we met Barney Frank, who, in the Republican Congress, had very limited power. Back then he was talking about this day and it's great he's here at last:
Barney’s Great Adventure
The most outspoken man in the House gets some real power.
by Jeffrey Toobin January 12, 2009
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. At the time, the disclosure provoked more curiosity than controversy, but, two years later, Stephen Gobie, a prostitute whom Frank had patronized and then befriended, made a series of lurid allegations about him—claiming that they had had sex in the House gym and that Frank had permitted Gobie to run a prostitution ring out of his home. An investigation by the House Ethics Committee failed to substantiate those charges, though it determined that Frank had written a misleading letter of recommendation for Gobie and had Gobie’s parking tickets waived. Nevertheless, Frank was reëlected with ease, and he became a pointed critic of the Republicans who took control of the House in 1994 and a passionate opponent of Clinton’s impeachment, in 1998. A witty and effective presence on the House floor and in committee rooms, Frank in recent years has settled into the roles of wise guy and wise man of the Democratic Party. (Conservatives “believe that life begins at conception and ends at birth,” he once remarked. More recently, he noted that Barack Obama’s continued insistence that we have one President at a time “overstates the number of Presidents we have.”) In a 2006 poll of Capitol Hill staffers by Washingtonian, published shortly before the elections that gave Democrats control of the House for the first time in twelve years, Frank was voted the brainiest, funniest, and most eloquent congressman—a notable achievement, since he often speaks in a barely comprehensible mumble.
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.”
The contours of Frank’s Massachusetts district have shifted over the years, but his political base has long been the liberal, heavily Jewish suburbs of Newton and Brookline. (Brookline was once part of the district represented by Tip O’Neill, the former Speaker of the House, but he surrendered it to Frank’s predecessor, Father Robert Drinan, saying, according to Frank, “I can’t take all the phone calls. Those nice Jewish ladies even call when they agree with you!”) Much of the campus of Boston College, a Jesuit institution, also lies within Frank’s district, and two days after the recent election he paid a visit to the B.C. Real Estate Council, an alumni group.
Boston College has become a major national university in recent years, but the hundred or so older graduates at the luncheon reflected the school’s Irish-Catholic roots. Frank ambled to the podium in his standard uniform: a monochromatic suit, a white shirt, and a rep tie. The look is an improvement on the dishevelled attire that was once his trademark. When Frank was running for state representative in Boston, in the early nineteen-seventies, a campaign poster featured his photograph and the words “Neatness Isn’t Everything.” In conversation, and even in his speeches, Frank often refers to his lifelong struggle to lose weight, but he is well into his seventh decade, and that battle seems to have been lost, a plight accentuated by his apparent tendency to buy shirts in his aspirational, rather than his actual, size.