Barney Frank simply would not shut up. On the afternoon of September 25, the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee was holed up in the White House Cabinet Room with a dozen or so government officials laboring to hammer out a rescue package for the flailing financial markets. Those gathered around the grand mahogany table included the president and vice president, the House speaker and Senate majority leader, the ranking Republicans of both chambers, the Treasury secretary, the Fed chairman, and the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees. Frank was on hand at the insistence of his party's leaders, who had been relying heavily on him since the crisis erupted.
In the presence of such august company, a less confident man might have been intimidated into silence or at least decorous deference. Not Frank. He kept jumping in, quizzing Bush officials and pressing Republican legislators on their objections to the proposal. When John McCain rambled vaguely about the need to alter the package, Frank cut in to demand: "Like what?" As the senator finished, Frank huffed, "I still don't know what your proposals are." Similarly, when House Minority Leader John Boehner argued for changes, Frank snapped at him to be more specific. ("Like what?" was a common Frank refrain, say those in attendance.) At one point, recall multiple observers, President Bush felt compelled to remind the congressman that White House protocol calls for participants to wait until the president recognizes them before speaking. Unfazed, Frank resumed his prodding and prying. "It didn't affect me," the chairman later explained with a shrug (though he recalls the chiding coming from someone other than Bush). "I wasn't there because he wanted me to be there. I was there because he knew he couldn't leave me out."
While (characteristically) immodest, Frank's observation is also (characteristically) spot on. The 68-year-old congressman may be imperious, antisocial, and abrasive--President Bush's nickname for him is "Sabertooth"--yet, these days, he is also indispensable. In recent weeks, as financial markets around the world melted down, Frank has found himself in frequent consultation not only with his party leadership and caucus, but also with top Bush officials and major players on Wall Street. His bespectacled, Droopy-Dog mug has been all over the news, cementing him as the public face of Washington's efforts to cope with the chaos. (He recently told his swarm of press stalkers that he now knows how Britney Spears feels.) Meanwhile, conservatives have gone after Frank--long a favorite target--with renewed vigor, both blaming him for the current disaster and attempting to knot the controversial rescue package around his neck. Back home in Massachusetts's fourth district--which stretches from the suburbs south of Boston to the western edge of Cape Cod--Frank felt moved to run TV ads for this election cycle, something he normally doesn't bother with. (He won with 68 percent of the vote.)
For much of his early career, Frank seemed destined for exactly this sort of role. During the 1980s, he was a rising star in Washington--a young, Harvard- educated crusader with a gift for debate and a wicked wit frequently deployed against those who annoyed him. Named "Best Freshman Member of 1981," he was assumed to be headed for party leadership. Even after coming out as gay in 1987, he continued to shine, becoming a popular media presence back before everyone was a talking head. But, in 1989, the ride ended in a swirl of lurid accusations involving a male prostitute Frank had once dated. Miraculously, the congressman survived, eventually regaining some prominence as a liberal firebrand. His image and his career, however, never wholly recovered.
Today, Frank finds himself at the center of a crisis that few of his peers fully understand. And he has emerged as a legislative wise man through a blend of intellect and political savvy. Even his legendary crabbiness has proved an asset of sorts. As a Bloomberg.com story recently noted, "Frank has met his moment." Nearly 20 years after his fall from grace, Barney Frank is finally getting a shot at redemption.
Steve Adamske, communications director for the House Financial Services Committee, settled onto the slightly shabby sofa in the reception area outside the chairman's office in the Rayburn House Office Building. It was Columbus Day, and the warren was jarringly quiet. "You've interviewed him before, right?" Adamske asked, looking vaguely anxious. "On the phone, yeah," I told him. "Why?" "Nothing," he soothed. "I just like to prep reporters who've never interviewed him." Barney Frank, Adamske reminded me, does not do small talk. Period. Indeed, he eschews most norms of polite social interaction. ("He's not much for schmoozing," understates retired Representative Mike Oxley, Frank's predecessor as head of Financial Services.) Allergic to having his time wasted, the chairman barks at reporters and staffers to stop asking stupid questions or to take notes faster--no small challenge considering that Frank is a rapid-fire talker who, despite childhood elocution lessons, still tends to mumble as though his cheeks are stuffed with cotton balls. And pity the poor lawmaker who dares speechify on his watch. (Frank once dressed down Republican Tom DeLay for interrupting him on the House floor to agree with him.)
I assured Adamske I knew the drill. "No chit-chat," I vowed, reviewing my queries with an eye toward minimalism.
