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Barney Frank's legacy: niceness isn't everything

Posted by Alan Wirzbicki  November 28, 2011 01:48 PM

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wiggs_barneyfrank2_met.jpg It is common, when someone retires from a long career in public service, to remark on what a nice person that individual is. Barney Frank, who announced today that he would not run for another term in Congress, is not nice. But that, paradoxically, has always been part of his charm.

Frank is extremely intelligent, arguably the smartest person in the House of Representatives. He is also bitingly witty. There’s just no room for nice in that personality package. If you quizzed Frank on a banking bill and you hadn’t done your homework, he’d become visibly irritated. If he thought your question was stupid, he’d tell you. Weaker reporters might have been cowed, but most of us knew Frank’s high expectations made us better informed interviewers.

Trying to be nice to Barney didn’t make much of a difference. Once, during the week of Frank’s 70th birthday, former Massachusetts Congressman Bill Delahunt and I led a low-key rendition of "Happy Birthday" to Frank in the Speaker’s Lobby, an area off the House chamber. People clapped in polite congratulation. Frank just slumped on the ornate wooden bench as his colleagues passed by. "My whole life, I never knew an adult who knew how to respond to that," he sneered.

On the upside, Frank isn’t pretentious. How could he be, after beginning his political career with the slogan "Neatness isn’t Everything?" Try getting some obscure subcommittee chairman on the phone for an interview, and most reporters will endure an exhausting and unnecessary back-and-forth with aides arranging the terms and time of the call with "Mr. Chairman" whatever. Frank would quickly return a call himself, mumbling, "yeah, it's Barney." He’d call from pay phones at the airport, rattling off statistics and legislative details without any notes or help from a staffer. When he filed the personal financial disclosure form required of members of Congress, he attached a detailed bank statement that revealed far more of his personal finances than the law requires. Did he do so because he was a senior member of the Financial Services Committee, and felt people deserved to know more? "Nah. I just don’t like filling out all those little boxes," Frank explained, declining to take a public relations prize for hyper-disclosure.

Frank was refreshingly disinterested in social media and electronic communication. Once, I took my BlackBerry out during dinner, apologizing for the interruption to make sure my editors weren’t trying to reach me. "I don’t have one of those," Frank said. "My staff wants me to get one. They say I need it in case of an emergency. What emergency? I don’t know CPR, and I can’t make bail. I’m no good in an emergency." (He eventually had a similar device forced on him.)

We’ll all miss Barney on the Hill. He was a fixture in the Speaker’s Lobby, sitting at a table and (before the smoking ban) puffing on a cigar and doing the New York Times crossword puzzle — in ink. And he was a walking encyclopedia on matters ranging from housing and economics to history. He could, indeed, be cranky. But Niceness isn’t Everything.

Susan Milligan is a writer in Washington and a former Globe political reporter.

Barney Frank in 2011 (Globe Photo/Jonathan Wiggs); Globe file.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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