THE SAYINGS OF CHAIRMAN BARNEY

Richard Reeves

WASHINGTON -- I first met Barney Frank in 1979, when he was a state legislator in Massachusetts. We spoke the same language, Jersey cynical, because we grew up a couple of miles from each other. He was from Bayonne and I was from Jersey City, the jewel of Hudson County.

He got to Boston by way of Harvard and Harvard Law School, but he always sounded the same.

"Who runs Massachusetts?" I asked that day.

"The businesses who threaten to move out of the state," he said. "They have a chokehold on us. We have to do what they want done or they'll move someplace else, taking their taxes, taking their jobs, and leaving government to clean up the mess, to take care of the people who are hurt when companies move."

Oh, how things have changed. Right. Frank had already figured it out back then: "Justice Brandeis on the Supreme Court said the states were the laboratories of democracy. That's not true anymore. The rats have figured out that they can move from lab to lab. We have 50 political entities and one giant entity, the country. Someday the world."

A year later he was elected to Congress, and last week, he announced he was quitting. There were local reasons -- redistricting -- and a big national one: Congress is broken. He did a good job all of those years despite being something a bit different from most of his colleagues. He had a couple of scandals related to his sexuality.

"I'm used to being in the minority," he said. "I'm a left-handed gay Jew. I've never felt, automatically, a member of any majority."

He was a roaring liberal to the outside world; inside the House he was a skilled negotiator and compromiser, but he bent as little as possible on the core principles of democratic liberalism.

"It is clear," he said, "that left entirely untouched by public policy, the capitalist system will produce more inequality than is socially healthy or than is necessary for maximum efficiency."

He was also bipartisan in his way. He attacked President Obama's seeming passivity during parts of the recent economic chaos, saying: "At a time of great crisis with mortgage foreclosures and autos, Obama says we only have one president at a time. I'm afraid that overstates the number of presidents we have. He's got to remedy that situation."

"Capitalism works better from every perspective when the economic decision-makers are forced to share power with those who will be affected by those decisions."

And: "Community action is as valuable a principle on the international level as it has been domestically."

Or: "Increasing inequality in income distribution in the country has broader policy implications, and there is also the growing problem of perverse incentives that result from executives receiving grossly disproportionate compensation based on decisions they themselves take."

He was, in the end, a national asset who may have sometimes talked too much.

That long-ago conversation we had in Boston ended when his secretary came into the office and said a television crew was waiting outside for a comment. It seems some people had been injured the night before during a fireworks display. The young Barney Frank put on his coat, headed for the door and said: "Let's denounce people getting hurt by fireworks. Your state legislature in action."