Barney Frank has often amused me with his wit, but of course there is more to him than that.
Of the four hundred and thirty-five members of the House of Representatives, Barney Frank is the only one whose public remarks have been collected in a book of quotations (“Frank Talk: The Wit and Wisdom of Barney Frank,” published in 2006). He is also the only congressman whose fight against the impeachment of President Bill Clinton has been the subject of a documentary, which was shown to acclaim at film festivals around the country (“Let’s Get Frank,” directed by Bart Everly). Frank is not the only member of Congress to have been the subject of a full-scale biography, but the account of his life, written by a former aide named Stuart E. Weisberg, to be published by the University of Massachusetts Press later this year, will likely rank among the more exhaustive and admiring books ever printed about a sitting member of the House, who is described as “arguably the most unique and fascinating, certainly the most entertaining political figure in Washington.”
The title of the book suggests the basis for the widespread interest: “Barney Frank: The Story of America’s Only Left-Handed, Gay, Jewish Congressman.” Now sixty-eight years old, Frank has represented Massachusetts’s Fourth Congressional District since 1981, and he remains best known for his decision, in 1987, to reveal that he is gay, becoming the first member of Congress to do so voluntarily
Congressman Frank is at the center of Congressional attempts at fixing the current housing and financial crisis:
During the financial crisis this fall, Frank’s status as a gay trailblazer suddenly seemed remote and irrelevant. After the Democrats’ victory, he became chairman of the Committee on Financial Services, and Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, designated him the Democrats’ chief negotiator with the Bush Administration on legislation to address the crises in the banking and auto industries. “Through this all, the quarterback for us is Barney,” Pelosi told me. “He’s solution-oriented, respectful of different perspectives, and brilliant. And it’s brilliance that saves time, because he simplifies the complex for us. He is an enormously valuable intellectual resource for the Congress.”
For the first time in more than forty years of public life, Frank has real power, and he is wielding it in a characteristically idiosyncratic manner. He remains a national symbol of outré sexuality as well as a rare wit in generally humor-deficient Washington. But in Congress he is thought of no longer simply as a liberal of the old school (which he is) but also as a grind. His expertise is in one of the least glamorous subjects on the national agenda—housing, particularly rental housing for poor people—and he is using that knowledge to confront the nation’s economic crisis. “For Barney, the question has always been: What works? What can government do to see that people have the decent necessities of life?” his sister Ann Lewis, the longtime Democratic activist, says. “Now he’s right there. Barney’s been preparing for this moment for his entire life.”
Jeffrey Toobin’s article continues, filled with asides like:
Frank speaks incessantly about food. In “Let’s Get Frank,” he complains about the low-fat provisions given to Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee during the impeachment debate. Referring to Dick Gephardt, who was the Minority Leader at the time, Frank says, “They got all this jelly-doughnut shit in there, and I gotta eat this stuff. . . . Gephardt’s a sheygets—whaddaya expect from Gephardt?” Sheygets is Yiddish for a male Gentile, and thus one who cannot be trusted to provide acceptable snacks.
and incidents like:
At the hearing, Frank responded testily to Garrett. “The purpose of this hearing was to be forward-looking,” he began. “And I had hoped we could focus on that. But, after the gentleman from New Jersey’s comments in having decried partisanship, he then practiced it. It does seem to me to be important to set the record clearly before us.” Frank pointed out that when Garrett had attempted to tighten regulations on Fannie and Freddie, Republicans had controlled the House. “Had a Republican majority been in favor of passing that bill, they would have done it,” Frank said. “Now he has claimed that it was we Democrats—myself—who blocked things. The number of occasions on which either Newt Gingrich or Tom DeLay consulted me about the specifics of legislation are far fewer than the gentleman from New Jersey seems to think.
“I will acknowledge that during the twelve years of Republican rule I was unable to stop them from impeaching Bill Clinton,” Frank went on. “I was unable to stop them from interfering in Terri Schiavo’s husband’s affairs. I was unable to stop their irresponsible tax cuts, the war in Iraq, and a Patriot Act that did not include civil liberties.” In other words, Frank insisted, if the Republicans had wanted to try to prevent the mortgage crisis, they would have had plenty of opportunities to do so.
One tiny, tiny correction: parts of Cabrini Green are still standing, undemolished, and there are still people living there. The City of Chicago tore some of Cabrini-Green down, but not all.
“At first, when you talk about affordable housing and subsidized housing, people immediately ask, ‘What sort of public housing?’ ” Frank said. “ ‘Is it run by the city, like Cabrini-Green?’ ”—a notorious, now demolished project in Chicago