I never voted for Barney Frank — I couldn’t, he represented the next congressional district over from the Cape and Islands — and even if I could have I wouldn’t publicly expose my vote because, well, as an independent and former political reporter I’m conditioned not to tip my ballots in public.
I ran into him in July in Washington, in Reagan National Airport in the US Air terminal, both of us bound back to Boston; him for the beginning of some summer congressional break, me wrapping up a six month consulting engagement designing a social media metrics framework (if that isn’t a dreary bureaucratic cliche and hopeless mission, I don’t know what is) for a big public relations firm. He looked perturbed, a bit conscious of his face recognition among the people, hoping that no one would pick him out of the crowd and start chewing his ear about one contentious issue or another. He wasn’t alone, there was a New Hampshire congressman on the same flight, but there’s no mistaking Barney, one of the more visible and intelligent legislators of our time.
When I manned the statehouse bureau for the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune — that is when the parochial editors back in North Andover deigned to let me out of their sight and flee the smoke-filled newsroom and their inane assignments to interview Megabucks winners (“I’m gonna buy a Winnebago and a microwave oven …”) and write thumb-suckers about the weather in the royal, USA Today inspired, “we” (“We Hate Snow”) — there was a now famous Barney Frank campaign poster tacked onto the wall of the press room by the tinny loudspeaker that piped in the ravings of the state representatives.
“Neatness isn’t everything”
By that point in time (1984), Barney had graduated from the Great and General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and gone onto represent suburban Boston and Southeastern Massachusetts in the U.S. Congress. We reporters loved him for his lack of preening polish and his sharp wit, his willingness to deliver the perfect mordant quote on any occasion. He was an unmade bed of a man, a schlub, a man living on an astral plane where clothes and body type didn’t matter. His statehouse office was a legendary mess.
He was one of the few elected types that would actually pop into the press room, a feral pen of hacks and wretches banging away on little pre-laptop Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 100s, and yuck it up with the crew from the Lowell Sun, Quincy Patriot-Ledger, the Salem Evening News. I was too green and intimidated to yuck it up with him or any of the big personalities in state politics, but I did love to lurk on the edge of the scrum, micro-cassette recorder held over the shoulder of some television or radio reporter, and listen to him dig into some opponent or issue with his slightly retarded lisp and swallowed “G’s”.
My favorite Barney Frank moment is this YouTube video, taken at a constituent town hall in New Bedford, when an unhinged Lyndon LaRouche candidate decided to mess with the wrong guy.
Politics and sexual proclivities aside, Congress has lost one of the smart ones. Henrik Hertzberg’s recollection in the New Yorker is worth the read. Today’s New York Times’ story about Frank’s retirement announcement at the age of 71 is somewhat depressing, only in that Frank blames the current partisan bitterness, lack of cross-aisle respect, and shallow-as-a-mud-puddle media coverage for his decision to leave the hustings and become a public intellectual.
“When he arrived in the House in 1981, he said, “you had Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan talking about how they were friends after 5 o’clock — although if you knew Reagan’s work habits it was really, like, after about 2:30.”
Now, Mr. Frank said, the notion that wrangling between Democrats and Republicans is “a competition between people of good will with different views on public policy” has vanished. For that, he blames Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and current Republican presidential candidate with whom he has a tense history.
“Newt’s the single biggest factor in bringing about this change,” Mr. Frank said. “He got to Congress in ’78 and said, ‘We the Republicans are not going to be able to take over unless we demonize the Democrats.’ ”
Mr. Frank also blamed the conservative news media for the bitter divide that had made him reluctant to continue in Washington, as well as moderate voters who he said do not make their voices heard enough.”