BARNEY FRANK, who announced his plans to retire from Congress yesterday, hasn’t been everyone’s idea of a gentleman. Landing into opponents with his verbal jujitsu - a trademark mix of facts, wit, and bile - Frank was tailor-made for the cable-TV era. It is easy to admire him, or be offended by him, on the basis of his debating skills alone. In a conservative era, Frank has defended liberal values on principle and also on pragmatic grounds. He can cut through the fog of conservative ideology and values-speak better than any Democrat of his times. But he hasn’t always been nice about it.
To remember Frank primarily as a bare-knuckle debater, however, would be to ignore his lengthy legislative record. For at least three decades, he has been one of the prime movers of financial-services legislation, affordable-housing bills, and civil rights provisions, particularly those ensuring fair and equal treatment for gay Americans. As the nation’s most prominent openly gay politician, he has been a target for narrow-minded critics. But he responded with the steel required of a true civil rights pioneer.