Monday, November 28, 2011

Barney Frank: the rudest Congressman you’ll ever miss

The subtitle of Stuart Weisberg’s book Barney Frank is “the story of America’s only left-handed, gay, Jewish Congressman.” It could also be “ the story of the smartest, wittiest, rudest person in Congress in our lifetime.” It is also true that his decision not to run for reelection will leave a huge void.
Civility and humility were never Barney’s strongest suit. Everyone has “Barney” stories to tell. The doctor who participated in a meeting in his Washington office, appalled that the Congressman read a newspaper while his visitors presented their case on a pressing issue. The television producer whom he berated for asking him to arrive at the station a full half an hour before the candidates in his race were to debate. Saying please and thank you was an unnatural act.

One personal favorite occurred during a blinding snowstorm the night of the 1976 Presidential primary. We were both leaving the Copley Plaza Hotel after festivities there for primary winner Scoop Jackson and, across the hall, for primary loser Birch Bayh. (I had covered both events for the Ten O’Clock News on Channel 2.) Barney accosted me outside the St. James Street entrance, highly critical of something I had written in The Boston Phoenix about his candidate, Mo Udall (who privately was my choice as well). I was definitely overpowered in the exchange and finally, in exasperation, said, “Really, Barney, you are the most arrogant person I know.” Without missing a beat, Barney retorted, “Really, Marge, how many arrogant people do you know?” You never prevailed in verbal combat with Barney. Just ask his colleagues in Washington on both sides of the aisle. With a nice touch of self-deprecatory wit, Barney himself said today that one of the benefits of not running for re-election is “not having to pretend to be nice to people I don’t like.”

He was always quotable. Once, then-Boston Phoenix editor Bill Miller stepped out of his office into the newsroom and announced, “A hundred dollars to the first reporter who doesn’t quote Barney Frank in a story.” The combination of brains, often caustic wit and edge was just too tempting.

People in the 4th congressional district largely felt that Barney’s rudeness was the price they had to pay for his intelligence, hard work and unswerving support of mostly liberal causes. As a state legislator, he attacked Michael Dukakis in 1974 when the then-Governor cut welfare benefits. It continued when he succeeded anti-war Congressman Robert Drinan in 1981, espousing progressive policies and excoriating Reaganomics on the national scene. His position as a member, then chairman (now ranking minority member) of the Financial Services Committee enabled him to achieve much for those in need of affordable housing and access to credit. The Dodd-Frank Bill may be his most lasting legacy, though repealing it is a top goal of campaigning Republicans.

He was liberal, but not a stereotypical ideologue. He was also pragmatic. Like Ted Kennedy, Barney knew when to depart from liberal dogma, for example, and could reach across the aisle to get a deal done. From trucking deregulation (which I worked with him on for the PBS show The Advocates) to financial services and other issues, he rejected knee-jerk positions. He was an expert in working the legislative process in a way that has become increasingly alien in D.C. Identified with a wide variety of civil rights issues, he also had a libertarian streak, supporting, for example, online gambling. He was very attentive to the bread-and-butter issues of his district. He endeared himself to the fishermen in the southern part of his district, especially New Bedford, which he lost in the recent redistricting. His office ran a very good constituent service operation.

Barney was not without flaws. Before he came out, he got involved in a shameful sex scandal with a male prostitute that led to House reprimand and forced him to apologize to his colleagues and his constituents. He missed early signs of the crisis in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac but later, as committee chairman, worked to clamp down on sub-prime lending and other abusive practices.

He says he isn’t running for reelection because a) he wants to focus his attention in the next year to defending financial reform and to achieving deficit reduction in a way that doesn’t let the military off the hook; and b) he couldn’t fairly persuade 325,000 new constituents to support him while intending to retire, as he had planned, after just one more term. So he will retire at the end of 2012.

