When I was a student at the University of Pennsylvania in the early 1980s, Barney Frank came to campus to debate the Illinois congressman Phil Crane. It was the height of the Reagan era, and college students were becoming more conservative. There was a new supply-side economics club to go along with the College Republicans and the conservative party of the Penn Political Union. Crane, who had run against Reagan for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination, was part of an ascendant group of right-wingers in Congress; Frank, who had just survived a race against a fellow incumbent, Republican Margaret Heckler, was a rising liberal voice among the beleaguered Democrats. Crane had the fine grooming, expensive suits, chiseled jaw, and lacquered dark hair of a ‘60s-era politician; Frank, despite his relative youth, was unabashedly fat and dressed in a wrinkled suit.
I remember three things about the debate itself:
First, it was barely civil. While congressmen, even of opposing parties, often made a big show of their bipartisan bonhomie in those days, these guys went after each other: Frank was bitter and relentless; Crane was withering and condescending.
Second, it was clear to all in the audience — including a very disappointed group of young conservatives — that Frank was the vastly superior intellect. Crane served up a finger-wagging lesson in ideology, like a smiling father telling his hippie son how the world really works. Frank didn’t respond in kind; he appealed to reason, logic, and data to offer a pragmatic rebuttal — an approach that few other Democrats, accustomed to having the dominant ideology in Washington for decades, had bothered to cultivate.
Third, Frank was dead serious. This wasn’t just a show put on for kids. I remember one of the organizers telling me that Frank went out of his way to make it up from Washington, despite a competing event, because, he explained, no one in Congress annoyed him more than Phil Crane. He wanted to let some air out of the Reagan bubble.
The conservative era in American politics has lasted longer than Barney Frank or almost anyone else in 1983 could have imagined, covering virtually all his career. But along the way, he’s pricked a considerable number of conservative balloons.
Globe file photo: Barney Frank in 1980.