Barney Frank, Internet Sensation

Around this time 20 years ago, scandal had so badly tarnished Barney Frank that it seemed possible he’d lose his House seat from Massachusetts’ staunchly Democratic 4th District—to Bill O’Reilly.

But today, Frank, who immediately passed on a chance to run for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat when it became vacant last week, is firmly ensconced as a powerful House committee chairman and congressman-for-life—and rapidly building a reputation as America’s leading liberal YouTube sensation.

Two weeks ago, he recorded his biggest hit to date, firing back at a town hall audience member who asked Frank why he was supporting Barack Obama’s “Nazi policy” on health care.

“On what planet do you spend most of your time?” he retorted. “You stand there with a picture of the president defaced to look like Hitler and compare the effort to increase health care to the Nazis. Trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to argue with a dining room table.”

The most popular YouTube clip of the exchange has now garnered more than 1.2 million views, and counting. It came after cable news viewers had for weeks been treated to the sight of one Democratic congressman and senator after another being utterly overwhelmed by the raging right-wingers who flooded their town halls.

It was a sorry spectacle, these hapless elected officials terrified of how the media might respond if they dared push back against the angry, often irrational crowds that showed up. To the left, Frank’s August 18 performance was a revelation: Why isn’t every Democratic congressman doing this?

In fairness, there are some good reasons why Frank’s reply stood out so much. For one thing, his questioner was a particularly easy mark, an unhinged member of the LaRouche Youth Movement. Plus, Frank represents a devoutly Democratic district in a deeply blue state: He can offend the right with electoral impunity.

But the encounter also captured perfectly why Frank is so well suited for the era of viral video and cable news channels: No other liberal on Capitol Hill is willing (or able) to confront the right with such a forceful and articulate mix of contempt and wit.

Frank seems to understand this and to revel in it. In the last few months, he’s popped up on Fox News to berate Chris Wallace, stared down a Michele Bachmann–Lou Dobbs double-team on CNN, and—in what was his biggest YouTube moment before last month’s town hall—gave as good as he got in a poisonous exchange with Bill O’Reilly.

Yes, that would be the same Bill O’Reilly who back in 1989—when he was the host of the syndicated tabloid show Inside Edition—took a meeting with one of George H. W. Bush’s chief political advisers about the possibility of challenging Frank for his 4th District seat in 1990.

O’Reilly’s move came at the lowest moment of Frank’s career, one that it initially seemed he’d never bounce back from. Months earlier, he’d been scandalized by the revelation that a man he’d hired as his personal aide in 1985 had been running a prostitution ring out of Frank’s Washington residence. Frank said he’d thrown out the man, Stephen Gobie, as soon as he learned about his illicit business.

But he also admitted that he’d initially paid Gobie for sex and that, after subsequently taking a “Henry Higgins” interest in reforming him, had also written letters on official Congressional stationery to court officials on Gobie’s behalf.

Frank and Gobie went their separate ways in 1987, but the story didn’t break until August ’89. At first, it looked like a potential death knell for the then-49-year-old Frank’s political aspirations.

He’d been elected to the Congress in 1980, only to immediately find himself fighting for his political life. During redistricting in 1982, Tom McGee, then the speaker of the Massachusetts House, saw fit to throw Frank in a district drawn to favor popular Republican incumbent Margaret Heckler. It was payback: As a member of the Massachusetts House in the ’70s, Frank had been a persistent thorn in McGee’s side.

But Frank survived, upsetting Heckler (who went on to serve as Ronald Reagan’s secretary of health and human services) by 20 points. Secure in his seat, he began earning a reputation on Capitol Hill as a rising liberal star—with a potential to break into leadership someday.

That reputation even survived his 1987 decision to declare his sexuality publicly. When separate scandals forced Speaker Jim Wright and Majority Whip Tony Coelho to step down in the spring on ’89, Frank’s name came up in the ensuing leadership shuffle—though he stayed on the sidelines as Tom Foley, Dick Gephardt and William Gray emerged as the new House Democratic triumvirate.

The Gobie scandal, though, ended any talk of upward mobility in the House and immediately called into question Frank’s ability to hold his own seat. Eventually, he was censured by the House (after a motion to expel him was roundly rejected). Massachusetts Republicans, who would end up having their best year in decades in the 1990 elections, promised to contest the race vigorously. Democrats, sensing blood, lined up to replace Frank if he decided to step aside—which he adamantly refused to do.

O’Reilly, then a New Jersey resident who had previously worked in Boston television and who still wrote a column for the Boston Herald, said he might return to the state to oppose Frank and arranged to sit down with Ron Kauffman, the first President Bush’s political aide.

“At this point, I think I’m much more conservative than Barney is,” O’Reilly said. Then he added with a laugh, “Of course, Gorbachev is more conservative than Barney.”

But that was as serious as it got. O’Reilly passed on the race, and so did just about every other credible Republican. And when the G.O.P. establishment’s consensus candidate, Jim Nuzzo, dropped out a few weeks before the September ’90 primary, Frank’s survival was assured.

Since then, Frank has had enviable freedom to speak his mind. He’s assured of reelection back home and, with any leadership aspirations long since exhausted, he hasn’t had to worry much about internal House politics. Plus, the trusty old seniority system allowed him to grab the chairmanship of the Financial Services Committee when Democrats took back the House in 2006.

All of the embarrassing details of the scandal are still there for anyone with curiosity and Google access to see, but the taint has faded with the years. A whole new generation of political watchers knows Frank only as the prickly, quick-witted liberal from Massachusetts. The name Stephen Gobie means little or nothing to them.

It’s for the best that great Frank-O’Reilly battle of 1990 never came to be: It’s a lot more fun to watch today, in the age of YouTube.

Barney Frank, Internet Sensation