The only up note to come out of Barney’s press conference was his reassurance that he will retain an active voice in the public forum. His shoes will be difficult to fill, impossible in the short term, and not just because of the loss of seniority. Alan Khazei, who bowed out of the U.S. Senate race when Elizabeth Warren entered, has a similar philosophy, issue priorities, commitment to public service and fund-raising capacity to make a good run. But he’s not Barney Frank and will never be. Nor will anyone else.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Give thanks for one day off from politics

There’s something mindless about preparing for Thanksgiving: getting out the good china and other holiday accoutrements, preparing the vegetables, concocting the cranberry sauce, cleaning and stuffing the turkey. It’s satisfying to know what the goal is, take the steps necessary to achieve it, and have the power to effect the outcome. It’s hard work, but the end is almost always worth it. (Maybe that’s why 93 percent of Americans surveyed by the Washington Post like the Thanksgiving holiday.)

To be sure, there’s the occasional politically contentious guest to curdle the gravy, but you can always take solace that your dinner table arguments are so nasty because the stakes are so low.
That can’t be said for the turkeys in Washington who actually do have the power to make a difference, but failed miserably in taking responsible steps to get the economy moving and set in motion a plan to curb the deficit. How can they have failed to understand how angry the vast majority of the American people are? Failed to recognize that the cynicism they are feeding could weaken this country both domestically and internationally.

The Supercommittee was not only a Superfailure but a Superfraud. Perhaps it was never going to work but was just a way of kicking the can down the road (as they like to do inside the Beltway) and get the debt ceiling lifted. Perhaps Washington officialdom assumes that sequestration will never be allowed to kick in but will simply represent another artificial deadline which our leaders will miss. The game plan is all too reminiscent of that Dr. Seuss line, “Could this go on all day and night? It could, you know, and it just might.”

Democrats and Republicans both been talking taxes pro and con, not serious deficit reduction. As the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein wrote, this impasse is all about the Bush tax cuts.
In the recent kabuki theater, the Democrats moved their plans a little to the right, and then the Republicans moved the markers further to the right. The Supercommittee’s failure to act could ironically go further and faster toward serious deficit reduction than either party has proposed. Unless the Republicans pull off an electoral perfect storm of overwhelming victories in House, Senate and Presidency, there’s a serious showdown coming.

But today is a day off from ruminating about all the unintended consequences, and frankly I like it that way.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Emerging Leaders poised to set course against same old, same old

Recent shenanigans to sneak more money for racetracks into the casino gambling bill (about to go to) the Governor’s desk are yet another reminder of the self-interest of many leaders on Beacon Hill. The problem isn’t just political wheeling and dealing however. For generations in this tight city, insiders in various institutions , from finance to the arts, have held hold power very close and have failed to reach out to develop new generations of leadership.

But the times demand such new leadership, leadership that is open, diverse, collaborative and able to shape the global arena. Developing that leadership can’t be left to chance. One of the first to recognize that was former UMass Boston Chancellor Sherry Penney, who had also been interim president of the University of Massachusetts system.  A prominent figure in the Greater Boston community and player in international leadership circles, Penney proposed a Center for Collaborative Leadership at the UMass Boston College of Management and persuaded then-State Street CEO Marsh Carter of its merits. He promptly gave her a quarter of a million dollars to start the effort. Carter, now head of the New York Stock Exchange, was in Boston recently, and the two, along with State Street Corporation’s George Russell, were honored for their contributions to the development of leadership in our community.

Thanks to their activities over the past decade, we now have a cohort of 400 young leaders from every sector, corporate, government and nonprofit. Forty percent are people of color, and over half are women. (Compare that with the 11 percent of women who now sit on the boards of the Globe 100 companies.) One of the Emerging Leaders fellows has been named CEO of a major unit of Sovereign Bank. Another heads Citibank’s efforts in Boston. A physician is head of public health for Massachusetts. Two fellows are heads of nonprofits. Many have been recognized by the Boston Business Journal in its “Forty under Forty” list. There are many other success stories.

We’re going to need every one of these young leaders. You don’t have to look far to see how so many of the current generation in power is messing up, one of the reasons that spawned the Occupy Boston movement. Unfortunately, the Occupy movements, beyond slogans and a diffuse agenda, lacks pragmatic focus. It has yet to move from unbridled passion to a practical agenda and concerted action. It has even generated some health and safety problems. Regrettably, they lack the discipline of The Tea Party, which, for better or worse, has made itself a force to be reckoned with inside the political process.
It’s time for the next cohort of leaders, the Emerging Leaders fellows, to step up and, working within the system, offer strategies to make our society more just. Those of us who are a little long in the tooth need to create some breathing room and let these young leaders show what they can do. That will be a significant living legacy for the likes of Sherry Penney, Marsh Carter, George Russell, and others who have invested so much in training the next generation of leaders.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

MassInc shows how humor can bridge the political divide

The unidentified “they” have often said that Boston’s three favorite pastimes are sports, politics and revenge – and not necessarily in that order. Thursday night’s MassInc’s 15-year anniversary celebration at the Kennedy Library brought together media and pols to wallow in a hilarious celebration in a bipartisan spirit of humor and across-the-aisle friendship that, I sometimes think, can only happen here.

