Barney Frank announced yesterday that he will be retiring from Congress after 16 terms. He probably will be remembered for three things, unfortunately not in order of importance.
First, for being an out-of-the-closet gay man at a time when there weren’t any others holding national elected office. (Frank was first elected in 1980 and came out in 1987.) Second, for being the co-author of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, passed in response to the near collapse of the nation’s financial system in 2008. Dodd-Frank will either save us from a new financial catastrophe or bring one on, depending on whom you talk to. We hold something closer to the former view.
Third, but not least, Frank will be remembered as the author of some of the great wisecracks in the history of American politics, including his remark that anti-abortion Republicans believe life begins at conception and ends at birth. Other barbs were aimed at his nemesis, Newt Gingrich. At the news conference announcing his retirement, Frank said he didn’t think he’d led a good enough life to see Gingrich win the Republican nomination for president, but he still had hopes.
Nevertheless, it’s unavoidably poignant that Frank has announced his retirement at the same moment that Gingrich is enjoying his 15 minutes -- or more? -- as a front-running presidential candidate.
There aren’t many characters left in American politics, at least at the national level. In labeling Frank a character, we intend no insult. The label, when applied to a politician, can be a double-edged compliment that often carries the patronizing suggestion of unseriousness; a self-important blow-hard, perhaps, or a self-styled posturer. But this needn’t be. The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York was a character, although he wrote books that transformed the debate on a dauntingly wide range of subjects. (Frank, by contrast, has an unfinished Ph.D. thesis awaiting him at Harvard. Also, he is a hard-working legislator, which Moynihan was not.)
Eccentricity of dress helps to identify a character, though this can include the suspiciously dapper, like Moynihan, or the determinedly sloppy, like Frank, his shirttails hanging out and glasses perched at a jaunty angle. A bizarre accent is also useful, be it Moynihan’s (straight out of Oxbridge, but picked up, somehow, in the slums of Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan) or Frank’s (learned in New Jersey and never unlearned despite decades in Massachusetts). But the essential quality of characters is that they live their own lives and say what’s on their minds, and they don’t especially care that other people may disagree (a possibility that terrifies most politicians).
Barney Frank is just such a character, although he never got the credit he deserved for being willing to work with the other side. He retires with the satisfaction of knowing not only that he has many friends in both parties, but also that he is cordially disliked by some of the worst people in politics.
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