Barney Frank Says Goodbye

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Kelvin Ma / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Rep. Barney Frank, a Democrat from Massachusetts, speaks at a news conference at city hall in Newton, Massachusetts, Nov. 28, 2011.

There has never been much debate that Barney Frank is one of the smartest members of Congress. In another era his wit would’ve made him a daunting court philosopher who could’ve put Machiavelli to shame, or a sharp-tongued jester. Washington social rags have consistently named him one of the “funniest,” “wittiest” or “smartest” members of Congress over the years. He is one of the few congressmen I’ve seen reduce reporters to tears, mocking stupid questions in scrums or press conferences, or tersely turning a cold shoulder to queries he simply didn’t want to answer. From his rumpled appearance to his refusal to peel his eyes off his blackberry whilst on national TV, Frank made it clear that there were some things worth his time and other things – most things – about which he couldn’t care less.

The Democrat, who announced his retirement on Monday after 16 terms representing Massachusetts’ fourth district, will be remembered in history books for other reasons. In 1987 he became the first gay member of Congress to willingly come out. He did so after closeted bisexual Republican Rep. Stewart McKinney’s death prompted “an unfortunate debate about ‘Was he or wasn’t he? Didn’t he or did he?’ I said to myself, I don’t want that to happen to me,” Frank said at the time. His coming out had no impact on his popularity. Nor did a scandal involving a male escort he took into his home only to kick out when he found out the man was still engaging in escort activities from Frank’s house. That episode earned him a reprimand from the House, though Rep. Larry Craig’s attempts to expel Frank fell short. (Frank would later accuse Craig, who went on to become a Republican Senator from Idaho, of hypocrisy when Craig pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct in 2007 after he solicited an undercover male cop for sex at a Minneapolis airport.) As for legislative achievements, and his own most prized legacy, the thing Frank will most be remembered for is the financial regulation bill that he pushed through as chairman of the House Financial Services Committee and which bears his name.

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Much like former Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, the bill’s co-author who chose not to run again in 2010, Frank is a victim of his own success. The bank bailout and healthcare reform hung heavily around his neck, the controversial financial regulation bill has become a top repeal target for Republicans and in 2010, Frank faced his first tough reelection campaign since his arrival to the House in 1980. He won reelection with 54% of the vote, after loaning his own campaign $200,000 in the last month, and would’ve surely been a GOP target in 2012 after redistricting weakened his South Coast redoubt. But in his official announcement on Monday, Frank said any prospective challenge had little to do with his decision. “2010 was the worst year for Democrats that anyone can remember,” he told a crowd of supporters in his home district. “It’s one of these things that having gone through that that you’d ever face anything again remotely in that way.”

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“For reasons not entirely clear to me, there are people who are not so fond of me and some of them have a lot of money,” Frank continued. “That means I’d have to spend a lot of time raising money and it’s not fun… some $2 million… and that cuts in to time I’d rather spend fighting to cut the military.”

After more than 30 years, Washington has finally gotten to him – particularly this Tea Party class, which he says has done nothing but induce partisan gridlock. “There are people who object to cooperation in principal because they don’t see the need for it,” Frank lamented, “because they believe their side is in the absolute majority. That’s not how Congress works.”

What’s next for Frank? He says he’ll give up his D.C. apartment and split his time between his home in Newton, Massachusetts, and his partner’s home in Maine. As for work, he insisted he won’t go the way of Dodd, who became Hollywood’s top lobbyist shortly after leaving office, and suggested he’d rather write or return to Harvard, where he once taught as a graduate student. Regardless of what he does, nothing seems liable to smooth Frank’s famously sharp edges. “One of advantage for me of not running for office is the notion that I don’t have to be nice to people I don’t like,” he said Monday. “Now some of you may not believe this, but I’ve been trying.”

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