Frank is not only aware of his fearsome reputation, he encourages it. As I was ushered into his stately, surprisingly uncluttered office, the chairman--gray hair rumpled, white shirt-collar unbuttoned, tie undone and draped loosely around his neck--didn't bother greeting me or even looking up from the massive desk at which he sat fiddling with mail. I took a breath to (with absolutely no preamble) ask my first question, only to have Frank raise a finger, mumble something, and proceed to make a phone call. All through the interview, Frank squirmed in his chair, tugged at his tie, and scratched his nose. At one point, he yawned noisily in mid-sentence. And the moment we finished with my last question, he dropped his head, mumbled "Thank you," and began scribbling away. Translation: You got what you came for, now get out.
Journalists are not the only ones prepped for their encounters with Frank. Incoming staffers are warned that the chairman isn't the sort of warm and fuzzy boss who'll be asking after the family, while lobbying shops advise new hires and clients headed in to talk with Frank to skip the windup, come armed with data, and make sure they are ready to defend their position. "Having a conversation with Barney is like delivering oral arguments in front of the Supreme Court," says former Republican representative Steve Bartlett, who served with Frank on Financial Services when it was still the Banking Committee and now lobbies him as head of the Financial Services Roundtable. He elaborates, "An attorney can get three minutes into his prepared statement when one of the justices will shut him off and say, 'Get to the point.' I'm not sure Barney gives you three minutes." And, whatever you do, cautions a lobbyist for another trade group, avoid cliches. "We never let anyone going in to talk with him use the phrase 'level playing field,'" he stresses. "The chairman's canned response to that is, 'Everybody is always coming in here looking for a level playing field tilted in their favor.'" Of Frank's famed impatience, Jim Segel, special counsel to the chairman and a Frank friend from Harvard, allows, "It's sometimes a defense so that people won't ask him for things."
This is not to question the authenticity of his pugilistic persona. Frank has been an in-your-face guy for as long as anyone can recall--including his older sister, veteran Democratic operative Ann Lewis. "You'll notice I do not start with patience as one of his virtues," quips Lewis. This may be partly genetic--Frank's mother, Elsie, was reputedly quite the firecracker--and partly the product of growing up a pudgy, lisping, closeted Jewish kid in a Catholic corner of Bayonne, New Jersey, a blue-collar ethnic enclave just south of Jersey City. The second of four children, Barney was raised comfortably but not poshly. His dad, a high school dropout, ran a truck stop along the New Jersey Turnpike, where Barney spent his summers pumping gas. Complicating Barney's formative years, his father served time for refusing to testify against Barney's uncle in a bribery case. Under such conditions, an "awkward" boy (as Elsie once gently described her son) either got tough or spent his youth cowering in a corner waiting to have the snot kicked out of him. Barney has never been one to cower.
At Harvard, Frank was known as a formidable debater. Segel, who was an undergraduate there while Frank was working on his Ph.D., recalls his old friend constantly embroiled in political arguments in the dining room. "He was a dominant intellectual presence at Harvard in the government department," says Segel. But Frank never completed his doctorate. Instead, he went to work on Kevin White's 1967 campaign for mayor of Boston, then served as White's top aide until 1971. After a half-hearted stab at resuming his studies, Frank fled Harvard for the Washington offices of Massachusetts Representative Michael Harrington. At the time, Frank assumed elective office was not an option for him personally because he was gay. But, when the state rep from Boston's Back Bay area retired in 1972, he couldn't resist a run.
In the statehouse, Frank's fame as a liberal scrapper grew, fed by his battles with Governor Michael Dukakis. Even then he had a way with one-liners, once grousing that trying to help Dukakis get his agenda through the legislature without patronage was like "pimping for a nun." Frank's strong opinions and acid tongue made him popular with the press but not so much with colleagues. His assaults left enough scars that, soon after Frank ascended to Congress in 1980, the state legislature moved to redistrict him out of a job. For his 1982 reelection campaign, Frank was thrown up against Margaret Heckler, a popular, eight-term GOP moderate--whose old district made up 70 percent of the new fourth district. The Reagan White House flagged Heckler's race as one of its top priorities, and Newsweek called the contest an "uphill" battle for Frank. When the underdog freshman pulled out a win, delivering an embarrassing blow to the White House, his stock soared.
