Asked about the chances of the House passing an immigration bill without his amendments tacked on to the package, Rep. Barney Frank once answered this way:
“Yitgadal v’yitkadash shemay rabbah … ”
It’s likely the reporter didn’t realize these were the opening words of the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. But the quip says nearly all one needs to know about the liberal Massachusetts Democrat: He’s quick, sharp, funny, Jewish and, when it comes to legislation, he likes to get his way.
That story and scores more like it can be found in Stuart Weisberg’s new book, “Barney Frank: The Story of America’s Only Left-Handed, Gay, Jewish Congressman.”
Weisberg gave a talk Nov. 19 at Books Inc. in San Francisco.
Weisberg is a friend and former colleague of Frank’s. That makes him a kind of Thomas Boswell to Frank’s Samuel Johnson. Weisberg admits his book as an “admiring biography.” But the author also says he tells the complete story, warts and all, adding, “It’s not always as Barney would have liked it.”
To write the book, Weisberg interviewed more than 150 people, including, of course, Frank himself. The interviewees span everyone from Frank’s mother and sister, to congressional colleagues from both sides of the aisle.
What emerges is a portrait of a legislator who fights ferociously for his beliefs, but abandons the gruff exterior when there are no cameras around.
“He is very good in the cloak room kibitzing,” Weisberg says, “and very popular among members, both Democrat and Republican. But he’s different when he’s on the floor. There’s Barney the debater, and Barney the legislator, who is able to build coalitions.”
Today the 15-term congressman chairs the powerful House Financial Services Committee, which means Frank has a big say in how the recession — especially the role of those too-big-to-fail banks — will play out.
But before that, he had drawn national attention both as a tough debater and, less flatteringly, as the center of scandal.
In 1990, Frank was caught up in a sordid story, in which his Washington, D.C., roommate was accused of running a gay prostitution business out of the home. Many expected Frank to resign, but he refused.
“He did not [resign],” Weisberg says, “because he felt the only way he would be cleared is if there was a full ethics investigation, which wouldn’t happen if he stepped down.”
The House Ethics Committee later found Frank had no prior knowledge of the crime. Frank won re-election that year with 66 percent of the vote.
As for Frank’s heritage, Weisberg says he is proud of being Jewish. Frank was bar mitzvahed in his hometown of Bayonne, N.J., in an Orthodox synagogue. As a legislator he often sprinkles his rhetoric with Jewish references.
Once while working on an agriculture bill, Frank had to consider amendments that im-pacted both the beef cattle and dairy industries. Frank told a fellow congressman he didn’t want to mix meat and milk in the same bill.
Once he came out in 1987 as the only gay member of Congress (Colorado’s Jared Solis has since joined him), he wasn’t shy about his sexual orientation. During the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Frank joked that he didn’t enjoy going over the infamous Starr Report because “it was too much reading about heterosexual sex.”
Though Frank’s heated debates with Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly, fellow House members and even his own constituents often make it to YouTube, the real fireworks may come from Frank’s role on his committee. Today Frank sits at the center of the economic meltdown.
Weisberg says Frank has a strategy to correct Wall Street’s mistakes of the past.
“He’s handling legislation on a piecemeal basis,” the author says, “rather than an om-nibus bill. Barney believes this is the way to go on this. It’s harder for members to vote against a particular piece of legislation.”
At 500 pages, Weisberg’s biography may seem at first glance too hefty for some readers. But Weisberg has no worries his readers will find the story boring.
Says Weisberg, “I don’t think Barney Frank and the word ‘boring’ have ever been in the same sentence.”
“Barney Frank: The Story of America’s Only Left-Handed, Gay, Jewish Congressman” by Stuart E. Weisberg ($29.95, University of Massachusetts Press, 536 pages)