Barney Frank leaves as he served: With a sharp wit

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.”

My ‘great schlep’ to Florida pays off in politics and grandma’s food

“If you knew that visiting your grandparents could change the world, would you do it?” A couple of weeks ago, a video came across my inbox with Sarah Silverman posing this very question.

As Florida is such a pivotal and undecided state in this year’s presidential contest, Silverman was urging Jews to visit their grandparents there to educate them about Barack Obama and help swing the state in his favor in an effort dubbed The Great Schlep.

I thought the idea was decent but mostly just hilarious. I forwarded the video on to friends and went back to filing the company expenses.

A week later, I received a phone call from a woman asking me about visiting my own grandparents. I laughed, as I had after the video, but when an awkward silence followed, I realized she actually wanted an answer. She was calling from The Great Schlep and had been referred to me by a mutual friend.

It seemed like a great idea to visit my grandparents in Fort Lauderdale, which I hadn’t done in a few years, and in the process do something for my country. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more enthusiastic I became about going and speaking on behalf of Obama to my grandparents and some of their friends. The 2000 election had come down to literally hundreds of votes, and if I could convince my grandparents and their friends that Obama is the best choice, it might really affect the outcome.

I decided I had to make the schlep, not for myself but for my country and my grandparents, of course. But I needed to make sure they’d be around and would be willing to have the discussion with me. I called my grandmother immediately to tell her the plan. Our conversation went something like this:

“I’m going to come visit you this weekend, and I want to speak to you about … “

“Oh, that’s wonderful! When are you coming in town?”

“I’m going to come for the weekend, but I want to maybe try and speak with you and some of your friends about … “

“Just the weekend? Such a short trip!”

“Yes, it was kind of a last-minute thing. But, Grandma, I want to spend some time speaking with you and some of your friends about Barack Obama and the upcoming election.”

(Muffled sounds of her shouting to my grandfather about my visit.)

“Grandma, do you think you could help have some friends come over in the afternoon, and we could just all talk about the election?”

“Yes, fine, fine, there’s just one thing. What do you want to eat for dinner?”

Needless to say, my grandparents were on board, but the next obstacle was making sure we could get a good turnout so I could make the most of my trip. I quickly discovered the difficulty of organizing an event from Los Angeles with a bunch of senior citizens in Florida.

I couldn’t exactly send them all an Evite or a Facebook invitation. I don’t even know if a simple e-mail would have accomplished much. The success and organization of the political side of my trip would have to be left in my grandparents’ hands. In the meantime, I studied up on the issues.

The rest of the week was quite interesting. A few national news outlets started calling me, referred by The Great Schlep. They wanted to interview my grandparents and me while I was down there. Not only was I going to be making my mark on American history, but I was going to be on TV, too!

I left on the red eye on Friday, Oct. 10, and I managed to sleep for most of the flight from Los Angeles to Florida. As soon as my grandparents pulled up to the terminal on Saturday morning, the greeting was standard operation: 10 minutes of criticism on the length of both my facial hair and my jeans, followed by a lecture on how handsome I could be.

Interestingly enough, however, the political discussion began immediately. My grandparents wanted to jump right into it. Throughout the day, I spent most of my time eating and fixing all the problems they’d been having with their computer and their TV. But we also watched the news together, read the paper and just talked about the country. Most of the time they were lecturing me, but when they had questions about Obama’s stance on an issue, or if they brought up something they had heard about him, I could clear up what was and wasn’t true.

Sunday though, was what The Great Schlep was all about. My grandparents had managed to get seven friends to come to their house. So, for a few hours, they spoke to me about their concerns; I spoke to them about mine, and we all spoke to the TV and radio news crews that had stopped by in the middle to get their story.

A lot of my grandparents’ friends seemed very disappointed in John McCain and how far he had veered from his Straight Talk Express. Their problem with Obama, though, was that they just didn’t know enough about him yet — whether on the topic of domestic issues, like taxes and social security, or foreign issues, like Iran and Israel. In other words, my schlepping to Florida to discuss and answer questions was exactly what they needed.

Come November, some of the people I spoke with might decide to vote for McCain, and others might have always wanted to vote for Obama, but I think the most important thing is that because I went, they were able to learn more about the issues without having to rely on political ads and partisan pundits.

I can only hope my visit will allow them to make an informed decision based on facts and not on campaign smears and misinformation. But in the end, my “great schlep” was not a schlep at all, because not only did I make an investment in my country, I got to spend some valuable time with my family … and I ate better than I’ve eaten in long time.

Taylor Magenheim, 24, is from Texas and has lived in Los Angeles for the past two years. He is currently a development assistant at a Hollywood studio.

With the Republican base on the ropes, all eyes are on Florida — again

Most Jews live in three states, two of which, New York and California, are already in the bank for Sen. Barack Obama.

