of his fans. As Robert Kaiser wrote
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.
Barney Frank is one of several House Democrats who hace decided not to run in 2012, and some analysts wonder if Frank’s announcement will herald a rush of other departures. As Aaron Blake explained:
House Democrats are starting to head for the exits, but it’s not quite panic time for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
In recent days, both Reps.
Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and
Charlie Gonzalez (D-Texas) have announced they won’tseek re-election in 2012. Their declarations bring the number of Democrats not seeking another term next year to 17, which has Republicans arguing that Democratic members don’t believe they can retake the House majority next year.
But eight of those 17 Democrats are actually seeking other office. In other words, only nine Democrats are calling it quits outright.
While that number is greater than the amount of Democrats who have typically announced their retirements at other points in past election cycles, it’s still far less than the exodus that generally occurs after a party loses House control. So when it comes to whether this is a big problem for Democrats recapturing the House majority in 2012, the jury is very much out.
Looking ahead, though, the number of Democratic retirements in the next couple months will be a key indicator of whether the rank-and-file truly believe the majority is attainable. As President Obama’s numbers continue to languish and the economy struggle, some may see the goal slipping away.
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