By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON – The morning after his retirement announcement, Rep. Barney Frank scored an interview on NBC’s “Today” show, gaining the opportunity to act as an elder statesman in front of a TV audience of millions.
Instead, the Massachusetts Democrat chose to quarrel with the interviewer.
“You said that your district has been redrawn in a way that would make it more difficult for you to win re-election,” host Savannah Guthrie said.
“I didn’t say I wasn’t running because I was afraid I couldn’t win,” Frank retorted.
Guthrie asked for his response to those who take his retirement as a sign that the Democrats won’t win control of the House in 2012.
“I wish we could talk substance sometimes in the media,” Frank complained. “I know that’s against, kind of, apparently, the rules.” He went on to say that “I have decided not to serve until three months before my 75th birthday. I guess I don’t understand why that is so hard for people to grasp.”
The amiable Guthrie tried again. How does he feel about the worsening tone in Washington?
“Well, you exemplify what I think is a change in the tone,” Frank said. “You’ve managed to ask all sort of negative questions. …”
The interviewer gave it a final attempt. Does Frank “feel any responsibility for your own role in, kind of, that tone that we do see in Washington?”
“Well, congratulations,” Frank said with derision. “You’re four-for-four in managing to find the negative approach.”
It was a chance for the nation to see what so many in the Capitol had seen up close over the years: That Barney Frank, liberal lion, gay pioneer and respected legislator, is also one mean and ornery S.O.B.
No question, Frank is one of the smartest on Capitol Hill and probably the most colorful. But he is also one of the most notorious bullies.
This isn’t to take away from his role as a modern Mark Twain. “Conservatives,” he quipped, “believe that, from the standpoint of the federal government, life begins at conception and ends at birth.”
The Republican strategist Karl Rove, writing on FoxNews.com, welcomed the retirement of the “petulant, abrasive and downright nasty” Frank. Rove, who knows something about nastiness, wrote: “Brilliant, but acid tongued and generally unpleasant, Mr. Frank ruled with an iron gavel, ran over critics with delight and treated committee members and especially Republican colleagues as lesser forms of life.”
The Republicans often deserved what they got from Barney. And, unlike Rove, I will miss Frank’s tart tongue. But he would have been a more successful lawmaker if he had learned that it’s sometimes better to hold it.
Dana Milbank’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. He writes for The Washington Post Writers Group.