The “Serious Fun Program” was hosted by WTKK radio hosts Jim Braude (also of NECN) and Margery Eagan (also of the Boston Herald.) Braude, who, when he started out at TEAM (Tax Equity Alliance for Massachusetts) and in broadcasting was pompous and self-righteous, has mellowed over the years into someone totally able to take a joke at his own expense and even to dish them out in a self-deprecating way. Eagan, ever his foil, is smart, warm and wonderful.

One priceless video showed Tom Menino, speaking in the low gruff, semi-breathless but threatening tones of The Godfather, doing a riff on someone posing as nemesis developer Don Chiaforo. In another video, Republican consultant Todd Domke’s son acted the persona of a PR consultant cozying up to specific reporters and columnists (unseen and unheard from at the other end of the phone), trying to pitch a story on a footbridge a client opposed. He changed his slithery and sycophantic pitches to meet the style of each identified columnist, from Howie Carr to Brian McGrory and Joan Vennochi. Again, hilarious.

A video showed Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray, microphone in hand, walking the Public Garden asking people on the street if they knew who is the lieutenant governor of the Commonwealth. The regular people did not. Former Lt. Gov’s Donald Dwight and Jane Swift did, but they had some humorous words of advice for Murray. The piece was a big hit.

Onstage, various politicians present and past participated in a quiz show, with Scott Harshbarger, Joe Malone, Kerry Healey and others all taking it on the chin as their foibles and failures were mocked.

I kept thinking how nice it would be if politicians in Washington today had the down-to-earth sense of self and insightful humor to interact with each other in this way. It might take us back to the days when Democrat Tip O’Neill and Republican Congressman Silvio Conte could duke it out on the floor of the House during the day, play poker and drink together at night and ultimately work out legislative compromises.

MassInc was founded by business executive Mitch Kurtzman after an unsuccessful run for Governor. His vision of a nonpartisan think tank, looking at public policy in a dispassionate way, engaging Republicans and Democrats alike in the deliberation of issues, was implemented by MassInc’s first president Tripp Jones. A host of talented people over the last 15 years have expanded on those early days, turning out regular issues of Commonwealth Magazine, which add so much depth to the public dialogue. We are all better off for their serious, substantive explorations and analyses. But Thursday night, we were all better off for the opportunity to laugh and be together.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Rick Perry’s lapse evokes sympathy more than ridicule

Anyone who has read this blog over the past year knows I am no fan of Rick Perry. But there’s no way I would delight in what he experienced in Wednesday’s Republican debate when he forgot that the third agency he would abolish is the Energy Department. There is nothing to compare to the humiliation a person can experience when losing it on the public stage. The Boston Globe’s Scot Lehigh laid out his “Rick Perry moment” in this morning’s paper.

I am no stranger to this experience. Back in 1991, at the beginning of the first Gulf War -Desert Storm – I was airing regular editorials on WCVB-TV, Channel 5. Usually we taped the editorials, which ran three times a day, right after the news. But our then-news director Emily Rooney, my friend then and now, decided that, given the significance of the wartime situation, it was important for the editorials to be broadcast live. I agreed. Early afternoon, she handed my script to the producer of the six o’clock news to input on the teleprompter. At the prescribed time, I joined the anchors on the news set.

Natalie Jacobson said, “And now, with a Channel 5 editorial is editorial director Marjorie Arons-Barron.”

“Thanks, Nat,” I said and turned toward the ‘prompter. Alas, there was nothing there. The producer had neglected to input the script. And I didn’t have within reach my own typewritten version. The seriousness of the content meant it was not a time to vamp. After seconds, which seemed like hours, I lamely turned to Natalie and mumbled something about “the content isn’t there.” She deftly acknowledged there was a technical problem and led into the network’s nightly news program.

