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In Conversation: Barney Frank

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It seems like you’re leaving in large part because of this dysfunctional atmosphere.
I’m 73 years old. I’ve been doing this since October of 1967, and I’ve seen too many people stay here beyond when they should. I don’t have the energy I used to have. I don’t like it anymore, I’m tired, and my nerves are frayed. And I dislike the negativism of the media. I think the media has gotten cynical and negative to a point where it’s unproductive.

Is that a recent development?
It’s been a progressive development, or a regressive development. And I include even Jon Stewart and Colbert in this. The negativism—it hurts liberals, it hurts Democrats. The more government is discredited, the harder it is to get things done. And the media, by constantly harping on the negative and ignoring anything positive, plays a very conservative role substantively.

But isn’t part of that just because the media is expected to be adversarial?
Who expects it to be adversarial? Where did you read that? Did you read that in the First Amendment? Where did you read that the media is expected to be adversarial? It should be skeptical, why adversarial? Adversarial means you’re the enemy. Seriously, where does that come from?

Okay, maybe “skeptical” is the better word.
But that’s a very different word. You reflect the attitude: adversarial. And there is nothing in any theory that I have ever seen that says when you report events that you’re supposed to think, I’m the adversary, so that means I want to defeat them, I want to undermine them, I want to discredit them. Why is that the media’s role? But you’ve accurately stated it, and I think it’s a great mistake.

Do you think I just showed my hand there?
No, I don’t think you showed your hand personally. I think you reflected the Weltschmerz.

But you know the old aphorism, “Afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted.” I think that’s more what I was trying to get at.
When have you comforted the afflicted? I don’t see that in the media. I don’t see reporting that comforts low-income people or the environment. I think it’s negative about everybody.

But that’s a different problem. It’s the problem of sensationalism: The bad news is the stuff that gets the headlines.
That’s because you choose to give it the headlines.

Does that affect the way members of Congress operate?
Sure. People are response mechanisms. People understand you’ll get more news for being negative than positive. It affects the way people act in hearings.

That’s true. You go to these hearings, and there’s always grandstanding.
That’s because you guys give play for it.

Did the grandstanding not used to be as bad?
Not nearly as bad. One thing is people in the media would ignore it. What happens is the people who do the grandstanding are very often the least influential people here. I think the public now has a much smaller chance of judging who’s an effective member of Congress and who isn’t because that grandstanding crap dominates the media.

You’re always referred to as an institutionalist, and it seems like it’s hard to be an institutionalist when the institution is as partisan and as polarized as it is now.
Yes. But I learned a lot from Lyndon Johnson. I’ve read two books in my life that I read as manuals, and one was Caro on Lyndon Johnson as minority leader.

How was that a manual?
It’s very simple. It showed the importance of focusing on those members, providing individual attention, establishing a relationship in which you gave them more than you got.

Whenever anybody, any Democrat who’s on the committee, asked me to do something, if at all possible I’d do it. I’d go to their districts, I’d show up at their fund-raisers, I had my picture taken with people who wanted to have their pictures taken with me, I’d support their ­amendments, I’d get little things for them. You are their servant, you are their constituent.

And what about Republicans?
When we took power, they moved very far to the right, and from the time I became chairman, in 2007, it became virtually impossible to work with them. In 2009, when we were doing the financial-reform bill, there were 71 members of the committee, 42 Democrats and 29 Republicans. The last thing I thought of every night when I went to sleep was the number 36. Thirty-six is one more than half of 71: I just had to keep 36 Democrats, always Democrats. Never once did I have a Republican in my four years as chairman who was critical to a majority.


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