Heading into a presidential election year, whenever the party holding the White House looks to be in political trouble, you usually see a number of retirements in Congress from fellow members of the president’s party. That’s what happened in late 2007 when Republicans knew they had to try for a third consecutive term after eight years under President George W. Bush, and the economy was clearly sliding into the danger zone.
Likewise, it’s likely you’ll see a number of Democrats retire now that President Obama begins his re-election campaign with low approval ratings. Incumbents of the president’s party tend to fear “wave” elections, where the unpopularity of the incumbent president threatens to drag down others in his party.
I can understand the reluctance of an incumbent to spend months fighting against the headwinds in a political environment like this one. But for the life of me, nothing was more surprising than the announcement last week by U.S. Rep. Barney Frank that he was retiring after 32 years in Congress. The Massachusetts Democrat, who I got to know quite well during the 11 years I worked for a daily newspaper in the city of Fall River, seemed like one of those political institutions who would always be a part of Congress, wailing against the unfairness of cuts to programs for the needy, even to the point where I would be watching him on television from the wheelchair I was confined to in a convalescence home decades from now.
Congress without Barney? It’s the dream scenario of the hosts and guests on “Fox And Friends,” perhaps, but if you’d ever lived in Massachusetts and watched the politics there, it sounds unimaginable.
Ironically, Frank first came to office during a genuine Republican wave year: 1980, when the unpopularity of President Jimmy Carter led to Ronald Reagan’s massive landslide victory, in which he carried 44 states against an incumbent president.
Back then, Frank was a state representative from the suburbs of Boston, making his first run for Congress. Although Massachusetts has the reputation today for being a solidly Democratic state, that wasn’t always the case. Up until the 1930s, in fact, Massachusetts was solidly Republican, and it was only into the 1960s, under the influence of the Kennedy family, that the state began turning more to Democrats.
But in 1980, Republicans were still competitive in the Bay State, and Reagan carried the state. Frank won also, but with just 52 percent, and his future looked even more cloudy by 1982, when the Massachusetts Legislature eliminated Frank’s district as part of the congressional redistricting process – the state lost a district that year because of slow population growth. Frank was placed into a new district with a 16-year-incumbent, Republican Margaret “Peg” Heckler, and few thought he could win.
But he did. As it turned out, 1982 was one of those wave years – but the wave favored Democrats, since Reagan and the Republicans were confronting double-digit unemployment during a bad recession. Frank won with 60 percent of the vote, and from there on, was virtually unbeatable.
That was true even in 1987, when Frank announced he was gay, and later found himself embroiled in a scandal. He got reprimanded by the House for using his congressional status on behalf of a male prostitute that he had employed as a personal aide. Republicans smelled blood and thought they had him beat in 1988, but when the Republican nominee spent most of the campaign demanding that Frank take an AIDS test, his constituents shrugged their shoulders and Frank won easily. That continued to be true until last year, when one of those wave elections, this one favoring Republicans, nearly cost him his seat. Against Republican Sean Bielat, a U.S. Marine veteran and businessman, Frank won with just 54 percent. And now he’s stepping down.
My memories of Frank’s tenure have little to do with his liberal voting record, which was par for the course in Massachusetts, or the controversies he generated, including the role he may have played in the subprime mortgage crisis while a member of the House Financial Services Committee.
To me, what was most remarkable was how little his personality and public persona seemed to lend itself to being a leading, let alone wildly popular, politician.
Frank was well known for his quips and one liners, often with a decidedly sharp edge, like saying of anti-abortion colleagues who opposed pre-natal programs, “Sure they’re pro-life. They believe life begins at conception and ends at birth.” It’s no surprise that in 2004 and again in 2006, a survey of Capitol Hill staffers published in Washingtonian gave Frank the title of the “brainiest,” “funniest,” and “most eloquent” member of the House.
But if you’ve ever seen Frank appear on a conservative talk show like “Squawkbox” or the ones on Fox News, you know he can be petulant, cranky, and short tempered, flaring with anger and complaining about how stupid the questions were. I found it amusing that when he announced he was retiring, Frank said one of the nicest parts about moving on is “I don’t have to pretend to be nice to people I don’t like.”
He could have meant fellow politicians. But sometimes I wonder if he meant journalists.
During the 11 years I worked at The Herald News, the daily paper in Fall River, I interviewed Frank many times at our office, on the phone from his office in Washington, and at public events.
He was always accessible; if I left a message with his congressional staff to have him call me, he always did.
But boy was he tough to interview. For one thing, he spoke in this rapid-fire fast way that made it tough to keep up with him, and he had a tendency to get irritable if you asked him to clarify something – as if to say that he had made it so crystal clear the first time, you’d have to be an idiot to make such a request. He had no time whatsoever for small talk and polite pleasantries. He was not an easy or pleasant person to interview.
But Frank wasn’t alone in this respect. In Massachusetts, there were quite a few Democrats in the league I called the “Beacon Hill gang,” politicians like former Gov. Michael Dukakis and Sen. John Kerry, who did little to hide the smug, elitist attitude they had about their crusade to turn government into an effective tool for eradicating social problems. It wasn’t their position on the issues that was annoying so much as the haughty attitude they brought to it; they were smart, knew it, and had a tendency to be arrogantly dismissive of anyone who peppered them with questions about those pesky details.
In marked contrast, the Bay State’s Republicans – a small minority by the 1990s, and a very moderate group in a liberal state – tended to be easy-going and often charming to deal with. Republicans like former governors Bill Weld, Paul Cellucci and Mitt Romney would stop by the newspaper and talk about the great fun they had traveling the state, meeting people; Dukakis, Kerry and Frank would talk about their latest plan to cure poverty. It was a sharp contrast.
And yet, for all of his gruff ways, Frank’s quick wit helped him a lot in his district – and so did his ability to deliver federal dollars for local projects. I can remember many, many times when I covered one of his press conferences, and a baby in the audience would start crying loudly. Frank would ask the crowd to be patient, and pointed out that it was okay because he was used to dealing with colleagues in Congress who were even bigger crybabies. He never failed to get a big laugh for that line.
Regardless of what you may think about his political views, there’s no question Congress will be a much less interesting place without him. Again, he seemed to be as much a permanent part of the institution as the Halls of Congress themselves. And it’s hard to believe that whoever replaces him will be anywhere near as colorful, annoying, outspoken and clever.
Contact Michael Freeman at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.