Barney Frank, the Insensitive Bully of the Senate

Jill Lawrence

Barney Frank in the Senate? Please, Gov. Patrick, throw him in that briar patch.

The retiring Massachusetts House member (a description of his job status, never his personality) said Friday on MSNBC’s Morning Joe that he’d like to fill in for a few months until the special election to succeed Secretary of State nominee John Kerry in the Senate. You could practically hear the whoops reverberating around Capitol Hill.

By Frank’s own account, Gov. Deval Patrick was noncommittal when Frank told him he’d like to serve as the state’s interim senator. But a political junkie can dream, right?

In the best of all possible worlds, Frank would bring his rudely liberal, unadulterated self to the Senate and resist the urge to buckle under to awe. It would be a tragic waste of his few months if he turned into Al Franken – that is, left all vestiges of his iconoclasm at the door of the august upper chamber. If Frank makes it to the Senate, perhaps Majority Leader Harry Reid – who has called tourists smelly and who repeatedly taunted Mitt Romney last year over whether he did or didn’t pay income taxes for a 10-year period – would be a better role model.

We need the Barney Frank who hurls insults at reporters for their “stupid” and “idiotic” questions. We need a Barney Frank who isn’t cowed by Senate traditions and history.

We need the one who declared in Outrage, a 2009 documentary about closeted politicians who vote against gay rights, “There is a right to privacy but not a right to hypocrisy.” Who can sum up an entire ideology or era in a single quip ("Conservatives believe that, from the standpoint of the federal government, life begins at conception and ends at birth"). Who doesn’t mind offending anyone, including moderate Republican "friends" he once accused of handing their "tin swords" to their more conservative leaders in surrender.

Frank’s ferocity is often leavened with humor. For instance, mocking the persistence of conservative "birthers" suspicious of President Obama’s citizenship, he once urged reporters to "do your job" by asking Hawaii Rep. Charles Djou to produce his birth certificate. And in announcing his retirement last year, Frank said, "Let me be very clear: I will be neither a lobbyist nor a historian." No one missed the dig at Newt Gingrich, who said last year that his work for Fannie Mae was as a historian.

Frank is nothing if not self-aware. He went on to say that lobbying was not for him because "having to try to be nice to people I don’t know or like would be weird." He hasn’t wasted much time on that in the past. The apt cliché would be not suffering fools gladly, as a woman at a town meeting found out in 2009.

"Why do you continue to support a Nazi policy, as Obama has?" she asked. "On what planet do you spend most of your time?" Frank responded. "Ma’am, trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to argue with a dining-room table."

Sometimes Frank is abrasive and intimidating, minus the humor, as I and many others can attest. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank has called him a bully. "The stories are legendary," he writes. "Making a young network employee cry when he scolded her for trying to unrumple him before a TV appearance; demanding that an aide 'answer the [expletive] question' before giving him a chance to respond; asking a woman escorting him to a Chicago meeting, 'Why do you care what kind of flight I had?' "

"I confess to insensitivity," Frank once said on the House floor, as his colleagues erupted in laughter.

To be fair, Frank has taken his share of verbal abuse. A 1990 disciplinary hearing after he was caught doing favors for a male prostitute was raw, to say the least. Conservative lawmakers called him an example of all that was wrong with American values. He attributed his misdeeds to "one central element of dishonesty" – hiding his homosexuality for 40 years.

In more recent years, Frank has been a leading public champion of gay rights, using mockery, logic, and partisanship to advance the cause. He has defined the "radical gay agenda" as winning protection against violent crime and job discrimination, and being able to get married and fight for the country. "Do you think the spray makes it catching?" he once asked a colleague who had expressed concern about showering with homosexuals.

Imagine that cutting through the torpor of a Senate hearing or floor debate. Bliss.

Barney Frank in the Senate? Please, Gov. Patrick, throw him in that briar patch.