He was such a cranky campaigner that even his own staff sometimes thought it best that Barney Frank, a man with all the social graces of Jack Nicholson in The Departed, often have less contact with human beings than the Unabomber in solitary confinement.
A small confession. That's my kind of pol.
He hated asking for votes. He hated asking for money. He wasn't too crazy about many of his constituents, either. And when he retires from the U.S. House of Representatives next year, he'll be missed, too. Some may despise his proudly worn liberalism. But you can't deny his intellect.
Almost 40 years ago as I was about to graduate from college, I briefly worked as a lobbyist for a bank in Erie, Pa. One day a local state representative took me aside and advised me that since he was going to run for the state Senate, if I wanted, he would help me get elected to his House seat.
I pondered the offer for a nanosecond before declining. First, I would have to remain in Erie, Pa. That would be, no. Second, if I decided on a political life, I would have to hit up donors for cash. I would have to interact with total strangers and ask them for their vote. And worst of all, I would have to pretend that I cared. Please. Spare me.
So it is with no small amount of admiration that I am in wonder of the long electoral career of someone like the rumpled, ill-tempered, pugnacious Frank, a Democrat who managed to serve Massachusetts for 30 years in Congress as the body's resident dark eminence.
What political handicapper today would give a candidate any chance of winning who was cantankerous, loath to hit the hustings, regarded some of his constituents as complete idiots, had all the fashion sense of Jed Clampett and, oh yeah, was openly gay, too?
Frank even had to deal with the scandal of having a former boyfriend get caught running a prostitution ring out of his Washington home. Not exactly a point scored for family values
Still, Barney Frank got elected time and time and time again despite himself, largely, it might be argued, because while his constituents might have regarded him as the Mr. Potter of New Bedford, he was still one of the smartest guys in Washington. Admittedly, this is faint praise.
I applaud anyone who runs for public office. Campaigning is long, hard, frustrating work and then — you probably lose. It's not for everybody and it probably wasn't for someone with a personality somewhere between a Bond villain and Captain Ahab.
And yet the political life occasionally attracts the introverted, the physically awkward, the irascible souls who want to serve even if it means struggling against their most formidable opponent — themselves.
Have we ever had a president who was more uncomfortable in his own skin than Richard Nixon, who treated campaigning as if he was carrying the cross to Golgotha? Former Florida Gov. Buddy MacKay, a lovely man, who never warmed up to retail politics, once had to be nagged into shaking hands with potential voters — by the traveling press corps covering his campaign.
This is highly presumptuous, but I suspect that every two years it took every ounce of Frank's rather limited patience to force himself to attend to the nitty-gritty of interacting with people, many of whom were unpleasant dolts, in order to return to the House.
Ideology aside. Party affiliation aside, public life needs more figures like Barney Frank, who aren't afraid to tell you want they think regardless of the political consequences.
After all, most of the current crop of Republican presidential contenders probably can't order lunch without flip-flopping all over the menu.
And don't you probably suspect there are plenty of Frank's colleagues in the House on both sides of the aisle who often wish they could face down an addled constituent at a town hall meeting and note: "Trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to argue with a dining room table."
Instead they have to be nice. They have to pretend they care. They don't want to offend a possible voter.
Barney Frank is part of a diminishing breed of the intellectually honest politician indifferent to the whims of their constituency and for that matter, the press. The late Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater was a member of the club. So were former senators Alan Simpson of Wyoming and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. Perhaps a few others, but not many.
With a year to go before he leaves Congress, Frank doesn't have to worry about re-election, or raising money, or the feelings of people anymore.
Uh oh. Barney Frank unchained. This should be fun.