Barney Frank as the Model for how to Survive a Political Scandal

Back in 1989, Representative Barney Frank, my hometown Congressman in the 4th District of Massachusetts – which had previously been the Congressional home of legendary Congressman Father Robert Drinan – was the subject of a scandal that should really have sunk him, or any other congressman in his position. As reported at the time in the New York Times:

BOSTON, Aug. 25— Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts said today that without his knowledge a male prostitute he had hired to do personal errands had run a prostitution service from the Congressman’s Washington apartment. Mr. Frank, who made his homosexuality public in May 1987, said he had paid for sex with the prostitute one time, in the spring of 1985, and had hired him as a personal employee later that year because he thought he could encourage the man to “change his life.” … Conceding “poor judgment,” Mr. Frank said: “It turns out that I was being suckered. He was, among other things, a very good con man.”… The Congressman said that he had paid Mr. Gobie with his own money for the personal errands and that Government or campaign money was not involved. Mr. Frank acknowledged that he broke the law by patronizing a prostitute but said he had not violated any ethics laws or Congressional rules.

This scandal should have killed off Barney Frank’s career in Congress. Barney, who has been variously described as “caustic” and having a “sharp wit” had made plenty of enemies there. But he survived. And he survived basically for one reason: he took one hit, and was never caught in a lie. He conceded what he had to concede, but he didn’t try to get cute with the press. They never caught him being untruthful about what had happened.

In order to mitigate the damage, Barney had also let his constituents know a couple of years ahead of time that he was gay. This way, they only had to process one issue, not two.

That’s how you survive a political scandal.

The House subsequently voted 408–18 to reprimand Frank. There were attempts to expel Barney, which were led, ironically by Republican Larry Craig – who was later arrested himself for propositioning an undercover cop in a Minneapolis-St. Paul airport bathroom – but these were not successful. Although he took a hit in the polls, Barney still won re-election in 1990 with 66% of the vote.

This is the model for how to handle a political crisis that the Clintons adopt. Instead of their current model of playing defense while being lacerated by a thousand paper cuts. Their model has not worked. It has just served to prolong largely meaningless “crises” and given their enemies endless supplies of (mostly harmless) ammunition. You have to say this about the Clintons: they are not quick learners in this respect. They’re still making the same mistakes as when they were the First Couple of Arkansas.


About a1skeptic

A disturbed citizen and skeptic. I should stop reading the newspaper. Or watching TV. I should turn off NPR and disconnect from the Internet. We’d all be better off.
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