Post-reelection, Frank became less uptight about his private life, attending gay pride events and revealing his sexuality to select friends. In 1986, the facade cracked further when Frank was semi-outed in an autobiography by Robert Bauman--a gay former congressman who had lost his seat in a sex scandal allegedly involving a minor--that made passing reference to Frank's homosexuality. Prior to the book's release, Frank alerted a few people to his secret, most notably Speaker Tip O'Neill. As the story goes, O'Neill threw an arm around Frank and said, "I'm sorry to hear that." When Frank asked why, O'Neill explained, "I thought you were going to be the first Jewish Speaker." Frank ducked the flurry of press inquiries generated by Bauman's book, refusing to discuss his personal life. In May 1987, however, he decided to give his story to The Boston Globe. The initial sense was that, politically speaking, he had shot himself in the foot.
Yet, confounding expectations once again, Frank seemed to thrive after his admission. Profiles were written of the (slightly) kinder, gentler Barney. Friends and colleagues talked about how he seemed more at ease. The congressman even admitted the relief of allowing himself a real personal life, though he had limited patience for self-analysis. (Shortly after coming out, he brushed back a Washington Post reporter's questions about the angst of life in the closet this way: "Who wants to know that? Do they want to be eating breakfast worrying about the inner emotional turmoil of a middle-aged politician? Let them tape 'Dynasty' instead.") Meanwhile, back in the fourth district, with its pockets of Catholic and blue-collar voters, people seemed largely uninterested in Frank's sexuality, returning him comfortably to office in 1988. In the first half of 1989, as Congress obsessed itself with the ethics investigation of then- Speaker Jim Wright, Frank was still being mentioned as a possible candidate to fill one of the posts that would open up (whip, perhaps) if Wright's departure sparked a leadership shuffle.
But, in August 1989, Frank's rise came to an abrupt halt when a male hustler named Stephen Gobie went public with a jaw-dropping tale. Gobie and Frank had hooked up in 1985 through a sex ad placed by Gobie in a local paper--a first "date" that cost Frank $80. The two men became involved, and Frank, looking to help Gobie straighten out his life, hired the younger man to be his housekeeper and driver. Gobie promptly began running a prostitution ring out of Frank's apartment, until Frank kicked him out in 1987. It was the kind of scandal that normally ends a public career. Frank, however, refused to resign. He apologized for his stupidity on the House floor and held a press conference to address Gobie's claims (including the assertion that Frank had given his blessing to the sex-for-hire service--a charge the congressman staunchly denied).
In the end, the House ethics committee found Frank to have been unaware of any criminal activities, the House voted for a reprimand, and, in November 1990, Frank won reelection with around 65 percent of the vote. Still, the basic facts of the scandal were plenty damaging. And, just like that, one of the Democrats' leading lights found himself an object of national ridicule, no longer famous so much as infamous. Frank went into a deep funk, worrying both friends and family.
Gradually, Frank's feistiness returned, and he reasserted himself as a vocal defender of civil liberties and minority rights. The 1994 Republican Revolution further energized his partisan spirit, as Frank applied both intellect and spleen toward thwarting the new majority with arcane procedural maneuvers. He studied not just the basic rules governing House debate but also the 200 years of case law surrounding parliamentary procedure, recalls Robert Raben, who worked as counsel for Frank back then.
So armed, Frank set about making himself a burr in the butt of Republicans--most notably during Bill Clinton's impeachment. Rejecting the push to impeach as partisan excess, he put on a performance in the judiciary committee that The Washington Post's Sally Quinn described as a "tour de force"--with Frank "interjecting procedural questions, leaping on points of order, deftly zinging an opponent, cracking jokes when the atmosphere became particularly poisonous." When Kenneth Starr protested that a Frank query was unfair, the congressman retorted, "Mr. Starr, you're the expert on unfair questions. If you tell me it's an unfair question, I'll withdraw it."
Still, being a notorious liberal bomb-thrower is a far cry from being an acclaimed legislative leader. And at heart, say colleagues, Frank is a legislative junkie. Recognized by Republicans and Democrats alike as brilliant--for years, he has been voted the brainiest House member in surveys of Hill staffers--he is said to have an impressive grasp of both the policy and political implications of any given bill, with a particular gift for reduction. "He simplifies issues for people," says Scott DeFife, a House leadership aide turned lobbyist. "He'll say, 'Don't worry about all the details of that; this is really about x.'" Colleagues past and present stress that, for all his partisan showmanship, Frank is fair-minded and practical. People point to his committee as the most prolific on the Hill last year, with the chairman shepherding through numerous bills on solidly bipartisan votes--a vastly more exhausting venture than rabble-rousing from the back benches, Frank told me. ("It's easier to get everybody together on 'No.' You all have to have the same reason for 'Yes.' You don't have to have the same reason for 'No.'") Meanwhile, his eccentricities--such as his refusal to waste time on politeness or personal grooming--serve to reinforce his image as a man of big ideas. (One Democratic staffer describes a lastminute meeting that congressional leadership called on a late September evening with Henry Paulson and key Hill negotiators: "Here comes Barney careening around the corner. Slovenly. Unkempt. His shirt was out, and his zipper was down. ... It was classic Barney.")
