When Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) retires next year, Congress and this country will lose one of its most candid and inspired voices. Throughout his career, Frank has stridently advocated for and defended the rights of society’s disadvantaged and championed an unashamedly liberal agenda that has sought to promote civil rights, economic equity, and the American dream. As successful as he is a politician, he has also become somewhat of an icon, representing the type of individual about whom great political narratives can be written.
Frank’s courage and panache have become the sort of thing one can rely on to liven up otherwise dull political procedure. His acerbic wit, coupled with a rare combination of brilliance and brashness, disarms and confounds opponents with superior debating skills and winning over the public with his often plainspoken ways.
Before political correctness, Frank outed himself and became Congress’ first openly-gay member. Less charitable critics might insist that his brusqueness has no place in electoral politics – with his plain-speaking ways, anathema to the gloss and polish that his congressional colleagues display – but his constituents (from the posh Boston district of Brookline to the gruff working class towns of Southern Massachusetts) loved him for it. In the elections of the early 2000s, a Barney Frank winning percent margin was well in the 90s.
He would conduct famously entertaining tirades – whether against poorly-argued legislation on the House floor or against critically uninformed town hall participants – spawning some eminently quotable material in the bargain. That sort of off-the-cuff material is something most other national politicians pay a small contingent of writers for and is rarely mastered. Witness the attempts at “natural” banter that the current crop of GOP presidential hopefuls spouts. Whereas such unscripted moments are carefully shuffled away by most political figures (for fear of the dreaded on-camera gaffe), Frank seldom shies away from the opportunity to let fly with some error-homing barbs.
In many ways, Frank’s quick-witted honesty recalls some of this republic’s other down-to-earth leaders. From Davy Crockett to Harry S. Truman, the American public will always take a shine to – albeit in the case of Truman, reluctantly – the sort of politician who does not necessarily play to Washington, D.C.’s, sacrosanct rules. As eccentric as those leaders were, a bit of open honesty and a willingness to contest their own points and confront their opponents, have endeared them to their detractors. In many ways, Frank shares this with fellow New Englander John Adams; both men, schooled in Massachusetts’ old-school industry and bluntness, make for uncharismatic icons but icons nonetheless.
Frank’s occasionally belligerent politicking did not prevent him from being a pragmatic and savvy negotiator. It can be said that, idealism aside, he often recognized the virtues of compromise and negotiation – in other words, to get something done – rather than allow promising progress to be stalled by petty congressional infighting. The key for Frank was to get something done; to focus on the areas of agreement and building up from those. Wrangling for cheap political points was, for him, ultimately counterproductive. Frank would frequently cross the aisle to get what was best for his constituency but only if it meant a commitment to the basic principles of fairness and equality that he stood for. Both the NAACP and the Human Rights Campaign have given him top marks for standing up for civil rights.
But at the age of 71, Frank’s decision to stand down from office seems natural. He has already spent more than 30 years in service to his district but perhaps he also senses that it is better to bow out than to be kicked out. Frank’s last winning margin was a “mere” 11 points, putting him at his most perilous in decades. Even in deeply blue Massachusetts, the Republican Party is making serious inroads on a platform that the Democrats are simply unfit to deal with the rigors of the Great Recession. Furthermore, proposed redistricting might have deprived Frank of reliably Democratic New Bedford, making his seat even more perilous amid on-going anti-incumbent feverWhatever the case, Frank has certainly earned the right to retire.
Without him, the national stage will be shorn of one of its most decisive and engaging political lights.
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