Special Report

Barney Frank Valentino

The most hotly awaited screen debut since the release of Showgirls.

By 10.29.04

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BOSTON -- During this final week before the election the art house theater a couple blocks down from me has been running a series entitled, "Films to See Before You Vote." A sampling of the titles of these "documentaries" should give a pretty good hint as to which way the wind blows here in the People's Republic: Bush's Brain (Karl Rove is evil); Bushwhacked (George W. Bush is evil); Orwell Rolls in His Grave (John Ashcroft is evil); Hijacking Catastrophe (Donald Rumsfeld is evil); Weapons of Mass Deception (George Tenet is evil); A Day's Work for A Day's Pay (capitalism is evil); and, finally, Preventative Warriors (America is evil). Sorry, Colin. Sorry, Condoleezza. If you want a movie, you're going to have to be more evil.

Although most of these films are static as white noise, there is an odd bird smack dab in the middle of the line-up: Let's Get Frank, a recently completed paean to the infamously wacky Massachusetts Congressman. Really, is there any better proof that every bored lefty in America has begun trying to become the next Michael Moore? Such a film begs the question: Has the left really run so low on heroes that the best an ambitious young liberal filmmaker can come up with is to follow Barney Frank around for two years?

It's not that Frank isn't an interesting character. But his story seems an odd choice to get the base fired up. After all, Frank is certainly well known, but mostly for the fact that a young man ran a male prostitution ring out of the Congressman's D.C. residence in the late eighties. Explanation? Frank openly admitted to paying the young man for sex, but vehemently denied knowing about the prostitution ring. Not exactly the sort of standard-bearer you want to trot out to swing voters.

But, then again, no one actually has to worry about it because Let's Be Frank is hardly about Barney Frank at all. Basically, it's one long reel of Frank's one-liners during the Clinton impeachment hearings, complete with out-of-context pictures of Republicans looking chastened. These jokes might be funny if you think all conservatives are bigoted, simple-minded creatures who are destroying the country. Otherwise, not so funny. There is almost no back story, no "Here's how he got his start." The film begins with an interview with Frank where he explains how he was particularly well suited to defend Clinton because he had been through his own sex scandal.

Actually, Let's Be Frank sort of resembles an outtakes reel from The Hunting of the President. There is no end to the Democratic Party's obsession with viewing everything and everyone through a Clintonian lens. Case in point: A film purportedly about a Massachusetts Congressman who was first elected in 1981 focuses on his actions defending Bill Clinton for two years.

Later, the film spends all of three minutes or so delving into this having a live-in-prostitute business, with Frank dismissing the whole scandal, thusly: "Last time I checked, being stupid wasn't a violation of the rules." That line actually got applause. And when Frank said the lesson of his experience, as well as Clinton's, was that a sex scandal should not and does not "limit" or "disqualify" someone from climbing the ladder of political success, the crowd cheered like it was 1999 all over again. At one point in the film, Frank accuses Republicans and the Washington Times of "plotting to ruin my social life."

Readers may be surprised to know that, according to Frank, what he and Bill Clinton were actually doing during those dark days was fighting a "fundamental battle for the soul of America." And, better yet, they won! Rejoice, ye solicitors of prostitution! Praise be to adulterers! Barney Frank has called the culture war in your favor! The hundred or so people I watched it with could hardly have been happier.

On a side note, one of the major targets of the movie is the Spectator's own Bob Barr, who is basically derided for not sinking to Frank's level. This essentially means that Barr speaks in measured tones about the letter of the law and Constitutional responsibility while Frank petulantly interrupts to mock him every 30 seconds or so. If one can judge a man by his enemies, then Bob Barr is doing all right in my book.

THE FILM FADES OUT with a grainy black and white montage of Frank and his partner (24 years his junior) frolicking on a beach together. Moments later, the Congressman himself bounded on stage to take questions to thunderous applause. Candid and upbeat, Frank had the glow of a politician who knows beyond the shadow of a reasonable doubt that he is about to crush his token opposition. His television spots here in Boston have been fun stuff. "I'm Barney Frank and I authorized this message," he says smiling at the end of each one. "I can't imagine who else would." It probably didn't hurt that everyone kept referring to him as, "Massachusetts' next senator," either. Senator Frank --yet another benefit of a Kerry victory next week.

Frank then proceeded to make the crowd giggle with delight as he offered up some red meat liberalism. He told the crowd, for example, that things have gotten so tense politically that escorting voters to the polls today was like "escorting women into abortion clinics" ten years ago -- not a particularly pleasant image. They nodded sagely. He talked about how much fun he had using the "weapon" of "ridicule" against those incorrigible Republicans.

And then he told them what they all desperately wanted to believe:

"The momentum is on the liberal side," Frank said. "We were set back by September 11, but we just have to keep clawing away."

Then again, if the momentum was really on their side would it really have to be said so explicitly? Republicans are showing similar symptoms of fatigue and worry. That's the byproduct of living in the 50/50 nation: With no clear majority partisans on both sides are always looking for positive reinforcement. When in retreat, adrenaline kicks in and you fight hard to gain ground, and victory, no matter how fleeting, allows breathing room and plans for expansion of gains. But stalemate? Just barely holding power or just barely out of power? That is demoralizing and exhausting.

Frank didn't stay long. The ball game was calling, he said. As the audience filed out, I stayed in my seat and waited for the crowd to clear. They were all pleased as punch with what had just transpired. People were greeting Frank's mother with the sort of deference normally reserved for a foreign dignitary. I thought of the late great men buried in this city: Samuel Adams, Paul Revere, John Hancock, and all the many others. No theater is showing documentaries on these men as we gear up for next Tuesday's election. I wonder what they might think of what passes for a hero in America, circa 2004?

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