And so, when financial disaster struck and someone needed to rally Democrats (and just enough Republicans) around a controversial bailout, Frank had the intellectual clout to take charge. Lawmakers and industry players alike express relief that Frank was leading the way. "The fact that Barney Frank is chairman of Financial Services and Hank Paulson is Treasury secretary is, as far as individual leadership, probably the only thing keeping the system afloat right now," says the Financial Services Roundtable's Bartlett.
Certainly, Bush would have been hard-pressed to drive his rescue package through Congress without Frank's help. Despite his famed impatience, Frank spent enormous energy explaining the need for the legislation. He also aggressively defended the bill in the press and against colleagues from both sides of the aisle looking to scuttle it. When Boehner suggested that the first bailout vote failed because a dozen members of his caucus had been offended by Speaker Nancy Pelosi's partisan floor speech, Frank spotlighted the absurdity of Boehner's claim at a news conference: "Because somebody hurt their feelings, they decide to punish the country," he jeered. "I'll make an offer. Give me those twelve people's names, and I will go talk uncharacteristically nicely to them and tell them what wonderful people they are, and maybe they'll now think about the country." On occasion, things got a little tense: When, at a Democratic caucus meeting, bailout opponent Brad Sherman snarked that Paulson was just Bush without the hair, Frank delivered a verbal thrashing. But, for the most part, observers say, the chairman kept his frustration in check.
Just as important, Frank had the liberal bona fides to give the rescue bill and its supporters some political cover--a major boon to a package many Americans saw as a bailout for Wall Street fat cats. "That is, I think, a major reason why the bill passed into law, because Barney Frank credentialed it with people who would generally never support something like this," says a grateful Francis Creighton, chief lobbyist for the Mortgage Bankers Association. Here, again, Frank's ornery temperament may have been key. Liberals knew the chairman wasn't going to let himself get rolled. We are, after all, talking about a guy who chews up lobbyists for breakfast and won't even allow the president of the United States to run his own meetings.
It remains to be seen how Frank's abrasive style will play with the incoming president--a member of Frank's political team but not exactly a kindred spirit. While Frank (who supported Hillary Clinton in the primaries) expressed to me appreciation for Barack Obama's intellectual grasp of the current crisis, he mocked the president-elect's self-professed post-partisanship--a condition Frank delights in saying gives him "post-partisan depression." "When he said we shouldn't fight the fights of the '90s, I said, 'Well, what about abortion? Gay rights? Which one do you want me to give up?'" grumped Frank. Just you wait, the chairman told me with a smug semi-smile. The Republicans "will dis-post- partisan him by their actions. We'll re-partisan him!"
Frank is clearly thriving at the center of the whirlwind. Asked about his reputation for braininess, he laughed, brushed away the question with one hand, and insisted he would "defer self-evaluation." For a moment, he looked almost embarrassed and more than a little pleased. He expressed excitement about the opportunity to reshape public policy and evinced zero anxiety about his ability to do so effectively. Every now and again during our (brief!) chat, Frank leaned back in his big swivel chair, arms behind his head--the picture of confidence, if not exactly contentment. It was the look of a man who has indeed met his moment, and perhaps also knows how close he came to never having it.
Of course, Frank rejected the notion that he was even a little energized by the economic plates shifting around him. "I'm tired," he demurred. "I'm sixty- eight years old. I've been doing this for forty years. I think about retiring." I made a skeptical face. This is the sort of empty threat all veteran pols make with the knowledge that you know they're full of crap. As Frank himself admitted, "There's nothing I would give this job up for." (No, not even a Senate run, he insisted.) Still, I couldn't resist skirting small-talk territory by asking what the chairman would do with himself if he left Congress. Frank, unsurprisingly, had a ready quip: "I'd ignore people. I look forward to that." That part, at least, is easy to believe.
Michelle Cottle is a senior editor at The New Republic.