I was mortified, and everyone knew it. Reporters and producers poured out of their cubicles to console me, telling me of their own horror stories. Jim Boyd, with his script pages getting scrambled. Jorge Quiroga caught on camera taunting Tom Ellis on location at a chemical spill. Emily sent flowers the next day. But their kindness could not eliminate the fact that my “Rick Perry moment” was a little like skating in Rockefeller Center only to look down and discover I had no clothes on.

Rick Perry is lucky. He has ways to do damage control. Witness his quite funny appearance on David Letterman’s show, outlining the top ten reasons for his brain cramp.
The next night we went at it again. Natalie led off to me, saying “If you were with us last night, you know we had technical difficulty with our editorial. Here again is Channel Five’s editorial director Marjorie Arons-Barron.”

I thanked her and added, “And Nat, after that happened, the newsroom got a call from a viewer of the previous night’s lapse who said he’d “never agreed more with the station’s editorials.” I then turned to the camera, and this time all was well. I have the tape of the editorial that wasn’t there, but in 20 years, I’ve never had the stomach to look at it. Perhaps now I will.

Meanwhile, the media should spend more time focusing on the potential impact of eliminating the departments of commerce, energy and education and less time on the stark moment of the candidate's inability to name the third department that would face extinction.
Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Redistricting makes Democrats work harder

Incumbent politicians like things just as they are. It’s comfortable. And it affords voters the opportunity to have their representatives build up the kind of seniority in Congress that leads to enhanced power on the national scene. But, as with all games of musical chairs, take away one seat, and change in inevitable.

Redistricting jars the comfortable. As Congressman Jim McGovern admitted to the New England Council on Tuesday, it’s hard to give up communities you’ve represented. You’ve built up relationships and invested “blood, sweat and tears” in your constituents’ well-being. In the redrawing of congressional district lines, Worcester-based McGovern has to give up Fall River, where he enjoyed overwhelming support.

Sixty-four percent of his district will be new to McGovern, but the liberal Democrat actually made out pretty well by picking up the college towns of Northampton and Amherst and surrounding communities , where his anti-war and anti-poverty concerns should find favor.

Not all his colleagues made out as well. Plans to put heavily Democratic Lawrence into John Tierney’s district, were scuttled when Senate President Therese Murray took steps to protect Niki Tsongas, the only female member of the delegation. His district took on more Republicans in Tewksbury, Billerica and part of Andover. Now the eight-term Democratic incumbent from Salem will likely face a credible Republican in the person of Senate minority leader Richard Tisei of Wakefield. This isn’t like running against a fringe Republican like Bill Hudak, a “birther” who ran against Tierney during the last congressional election. If Tisei faces off against Hudak in a primary race in 2012, Tierney strategist Michael Goldman says it may pull Tisei further to the right, making Tierney’s reelection bid easier. But, with Tierney dogged by the legal case against his wife’s family, charges in which Tierney himself has never been implicated, it’s a race that bears watching.

First-term Congressman Bill Keating, who moved to Quincy to run for his current district, will now be moving to his summer home in Bourne so he doesn’t have to run against incumbent Congressman Stephen Lynch in the new district comprising Southeast Massachusetts and Cape Cod. A map shows how much more compact that district has become, and that is surely a good thing. But Lynch’s district looks like a salamander that would make Gov. Elbridge Gerry proud.

The redrawing of Congressman Michael Capuano’s district, which now has a majority of minority residents, should, in the next few terms, facilitate for the first time a minority congressman or woman.

All these moves, and more, while being incumbent friendly, make Massachusetts’ new congressional map much more in tune with what the courts have described as fair district lines, with communities equal in population, more compact and more contiguous. The committee drawing the lines is to be congratulated. It’s hard to think the Massachusetts House and Senate will balk at the plan.

Would that the rest of the country did the same. The truth is that we are essentially a two-party system, and voters can only benefit from vigorous debate in districts where the outcome is not preordained. Part of the problem in Congress is that too many members come from ideologically pure districts of the right or left, and when in office feel no pressure or incentives to compromise. Believe it or not, long term incumbents themselves benefit from being validated by an informed electorate. With redistricting behind us, the next step is to get an informed electorate!

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.