NEWTON - US Representative Barney Frank took another shot last night at the political system from which he is soon retiring, contending that uncontrolled spending by special interests, an uninformed electorate, and a complicit news media have contributed to a breakdown of honesty in politics.
“More money means more people get their information from commercials,’’ Frank said at a forum in Newton. “It is almost easier to tell a lie in 30 or 60 seconds than it is to refute it.’’
The forum, held on the same night that Iowa voters were kicking off the 2012 presidential selection process, was at the Leventhal Sidman Jewish Community Center. The topic was: is truth in politics possible?
Not easily, said Frank, blaming the advent of so-called super PACs. These independent political action committees have become increasingly influential since the Supreme Court in 2010 lifted limits on their spending, the congressman argued, and they now control more and more of the public discourse, with the result that the political airways are filled with distortions.
“One of the things Israel has always tried hard to do is establish that terrorism has an address, and that means when people are killed by terrorists, you know where to find them,’’ he said. “Super PACs play the role of terrorists with no address.’’
Widely known for his blunt speech and acerbic wit, the 71-year-old Frank is retiring after 30 years in Congress, representing a district that stretched from his home city of Newton to the port of New Bedford. But that district was redrawn by state legislators for the 2012 election, and Frank said the new, more conservative shape contributed to his decision to retire.
At last night’s event, Frank was joined by panelists Robert Kuttner, cofounder and current co-editor of the liberal magazine The American Prospect, and the Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, S.J., Professor of the Practice of Religion and Public Life at Harvard University and secretary for health care and social services for the Archdiocese of Boston.
Kuttner joined with Frank in bemoaning the role of special interests spending, singling out in particular negative attack ads aimed at particular candidates.
“The problem with negative advertising is it accumulates to the point where the public concludes that all of the negative ads are right, all of the politicians are scoundrels,’’ said Kuttner.
And Hehir urged voters and the news media to insist on accountability and honesty from elected officials.
“Telling the moral truth about how we make decisions is equally important for people whose faces we will never see, whose names we will never know, but who are touched by American power,’’ said Hehir. “It is a consequence of being an American.’’
But Frank sounded more sour, saying a breakdown in rational debate has American politics caught in a vicious cycle.
“The government doesn’t produce good results, so the people get angry at the government,’’ he said. “So they elect people who hate the government, and then the government is unable to produce results.’’