In 1964, two years after graduating from Harvard, Barney Frank went to Mississippi as a civil rights worker. That August, at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, N.J., a group of blacks calling themselves the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party asked to be seated as the state’s official delegation.
Some liberals thought white Mississippians might support the Freedom Party’s bid, but Barney was deeply skeptical. He sent a telegram to his friends in Atlantic City, warning them not to count on that help “until you’ve heard the ayes of their whites.”
We’ve told that story many times because it was Barney at his best: a brilliant political strategist who also happened to be the wittiest guy around. And he turned out to be right. Convention delegates, urged on by President Johnson, rejected the Freedom Party because they were afraid of angering Southern conservatives.
When Barney announced recently that he was leaving Congress after 32 years, the reaction in Washington was extraordinary. The newspaper Politico ran the story across the top of Page One under the headline, “Frank Legacy: ‘One of a Kind.’” And he was certainly the only Jewish, gay, left-handed congressman who spoke with a thick New Jersey accent while representing suburban Boston.
But those labels are only part of his legacy. Even though he was the first gay lawmaker to come out in public, in many ways Barney was more a throwback than a pioneer. When it came to Congress, he was very old-fashioned. He believed in the institution, he believed in compromise, and he believed in the legislative process. That’s why he worked with the Bush administration to pass legislation that saved the financial system in 2008.
Opponents liked to demonize him as a doctrinaire liberal, and while he was certainly an ardent supporter of gay rights, his critics always got him wrong. His sister Ann Lewis, a longtime Democratic strategist, once described the two of them as “the pragmatic caucus of the progressive wing.” The question they always asked was: “How are we going to get it done?”
That sense of pragmatism, of finding a workable solution to a practical problem, is exactly what’s missing in a capital slashed and burned by ideological warfare. And while it’s true that Barney was facing a tough re-election fight, he’s also leaving Congress because the old-time virtues he’s always lived by are no longer valued here.
“To my disappointment, the leverage you have within the government has substantially diminished,” he told Politico. “The anger in the country, the currents of opinion are such that the kind of inside work I have felt best at is not going to be as productive in the foreseeable future.”
We admit our prejudice. Barney is one of our oldest friends. He and Steve were born three years and a dozen blocks apart in Bayonne, N.J. Their families knew each other and attended the same synagogue. And in the fall of 1959, when Steve was 16, he had a five-minute conversation with Barney that changed his entire life.
Barney was home from college, and they ran into each other at the Jewish Community Center. You and your twin brother, Marc, should apply to Harvard, Barney told Steve. And while Steve was not quite sure where Harvard was, the twins took his advice and stayed in Barney’s dorm room when they went to Cambridge for their interviews. Both got in, both went (Marc is still there, teaching economics), and when we got married in 1966, Barney was an usher in our wedding.
By 1971, Barney was working in Washington as a congressional aide, but he soon quit, saying, “The only good job in the office of a young congressman is being the young congressman.” The next year he was elected to the Massachusetts legislature. In 1980, he won his own seat in Congress. Despite his rising eminence, he usually looked like he had slept in his office — in the same disheveled suit he’d worn all week. In one early campaign he turned this trait to his advantage, running on the slogan, “Neatness isn’t everything.”
Barney has his flaws, of course. He can be rude, impatient, sarcastic — and that’s on a good day. One advantage of leaving Congress, he admits, “is that I don’t have to pretend to be nice to people I don’t like.” But if any of us limited our friendships to perfect people, we’d all be pretty lonely.
We would admire Barney Frank even if he were not our friend. But we’re very glad he is.
Email Steve and Cokie Roberts at email@example.com.