Lifetime Achievement: Barney Frank

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Strange as it may sound, the man most directly responsible for the launch of Rep. Barney Frank's legendary 32-year career in Congress was Pope John Paul II.

In 1980, the Pope issued a directive barring priests from holding public office, a move that forced the retirement of Father Robert Drinan from his House seat representing Massachusetts' 3rd District.

It also gave Frank, then a member of the state legislature, an opportunity to seek national office. It was an unexpected break for Frank, who until that time had assumed that his role in politics would be mostly behind the scenes.

Rep. Barney Frank (Image: Bloomberg News)

"I was an accidental congressman," he says. "I didn't know I was going to go to Congress. I'm not one of these kids who thought I could always do this."

But Frank went to Capitol Hill, and went on to become one of the most prominent members of the House, carving a legacy that depends largely on the political ideology of the beholder.

To the left, Frank is a liberal hero—a gay rights champion fiercely devoted to economic and social fairness, and a skillful legislator who successfully passed a landmark bill in 2010 designed to tame Wall Street.

To the right, he is a villain, an intractable defender of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac who irresponsibly pushed banks to give mortgages to poor people who couldn't pay them back—and in so doing helped cause the financial crisis.

What both sides agree on is that Frank is one of the smartest members of Congress, whose sharp wit, tenacity, and ability to guide legislation through to enactment will leave a mark on the financial services industry long after he retires at the end of his current term.

As chairman of the House Financial Services Committee between 2007 and 2011, Frank played a key role in the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, better known as Dodd-Frank, and in helping to pass the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which most experts agree saved the financial system.

That may well be enough to secure his place in history, but his record is both far deeper and more complicated than that, covering other vital issues such as reform of Fannie and Freddie, the expansion of affordable housing and contributions to lesser known but still important banking bills.

While bankers have not always agreed with Frank's actions, they have seldom seen his equal on Capitol Hill.

"On a scale of 1 to 10, he's a 10," says Jamie Dimon, the chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase. "In terms of knowledge, brains, understanding—he's way up there."

Frank's career is full of contradictions.

He's a liberal icon known for his fiery partisanship—but has time and again proved able to work closely with bankers and with Republicans, including former Rep. Mike Oxley and former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, on highly contentious issues.

He worries a lot about poverty and pushes against economic disparities, yet he also is a defender of the free market.  

And while he has had a successful career, he lacks one of the most distinguishing characteristics of politicians—an all-driving need to be loved by the public.

Frank has a razor-sharp tongue in public and private. He famously told a constituent in 2009, after she compared President Obama to Hitler, "Ma'am, trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to argue with a dining-room table. I have no interest in doing it."

His quick wit and blunt approach—and his willingness to say things other politicians won't—have been key to his success. 

"I'm unconventional," he acknowledges. "I'm gay, I'm Jewish, my diction is imperfect, I have a slight lisp. I grew up in an area with a very pronounced regional speech pattern and moved to an area with another one so I have an amalgam of Northern New Jersey-Massachusetts."

But he happens to be, as he says, "good with words," which served him well on the campaign stump but perhaps even better in negotiations with his peers.

"The luckiest thing for me was I got into a line of work that plays to my strengths and not my weaknesses," he says.

"I'm not a great candidate. I'm a better inside politician than outside politician."

But his forthrightness and independence make it hard for some people who have worked closely with him to distinguish the difference.

"The guy you see on TV is the same guy," says Dimon. "He's direct, thoughtful, responsive. He's tough… He means what he says and he says what he means. It's a great virtue because you know when he says something he actually believes it."

Paulson calls Frank "a pleasure to work with," citing his discipline but also his willingness to compromise. "He likes to get difficult things done," Paulson says. "He's very clear and straightforward. When you have a deal with him, he sticks to it. He keeps confidences."

One of Frank's closest collaborators in Congress was Oxley, who chaired the House Financial Services Committee from 2001 to 2007 while Frank was the ranking Democrat for the last four of those years.

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Comments (16)
Excellent. This is a well written, balanced and accurate tribute, Rob. Barney Frank deserves such an assessment as well as our thanks for a life in public service. But prepare for a Tsunami of anger for daring to do this.
Posted by Lawrence Baxter | Wednesday, November 28 2012 at 1:54PM ET
In the words of John McEnroe, "You cannot be serious??!!"
Posted by jim_wells | Wednesday, November 28 2012 at 2:04PM ET
Next we'll see ABA endorsing Al Quaeda for the Nobel Peace Prize. Ugg!
Posted by SEG NSFP | Wednesday, November 28 2012 at 3:00PM ET
From seeing dozens of Barney Frank interviews, his standard operating procedure is to belittle, interrupt, and insult. I suppose that passes for intellect in some circles. Frank was hyper partisan. Sure, he was right on some issues... but only if those issues served a progressive liberal agenda. When the proper moves were more conservative ones, he fought them loudly, rudely, and blindly. Heck, he may be a decent guy to friends and family. And I'm sure he's a purring kitten when participating in a fawning career-achievement piece. But please spare us the "he was just so complicated, he was easily misunderstood" argument. We all know what Barney was. I wish him well in his now-private life... and am glad he's retired.
Posted by My 2 Cents | Thursday, November 29 2012 at 9:49AM ET
If Time magazine can have Hitler and Stalin as Man of the Year, why not Barney for Lifetime Achievement? Barney helped financially slaughter many in this country. Of course, it does lessen the credibility of the banking industry if there is not a firestorm. We shall see who the future leaders are and who the "kiss ups" are by their voice. Why not Chris Dodd for next years candidate?
Posted by frankarauscher | Thursday, November 29 2012 at 10:49AM ET
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