It’s the third one, Florida, that has the presidential campaigns in a frenzy. There are roughly 650,000 Jews in Florida, out of 18 million residents. Concentrated in South Florida in three counties (Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade), they are older, high-turnout voters with whom the Democrats have a big edge.

This is familiar territory. Unless tens of thousands of Jews had a sudden epiphany in 2000 that revealed Pat Buchanan to be a friend of the Jews, Al Gore won the election with a groundswell of Jewish votes that were interpreted incorrectly because of the butterfly ballot in Palm Beach County.

In 2000 we didn’t know how important Florida Jews were until it was too late. In 2008, elderly Florida Jews are political rock stars. Sarah Silverman has a ” target=”_blank”>Jackie Mason has recorded an online countervideo to make the Republican case. Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” has had two segments featuring a ” target=”_blank”>making calls to Jewish voters that in all innocence ask if it would bother the voter to “know” that Obama has supported the PLO. That this stuff works is testimony to the challenge of a young black candidate, not yet well-known in the Jewish community, and to the complex undertow of recent black-Jewish tensions. Remember that many Florida Jews moved there from New York City, with its long and difficult history of black-Jewish conflict.

Indeed Florida itself seemed out of reach for Obama until a few weeks ago. But as in all the battleground states, the Wall Street crash and bailout transformed the campaign and a raft of new polls give Obama a small but significant lead in Florida.

If Obama wins Florida’s 27 electoral votes, it’s over. If Sen. John McCain holds Florida, he still has a chance. So it looks as if Florida and its Jewish bloc are back in play.

The surrogates are all over the place, with Sen. Joe Lieberman plugging McCain and Obama pulling in former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, Florida Rep. Robert Wexler and Middle East expert Dennis Ross. Joe Biden is very popular with Florida Jews, and he is pulling his weight. With the advantage of the Republican brand, and McCain’s own familiarity, he does not need as many surrogates as Obama.

So why did McCain’s economic adviser, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, pick this moment to tell the Wall Street Journal that McCain plans to pay for his health care plan by taking blocks of money from Medicare and Medicaid? Politically, this makes no sense in Florida, where an attack on Medicare, joined to McCain’s support for private accounts in Social Security, could shake loose thousands of older voters.

McCain is on a precipice with those voters, many of whom are trying to decide whether to take a risk on the unfamiliar and cast a vote for the young black guy instead of the older white guy everybody knows. The older the voter, the more difficult the decision. Why then would McCain make it an easy choice?

I imagine that while Holtz-Eakin spoke accurately, his timing reflects the chaos within the McCain campaign, especially in regards to economic policy. But the substantive explanation might lie in the pressure on McCain to explain his health care plan, under which he proposed to provide tax credits for Americans to buy private insurance while removing the tax deduction for employer-based health care.

This approach leaves the taxpayer paying more in payroll taxes for the pleasure of navigating the private market (with its well-known aversion to insuring anybody who might someday get sick or is sick now). So the McCain people said that there would be no payroll tax increase. But how to pay for the new tax credit? Thus the decision to take it from Medicare and Medicaid. From their standpoint, they get to further the privatization of health care and still avoid the charge (fatal with the Republican base) of raising taxes.

Put more simply, it seemed safer to risk losing older voters in Florida than to risk the Republican brand of no new taxes, hoping that those Floridians won’t have heard about the interview or will believe when told that Holtz-Eakin was talking out of turn, or will just be confused because the whole thing comes across as such a complex muddle.

Because, if the McCain camp doesn’t find a way around this, how can it continue to attack Obama for raising taxes?

The problem for any Republican nominee is that what pleases the base (e.g. Sarah Palin, privatization, lower taxes) may end up turning off everybody else. If McCain loses Florida, that may be the lesson for his party. The base can never be fed enough.

McCain would have probably been better off with no health care plan rather than one that eviscerates employer-based insurance and cuts Medicare and Medicaid. But it’s too late now.

Now, the question is whether the Obama campaign can boil down for Florida voters the peril to Social Security and Medicare from a McCain-Palin administration. This is a job for Bill Clinton, the one Democrat who can reduce complex policy issues to a story about a frog sitting on a fence post. Clinton really hurt Paul Tsongas on the Social Security issue in the 1992 Florida Democratic primary.

The Republicans meanwhile plan to push farther and deeper into the attacks on Obama as a “friend of terrorists,” as a “different kind of American” and more. It is already ugly out on the campaign trail, and reporters in the field are feeling the heat of the rising anger of a Republican base on the ropes.

This is Florida 2008. Fasten your seat belts.

Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton, is spending the semester in Paris as the Fulbright-Tocqueville Chair at the University of Paris VIII.