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Barney Frank's legacy: his bluntness was harsh, but also refreshing

Posted by Alan Wirzbicki  November 28, 2011 02:57 PM

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Barney Frank yelled at me.

Based on anecdotal evidence, that type of interaction with Frank hardly makes me unique. But it is instructive, although not necessarily the way Frank wants it to be.

In my case, it happened back in June 2004, after a column I wrote about the political perils of redistricting. Before writing it, I interviewed Margaret Heckler, a Massachusetts Republican elected to Congress in 1966. She held the seat until 1982, when she lost to Frank, a Democrat.

As Heckler explained it, her loss came compliments of a redistricting plan orchestrated by House Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. She said O’Neill had the district redrawn to punish her for a vote she cast in favor of the budget package proposed by the new Republican president, Ronald Reagan. When Republicans in Congress rallied behind Reagan, she told me, “Tip O’Neill was shocked… he was furious at me. I knew it in my bones. I knew it was a sacrificial vote.”

After the column was published, Frank left a voicemail message asking me to call. When we connected, he basically told me I was not only wrong, but really, really wrong. The redistricting plan was designed to hurt him, not Heckler, he said. And that is putting his end of the conversation in its mildest context.

When we ran into each other shortly afterwards during the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he made it clear he had not forgotten my transgression. I recall saying something flip, like, “The ball’s in your court.” He, of course, was happy to leave it there.

I am sure Frank does not remember this. It was one of millions of exchanges he has had with journalists who are mostly charmed by him. His press is usually quite positive, even though he makes a practice of talking fast and down to interviewers. He’s as smart as his media admirers say he is. Unfortunately, he routinely uses his intelligence to intimidate people. To me, that comes across as arrogance, which is not a quality I admire.

On the other hand — and after all these years of writing about politicians, I know there always is one — at least you can say this about Frank. When he didn’t like something written about him, he didn’t dispatch a spokesman to convey his unhappiness. He didn’t pretend he didn’t read it. He didn’t call an editor to complain. He confronted the writer personally.

He called. He yelled. And looking back at it now, there’s something admirable, and oddly sweet, about the directness of that approach. In a world of plastic pols, Frank's an authentic crank.

AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana: Barney Frank at a hearing on Capitol Hill earlier this year.

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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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