Barney Frank: the rudest Congressman you’ll ever miss

The subtitle of Stuart Weisberg’s book Barney Frank is “the story of America’s only left-handed, gay, Jewish Congressman.” It could also be “ the story of the smartest, wittiest, rudest person in Congress in our lifetime.” It is also true that his decision not to run for reelection will leave a huge void.

Civility and humility were never Barney’s strongest suit. Everyone has “Barney” stories to tell. The doctor who participated in a meeting in his Washington office, appalled that the Congressman read a newspaper while his visitors presented their case on a pressing issue. The television producer whom he berated for asking him to arrive at the station a full half an hour before the candidates in his race were to debate. Saying please and thank you was an unnatural act.

One personal favorite occurred during a blinding snowstorm the night of the 1976 Presidential primary. We were both leaving the Copley Plaza Hotel after festivities there for primary winner Scoop Jackson and, across the hall, for primary loser Birch Bayh. (I had covered both events for the Ten O’Clock News on Channel 2.) Barney accosted me outside the St. James Street entrance, highly critical of something I had written in The Boston Phoenix about his candidate, Mo Udall (who privately was my choice as well). I was definitely overpowered in the exchange and finally, in exasperation, said, “Really, Barney, you are the most arrogant person I know.” Without missing a beat, Barney retorted, “Really, Marge, how many arrogant people do you know?” You never prevailed in verbal combat with Barney. Just ask his colleagues in Washington on both sides of the aisle. With a nice touch of self-deprecatory wit, Barney himself said today that one of the benefits of not running for re-election is “not having to pretend to be nice to people I don’t like.”

He was always quotable. Once, then-Boston Phoenix editor Bill Miller stepped out of his office into the newsroom and announced, “A hundred dollars to the first reporter who doesn’t quote Barney Frank in a story.” The combination of brains, often caustic wit and edge was just too tempting.

People in the 4th congressional district largely felt that Barney’s rudeness was the price they had to pay for his intelligence, hard work and unswerving support of mostly liberal causes. As a state legislator, he attacked Michael Dukakis in 1974 when the then-Governor cut welfare benefits. It continued when he succeeded anti-war Congressman Robert Drinan in 1981, espousing progressive policies and excoriating Reaganomics on the national scene. His position as a member, then chairman (now ranking minority member) of the Financial Services Committee enabled him to achieve much for those in need of affordable housing and access to credit. The Dodd-Frank Bill may be his most lasting legacy, though repealing it is a top goal of campaigning Republicans.

He was liberal, but not a stereotypical ideologue. He was also pragmatic. Like Ted Kennedy, Barney knew when to depart from liberal dogma, for example, and could reach across the aisle to get a deal done. From trucking deregulation (which I worked with him on for the PBS show The Advocates) to financial services and other issues, he rejected knee-jerk positions. He was an expert in working the legislative process in a way that has become increasingly alien in D.C. Identified with a wide variety of civil rights issues, he also had a libertarian streak, supporting, for example, online gambling. He was very attentive to the bread-and-butter issues of his district. He endeared himself to the fishermen in the southern part of his district, especially New Bedford, which he lost in the recent redistricting. His office ran a very good constituent service operation.

Barney was not without flaws. Before he came out, he got involved in a shameful sex scandal with a male prostitute that led to House reprimand and forced him to apologize to his colleagues and his constituents. He missed early signs of the crisis in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac but later, as committee chairman, worked to clamp down on sub-prime lending and other abusive practices.

He says he isn’t running for reelection because a) he wants to focus his attention in the next year to defending financial reform and to achieving deficit reduction in a way that doesn’t let the military off the hook; and b) he couldn’t fairly persuade 325,000 new constituents to support him while intending to retire, as he had planned, after just one more term. So he will retire at the end of 2012.

The only up note to come out of Barney’s press conference was his reassurance that he will retain an active voice in the public forum. His shoes will be difficult to fill, impossible in the short term, and not just because of the loss of seniority. Alan Khazei, who bowed out of the U.S. Senate race when Elizabeth Warren entered, has a similar philosophy, issue priorities, commitment to public service and fund-raising capacity to make a good run. But he’s not Barney Frank and will never be. Nor will anyone else.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

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