Thursday, December 01, 2011

When Barney Met Newt

Earlier this week Barney Frank announced he will be leaving office at the end of his current term, wrapping up a crisp 30-year career in Congress. Amid his self-congratulatory remarks summing up his record of public service, Frank found room for this comment about one his old House colleagues:

“I did not think I lived a good enough life to see Newt Gingrich as the Republican nominee,” the 30-year House veteran said. “He would be the best thing to happen to Democrats since Barry Goldwater ... It’s still unlikely, but I have hopes.”

That kind of “please, please nominate this clown” comment is not uncommon from the opposite party during the primary season. I remember a lot of Republican activists saying similar things about both Al Franken and Mark Dayton when they were still but gleams in the DFL’s eyes. The comment strikes me as disingenuous. If activists really thought Candidate X was ballot box poison, they wouldn’t be doing their opposition the favor of telling them. Instead, this comment is usually more of a tell that the person being mocked is probably the most feared by the opposition. Not necessarily feared in terms of electability, but feared in terms of the person they could least tolerate if they actually won. So it’s better to try and kill them off in the primary by using scare tactics than allow for an even remote possibility that the person could win the whole thing in the general election.

Gingrich seems to fit this profile for Democrats, especially those who were around in the 1990’s. Newt is responsible for the biggest conservative victories of the past 20 years. He created the strategies to achieve power and enact reforms and often executed them brilliantly, against great odds. As we all know, it didn’t end well for Newt in Congress. But the memory of his unexpected and overwhelming success against the entrenched Democratic power structure has to linger among those who suffered as a consequence. All of you Republicans who were tempted to heed the sage advice of Barney Frank on who you should nominate to be President may want to keep this in mind.

Of course, Barney Frank has other reasons to throw hatchets at Gingrich. I have to believe a certain episode from the summer of 1990 has something to do with it. As you may recall, there was a series of revelations that Frank (then a fresh faced, 9-year incumbent) had intimate relations with a male prostitute (who also was a convicted drug dealer and sex offender), had his apartment used by said prostitute to ply his trade, used his influence as a Congressman to fix dozens of parking tickets for said prostitute, and wrote a letter on official US House stationery attempting to help said prostitute get preferential treatment in a parole hearing.

Given the Puritanical, uptight, hate-fueled mores of the time, some in Congress wanted to sanction Frank for his behavior. Suggestions ranged from a mild reprimand to outright expulsion. The GOP settled on a middle course, the dreaded censure and the job of making the case fell to the fresh-faced House Minority Whip, Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia.

We turn now to July 26, 1990 and a grim Gingrich takes to the well near the end of a heated and acrimonious 3-hour floor debate.

Newt plays the Diet of Worms card at the end! No wonder why Frank is still hacked off. Bracing stuff from Newt though, showing that mix of command and fire that made him such an imposing figure during his rise.

Gingrich haters out there howling about the hypocrisy of Newt criticizing Frank for his behavior when he himself had infidelities later in his life can stow it. Although neither man can be proud of his moral record, Newt's wayward behavior in his personal life in no way equates to what Frank was found guilty of doing to violate his office.

Speaking of Barney, he was next to take the dais on that day in 1990, right after Newt spoke. It’s not all that interesting, lots of lawyerly obfuscation and misdirection amid the crocodile tears. But in the interest of equal time, we turn to the distinguished gentleman from Massachusetts.

Ultimately, Barney Frank’s arguments won the day in that Democratically held body and he was only given a reprimand. What he did really wasn't that bad, and Republicans were motivated by hate anyway, so they could be ignored. Frank's constituents didn’t bother to hold him accountable either, he received a 66% mandate in the 1990 election, and Frank went on to a another 21 years of gloriously serving the public.

If you want to learn more about Barney Frank's indiscretions and how each party reacted, the full 3 hour debate is here.

(BTW, this entire post has been an excuse to use CSPAN’s cool editing and embedding features from their extensive video library. Oh, the places we'll go with this!)