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Barney the bully

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U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, shown addressing the World Economic Forum in Switzerland in January 2010,  announced his decision this week not to run for reelection.  (World Economic Forum via Creative Commons)

U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, shown addressing the World Economic Forum in Switzerland in January 2010, announced his decision this week not to run for reelection. (World Economic Forum via Creative Commons)

With the announcement this week that Barney Frank will not be running again for Congress, reporters have felt free to review a less savory part of Frank’s legacy. Frank was kind of a jerk, and everyone knew it. Both The Washington Post and The New York Times have run pieces this week detailing the high points of Frank’s reputation for nastiness.

Here’s Dana Milbank:

The stories are legendary: making a young network employee cry when he scolded her for trying to un-rumple him before a TV appearance; demanding that an aide “answer the [expletive] question” before giving him a chance to respond; asking a woman escorting him to a Chicago meeting, “Why do you care what kind of flight I had?”

The invective poured forth with great fluency. He asked critics: “On what planet do you spend most of your time?” When the Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim asked a question Frank didn’t like, he replied, “What is this, some kind of idiotic contest?”

And Caroyln Ryan, writing in the Times, offers up this Jewish morsel:

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The phone rang at the desk of a rookie reporter at The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, Mass.

“Hello,” said a voice infused with indignation. “It’s the Jew.”

The caller was Representative Barney Frank, fuming about the fact that he was identified as Jewish in an article about Jewish community reaction to Nelson Mandela’s embrace of Yasir Arafat and Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. He was a congressman, Mr. Frank raged, not simply a Jew. He had some expertise to offer, beyond his religious affiliation.

Having not covered Washington much, I had little chance to see this sort of thing up close. But there was one incident I never forgot. Here’s the JTA report from a 2008 hearing on Holocaust insurance restitution:

At the witness table was a who’s who of Holocaust restitution figures. Among them were Stuart Eizenstat, who as an envoy in the Clinton administration negotiated landmark restitution settlements with European countries; Roman Kent, chairman of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, and Sam Dubbin, a Miami attorney who has represented survivors in several restitution-related lawsuits.

Frank urged them to dispense with the usual thank-yous and other pleasantries, and he ruthlessly cut them off once they had exceeded their time limit.

And then it was Kent’s turn. He kept talking, right through a bang of Frank’s gavel. Finally, the congressman told him that his time was up.

“That’ll have to do, Mr. Kent,” Frank said after the second gavel bang. “You said another minute and we’re over that.”

“No, I do appreciate,” Kent protested. “I just have to finish.”

“Ten seconds,” Frank said.

“I cannot do it.”

“Then we’ll get back to you in the questioning. We’re going way over on all these and I did try to advise you. The next witness will be—“

“Can I just finish my conclusion?” offered Kent, who opposes the legislation.

“No,” Frank said, “we’ll get to you in the questioning.”

During the questions, Frank asked a question about Austria and Switzerland and asked Kent if he would answer.

“I would but first, with your permission Chairman Leach, to finish what you said I will…," Kent said, confusing Frank with U.S. Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa), who chaired the Financial Services Committee until 2007.

Unfazed by the mix-up, the Massachusetts lawmaker grudgingly agreed – if Kent would keep it short.

“If you can do it in 30 seconds, Mr. Kent,” Frank replied. “You had over 10 minutes for a five minute period.”

Kent returned to his prepared statement, arguing that ongoing negotiations with European governments could be undermined if participants could not be assured that, even once they paid up, they would be spared further action.

It was a logical point, one made by Eizenstat, the Jewish groups and a representative from the State Department. But Frank had clearly heard enough.

“No, I’m sorry Mr. Kent, that’s enough,” Frank said. “You’re abusing, you’re abusing the privilege of the committee. You had over 10 minutes. I’ve listened a lot. I now want to get to the questions.”

I always felt it was Kent who was the abuser in that exchange, ignoring Frank’s instructions and going well over the time limit. Really, it was pretty chutzpahdik. But Frank was rather aggressive himself, cutting Kent off and dismissing him in the way the news accounts this week described as his standard operating procedure. It wasn’t pretty, but that might be the flip side of being a blunt jerk — you can run a fairly efficient hearing.

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