With a tighter than expected reelection race, Barney Frank reinvents himself as a nice guy

Jonathan Strong | Contributor

Rep. Barney Frank, Massachusetts Democrat, suddenly wants his constituents to know he cares what they think.

Facing a credible Republican challenger for the first time in many, many years in former Marine Sean Bielat, Frank has been toning down his famous acerbic wit and asking for input from his constituents.

“Thanks for visiting my web page,” he says in a video, “the nice thing about the web is, it’s interactive. So if there’s any of these issues where you’d like to respond, or even have me respond to your response, please feel free to do so,” he says sincerely.

This from the man whose idea of “interactive” was to ask one of his constituents, “you said you’re worried about the deficit. Then you said you want to talk about the war. Who do you think paid for the war, Santa Claus?”

That memorable line came from a town hall in August 2009, when grassroots outcry over the president’s health care law was perhaps at its peak.

Facing a boisterous crowd that day, Frank relied on condescension for crowd control. “I’m just curious,” he said to one voter, “Do you really think that’s thoughtful conversation? Do you really think that advances your argument?”

“What’s the matter with you all?”

“We’re having this situation here where people can ask questions. They ask the questions, I answer the questions. Maybe one of you will get up to the microphone, if that’s not too much of an imposition, and explain why you think yelling is helpful,” Frank said.

Many Democrats in Washington love Frank for his biting one-liners. One of his most famous lines came when he was explaining why government bailouts for Wall Street weren’t more popular – in Frank’s mind they averted disaster, but averting a calamity doesn’t bring acclaim.

“It’s like wearing dark pants and pissing down your leg,” Frank said, “it gives you a warm feeling, but no one knows you did it.”

Another time, he attacked a candidate’s vow to “think outside the box.” “As far as thinking outside the box is concerned,” Frank said, “Yes, it’s important for people to think outside the box. But you gotta know what the box looks like.”

He’s also obsessed about not being interrupted. Frank signed off on one of his campaign ads with the following: “I’m Barney Frank. I approved this message and the chance to be on TV without interruption.”

Many times, though, Frank uses interruption as a cudgel.

At the August 2009 town hall, when a questioner asked how his constituents could trust him on the issue of health care after the financial collapse, Frank interrupted. “No, I didn’t say that! I didn’t say that!” Frank said. “Quote me correctly. I never said I wanted you to trust me.”

When others try to butt in, he savages them for not allowing him a chance to fully respond.
On June 11, 2009, Frank became so upset at being interrupted he walked off the set of a live interview.

Frank had charged the host had implied with his questions that Congress should do “nothing at all” in response to the financial crisis.

“No I have not suggested that,” host Mark Haines interjected.

“I’m sorry, please stop interrupting me. Alright, excuse me. You wanna lose me? You wanna lose…excuse me,” Frank said.

“Well, I am not misrepresenting,” Haines said.

“I apologize, but this interview is over,” Frank said. “You want to interrupt because you don’t like what I’m saying? Then you can find somebody else to interview.”

As is typical for Frank, it’s not so much the words he uses but the acid tone with which they are expressed. He says “please,” but it sounds more like, “you worthless, contemptible piece of garbage.”

Other times, he’ll come right out and say just how stupid he thinks someone is.

“You don’t listen at all,” he told Bill O’Reilly at the close of an entertaining shouting match, “or maybe you listen and you’re too dumb to understand.”

Other times, he feigns exhaustion at all the bickering. As he told Lou Dobb’s on CNN, “Lou, Lou, Lou. I’m sorry, but it’s been a long day. If we could have complete sentences from each other that would be useful.”

Now in political danger, Barney Frank is a new man. Boston Herald columnist Margery Eagan noticed the change when she recently asked Frank some questions.

“I was bracing to get hammered by his reply,” Eagan wrote, “This time, though, he didn’t tell me I was asking something dumb. He didn’t get mad. He didn’t lecture me on what I should be asking instead.”

Frank was “almost diplomatic,” Eagan wrote.

Frank survived scandal in the 1980s, when it was revealed a male prostitute Frank initially met by paying him for his services had run his prostitution ring out of Frank’s apartment. Even then, his constituents supported him.

But polls now show a tightening race between Frank and his opponent. If Frank loses – still a long shot – it won’t be because of his liberal positions. It will be his personality, the one that led one of his constituents, a lifelong Democrat, to bring her tale of woe to Frank’s opponent.

The constituent went to Frank’s office with questions about the health care bill. “I felt like he was so confident he would be reelected, he was so confident it was his seat, I didn’t matter. I wasn’t anybody,” she said.