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Barney Frank leaves as he served: With a sharp wit

U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, shown addressing the World Economic Forum in Siwtzerland in January 2010, was influential in advancing gay rights and on economic reform. (World Economic Forum via Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Barney Frank’s talk of retirement was anything but retiring.

The veteran Jewish congressman’s announcement on Monday that he would not seek re-election was replete with the same caliber of verbal bombs — lobbed and received — that characterized much of his career.

Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat, attributed his decision not to run in 2012 in part on what he said was the Republican polarization of the legislative process.

The House GOP caucus, he said at his news conference, “consists half of people who think like Michele Bachmann and half of people who are afraid of losing a primary to people who think like Michele Bachmann,” referring to the GOP presidential hopeful and conservative Minnesota congresswoman.

“That leaves very little room to work things out,” said Frank, 71, who has served in the House of Representatives since 1981 and in 1987 became the first member of Congress to voluntarily come out as gay.

Frank also cited the redrawing of his district that made it more conservative as a reason for his decision.

His critics — among them a phalanx of Jewish conservatives — are not necessarily shedding tears over his impending departure from Congress. Some assailed his role amid the financial crisis as chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Finance Committee from 2007 until January of this year.

Frank is “a quick wit — all too rare on the left,” Joel Pollak wrote on the conservative website Big Government.

“Yet,” Pollak added, “his most damaging legacies — the housing crisis, the financial ‘reform’ that bears his name, and the hyper-partisanship to which he eagerly contributed — outweigh Frank’s positive contributions. How unfortunate that his constituents did not eject him much sooner.”

Frank at his news conference at the town hall in Newton, Mass., where he lives, pushed back against such claims, saying that much of the groundwork for the economic crisis was in place by January 2007. But answering the reporter who asked him if he regretted his role, Frank expanded his answer to say that he did have regrets about his time in Congress. And they were substantive.

Frank said he rued his vote against the first Persian Gulf War in 1991, as well as approving restrictions on the Internal Revenue Service that he now sees as impeding tax collection.

He was no stranger to public regrets. In 1989, Frank expressed contrition when it was revealed that a man he once paid for sex and later hired to do chores and errands had run a prostitution service from the congressman’s Capitol Hill apartment.

Jewish community professionals who dealt with Frank said that his ability to self-correct — the flip side of his acerbic wit and his unwillingness to suffer fools gladly — made him valuable: He was willing to be swayed by good arguments.

“Barney was willing to admit when he was wrong,” said Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the National Council for Jewish Women, who for years dealt with Frank in her previous job as director of Boston’s Jewish Community Relations Council.

“If he stepped out too far on an issue, he would call the Jewish community leaders to apologize,” she said. “If he didn’t understand all the ramifications, he would check in.”

Rabbi David Saperstein, who directs the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, recalled a few hair-raising encounters with Frank.

“He could be scathing in his critique of your view,” he said. “It didn’t mean he was always right, but he would push you hard to defend your position. If you didn’t come really prepared, you’d find yourself in deep trouble. When you came prepared, he respected that.”

Frank was one of the few Jewish lawmakers who would push back against what he saw as the excesses of the pro-Israel lobby.

At the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Washington, he attended what the American Israel Public Affairs Committee calls its “breakfast with mishpocha” — a get-together with the unofficial Jewish congressional caucus.

AIPAC’s then president, Bernice Manocherian, pressed Democrats in the room, according to those who attended, on how the lobby could better make its case to the left — a constituency with which Manocherian was concerned that Israel was losing ground.

The lawmakers politely demurred, insisting AIPAC was doing fine — until Frank spoke up and blasted AIPAC for insisting that Jewish lawmakers back bills they might otherwise object to. He cited a Republican funding bill from the late 1990s that slashed funds to Africa; AIPAC had insisted on passage because of its Israel funding components.

Slowly, as the other lawmakers saw Manocherian nodding and taking notes, they joined in, backing up Frank’s complaint. In 2008 and 2010, Frank accepted the endorsement of the dovish J Street’s political action committee.

“On particular Jewish concerns,” like Israel and Soviet Jewry, “he was as front and center as he was on our broad agenda,” Saperstein said. That included gay rights, hate crimes and financial reform.

Frank did not often invoke his Jewishness, although he reveled in pushing back against Israel critics by noting that the Jewish state had been more advanced than the United States for years when it came to gay rights.

More recently he took up the cause of clemency for Jonathan Pollard, the Israeli spy serving a life sentence since 1985.

“Last year, Congressman Frank played a vital role in spearheading a key Congressional letter to President Obama which called for a commutation of Jonathan’s sentence, and he has been a vocal supporter and an outspoken advocate for Jonathan’s release ever since,” Esther Pollard, Jonathan’s wife, said in a statement to JTA. “We are extremely appreciative of Congressman Frank’s efforts to free Jonathan and we are confident that he will continue playing a leading role in the fight for clemency in the weeks and months ahead.”

When Frank did bring up being Jewish, it was often as a witticism.

When a woman at a town hall meeting in 2009 called President Obama’s health care proposals “Nazi policy,” he famously said, “I’m going to revert to my ethnic heritage and answer your question with a question: On what planet do you spend most of your time?”

“It’s a loss of a sense of humor” that will be keenly felt, said David A. Harris, president of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “A rapier wit.”

It was the loss of a reason to enjoy Congress  that drove out Frank, the NCJW’s Kaufman said.

“He was depressed, watching what was happening in the Congress of the United States, with Ted Kennedy’s death and the lack of people talking across the aisle,” she said. “It’s not been fun, and it has to be fun.”