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.
Barney Frank was the first self-proclaimed homosexual in Congress, and as a spokesman for gay rights, he was ardent. Today, gays and lesbians have their rights, but they want to claim the right to marry, not to sign civil union papers before the state like those heterosexuals who want a civil union. They want to claim marriage in a church. Will churches be allowed to deny them this right, free from the reach of civil rights law? It is too early to know, but as I watch the treatment of church-run hospitals refusing abortion and church-run adoption agencies treating gay couples differently than straight couples, I worry about liberals again going too far.
Certainly liberals went too far in extending subprime mortgages to those who could not afford them. Through all their travails, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae had a great protector in Frank. Frank was a typical liberal advocate of subprime loans for the penurious. As late as July 2008, he told CNBC, "I think this is a case where Fannie and Freddie are fundamentally sound, that they are not in danger of going under. They're not the best investments these days, from the long-term standpoint going back. I think they are in good shape going forward."
Ooops. And in 2009, Frank took over the Financial Services Committee to work his wizardry on the whole financial industry. The result was Dodd-Frank, which took the crony capitalism of Fannie and Freddie to a whole new level.
Barney Frank has cost the taxpaying American people a bundle, and now that the bills are coming due, he's retiring. My guess is that he'll be richly rewarded on the speaking circuit, where he'll lecture liberals on how swell they had it, while others clean up his mess.
No, he never made it as a Moynihan or a Lowenstein.