WASHINGTON -- When Barney Frank announced the other day that he was shuffling off stage after three decades in the Congressional limelight, I was brought back to 1980, when some very thoughtful friends from Harvard told me to watch him. Paul H. Weaver had been an aide to Irving Kristol, the godfather of neoconservatism, which was lustrous in those days, and rightly so.
Paul was one of the brightest young neo-cons of his generation. I always took him seriously. He thought that Congressman Frank was principled, stupendously intelligent and of good cheer -- a wit. It seemed Frank was going to be another Daniel Patrick Moynihan, or at least an Allard Lowenstein, the former congressman and principled liberal activist who had recently been murdered.
Boy, were Paul and the others up there at Harvard wrong. I followed Frank's trajectory for years, and it always proceeded downward. If he was principled, it was the principle of sticking with your team, however far to the left it might go. If he was intelligent, it was the intelligence of the banal. There was never anything fresh or surprising about him. He followed the liberal herd, and if he was clever, it was in implementing the herd's desiderata.
As for wit, all I noticed was a clownish demeanor somewhat reminiscent of W.C. Fields, though without the booze. A specimen of it was recently presented on National Public Radio for us to savor. In responding to a contrary constituent in 2009, Frank said, "Trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to argue with a dining room table." Oscar Wilde he was not.
In an interview with The New York Times after announcing his forthcoming retirement, Frank spoke of how a "competition of people of goodwill with different points of view on public policy" had vanished from Congress. He never blamed liberals for this, only Newt Gingrich, the Republicans who had to "demonize the Democrats" to take over Congress and "the conservative news media." And, oh yes, he also blamed moderates who were too moderate to object to the Republicans' evil designs.
Actually, we conservatives have not changed our views much since Frank entered Congress. There are, however, two things that have changed. The first is that we have a voice in the public debate, and it is a growing voice. Added to the conservative writers and magazines, we now have talk radio (democratic talk radio) and Fox News.
The second thing that's changed is that Frank and his party have become markedly more liberal. In their immoderation, they display an element of extreme politics that's always present in extremist movements and is now sinking liberalism. The liberals always take liberalism too far.
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