Barney Frank, we miss you already. For Barney Frank you don’t need any formal titles to know who is being referred to. The ultimate in praise from the great American short story writer, Ring Lardner, was to have a character called “an original.” Barney Frank is an original.
I have known and worked closely with Barney Frank for nearly 50 years on numerous causes. Each was an adventure with a focus on advancing an idea that merited support and initially had little political support. We worked to correct economic injustices, overcome denial of rights, correct abuses, take on politically sacred cows. We praised each other and occasionally I’d get scolded for advancing a “dumb” tactic. That was part of the adventure–and in the adventure I learned to toughen myself and not take it personally.
Barney is unique because he is a multi-letter person in a legislative body that has talented people but not in so many different ways. Barney Frank can write laws, thrives in substance, can learn new matters, knows legislative and parliamentary procedures better than anyone I have worked with (and I have worked with parliamentary stars.).
Barney Frank is a living Ecclesiastes. He knows when to fight, he knows when to compromise, he knows when to jab verbally, he knows when to make a witty bon mot and when to verbalize a witty paragraph. More than that. Barney can work with people he disagrees with, be impatient with people he agrees with and has no trouble working with people he neither likes nor respects.
That’s what makes Barney the complete strategist in getting a result.
Now how many House members have a biography written about them. Yes, there’s Tip O’Neill and Phil Burton and Speaker Reed more than a century after he served. Stuart Weisberg’s Barney Frank:The Story of America’s Only Left Handed Gay Jewish Congressman deals with Barney in Bayonne and Barney facing serious personal challenges. Barney Frank took his reprimand from the House, never acting as a victim, accepting his responsibility and moving on to continuing his many contributions.
Barney Frank welcomed the marketplace and combat of ideas, always with more than a touch of with. His book, Speaking Frankly, (note the wit in his title) deeply anchored in his life long liberalism, also argues vigorously for liberals to get past their orthodoxies and to recognize what America’s promise and dreams can be. In that sense the book reflects Barney’s passion for politics as part of democracy’s vitality and his deep love for America..
Barney’s contributions are legion: Dodd-Frank the most significant reform of financial regulation since the New Deal, his immediately exposing what was wrong with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and thereby advancing the rights of the GLBT community in all aspects, his battles for poor people’s causes in jobs, income, housing and his focus on the excesses of the military budget. In each of these areas Barney recognized that knowing substance was part of gaining influence and power and so was knowing legislative procedures and norms.
Yes, Barney did not suffer fools but he had the ability to do something some of his critics never understood: an ability to build legislative relationships across ideologies, party and competency. That’s the aggregation of influence.
Barney was no Don Quixote but he took on issues that had little chance at the beginning but showed a willingness to attack sacred cows. He fought for campaign finance reform, and public financing as part of elections as a Massachusetts state legislator. In Congress he made life miserable for the dairy interests which bough their unjustified subsidies with campaign contributions at the expense of American consumers. Barney began the effort to peel away those industry entitlements.
Barney’s taking on the Pentagon budget stands as an effort of importance and discipline. Barney understands where the hidden sources of waste are and where expenditures that bear no direct relation to any rational security need have to be abandoned. The Pentagon, and regrettably Secretary Panetta, are part and parcel of retaining expenditures that will, if the sequester is undone, come at the expense of human needs. I want Barney Frank in my Congressional corner. If he cannot be there then we want his wisdom, his sense of combat, his strategy, his judgment, his wit and humor to make a difference when he steps down.
We need him and we want him as we wish him the best in the next phase of his public life.