Frank and Up Close

Tome Takes On Massachusetts’ Marathon Man

Posted September 14, 2009 at 4:32pm

It’s hard to miss Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) these days. The meaty Financial Services chairman has seen his panel pushed to the forefront during the nation’s economic collapse. And Frank has been the subject of recent glossy magazine profiles in the New Yorker and the now-defunct Portfolio, portrayals that offered up rich anecdotes about his New Jersey working-class roots and his path from Bay State political aide to Capitol Hill leader.

Now undoubtedly comes the most authoritative take on Frank’s life to date, Stuart Weisberg’s “Barney Frank: The Story of America’s Only Left-Handed, Gay, Jewish Congressman.— Weisberg offers up an exhaustive more-than-500-page tome that fills in the considerable cracks left by recent profiles of Frank, including broad details of the chairman’s childhood in Bayonne, N.J., academic life at Harvard, his political career and struggles with his weight and repressed sexuality.

Although at times tedious, Weisberg’s piece also sets out to capture the personality of one of Washington, D.C.’s most authentic figures: a brash, tough-talking liberal who’s willing to cut deals — but more famously, speak his mind. As the author retells, in 2008 Frank had a now-famous run-in with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, who called the lawmaker “a coward— on air for not owning up to some responsibility for the meltdown of mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Frank responded by saying O’Reilly was “too dumb to understand— the issues involved.

“Barney has a well-deserved reputation for being abrupt, impatient, rude and sometimes infuriating. He believes that patience is a great time-waster rather than a virtue,— Weisberg writes in his introduction. “He gets annoyed with people who do not know what they are talking about or who speak too slowly. He has a short attention span that often puts people on edge. He does not suffer fools gladly, unless, as he points out, ‘they happen to be constituents.’—

Weisberg was granted extensive interviews with Frank in the five years he took to write the book, which will be released Sept. 30 by the University of Massachusetts Press. The author interviewed more than 150 people, including Frank’s now-deceased mother and his sister, Democratic operative Ann Lewis.

While steeped in Washington political lore, the book also devotes significant ink to Frank’s initial foray into politics back in Massachusetts, where he attended college and graduate school before taking a job as a top aide to Boston Mayor Kevin White (D) in the late 1960s.

The author details the behind-the-scenes political maneuvering that resulted in Frank succeeding Rep. Robert Drinan (D-Mass.), a Jesuit priest. Now-Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) had considered entering the primary to replace Drinan, who had been ordered by the Vatican to retire from politics. Instead, Kerry decided not to run and later endorsed Frank.

“‘It worked out for the better,’ Kerry said, reflecting on that decision more than 35 years later. ‘I’m glad that I supported Barney. I did the right thing and he has been an absolutely superb congressman ever since,’— Weisberg writes. “Kerry’s decision to defer to Barney and to forgo the race for Congress turned out to have a significant and beneficial impact on the political careers of both men. Barney got a clear shot to run for Congress, won the election, and went on to become a star legislator and an icon for the gay and lesbian community.—

In the book’s closing moments, Frank also hints at his life after Congress, telling Weisberg that his time on Capitol Hill likely isn’t open-ended. According to Weisberg, if lawmakers pass an affordable housing bill, Frank would then like to become Barack Obama’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development, a job now held by Shaun Donovan.

“‘I want at least two years with President Obama and a solidly Democratic Senate so that we can get the federal government back in the housing business,’— Frank told the author.