Winners & Sinners

Kaiser on Barney Frank, Benoit Denizet-Lewis, Benjamin Button, and others

Winners: Benoit Denizet-Lewis and Jeffrey Toobin.

The second best political news for America after Barack Obama’s election as president is that Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank is now one of the most powerful men in Washington.
Last fall, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made Frank the point man on the $700 billion bailout plan, and as chairman of the House Financial Services Committee he is certain to be at the center of all the coming efforts to revive a cratering economy.

Frank’s new fame has led to a spate of profiles: a lame one by Michelle Cottle in The New Republic, an uneven effort by Lesley Stahl on 60 Minutes, a very good one in The Advocate by Benoit Denizet-Lewis, and a superb piece in this week’s New Yorker from Jeffrey Toobin.

As Toobin and Denizet-Lewis make clear, Frank is not only the smartest man in Congress, he is also one of the most politically adept. In The Advocate, Frank calls Rahm Emanuel “the best political mind among the Democrats,” but then adds, “I’m as good as anybody at figuring out how to get things through Congress, but I’m not as confident with the public. I’m best at gauging other politicians and figuring out what they want. And except for a few conservative Republicans who are completely useless, I can work effectively with pretty much anybody.”

Toobin repeats several of the anecdotes from the Advocate piece, but with twice as much space as Denizet-Lewis, the New Yorker profile manages to cover everything from Frank’s father’s Mafia ties to the congressman’s extensive efforts to expand federal support for low-cost housing, as well as his goals for gays in the coming administration (a hate crimes bill, an anti-discrimination bill, and an end to the ban on gay people serving openly in the military). Even at 8,479 words, Toobin manages to sustain the reader’s interest right to the end.

The Advocate and the New Yorker pieces both make significant contributions to the Barney Frank canon (Toobin begins his by noting that “of the four hundred and thirty-five members of the House of Representatives, Barney Frank is the only one whose public remarks have been collected in a book of quotations”).
Denizet-Lewis reminds us that “During the Monica Lewinsky scandal, he complained that he couldn’t read all of the Starr Report detailing the Clinton-Lewinsky relationship because it was ‘too much reading about heterosexual sex,’ while Toobin teased this morsel out of the congressman, giving the New Yorker writer the perfect kicker for his piece:

“We are at a moment now when liberalism is poised to have its biggest impact on America since Roosevelt, because the conservative viewpoint has been so thoroughly repudiated by reality. Someone asked Harold Macmillan what has the most impact on political decisions. He said, ‘Events, dear boy, events.’ Events have just totally repudiated them, and we’re now in a position to take advantage of that. You know Hegel. Thesis: No regulation at all. Antithesis: Now the government owns the banks. What I gotta do next year is the synthesis.”

Skip the main story about Obama in Time’s Person of the Year issue and go straight to Winner Craig Robinson’s piece about how he first evaluated his future brother-in-law—by playing basketball with him. When Obama started dating his sister, Michelle said to Robinson, “I want you to take him to play, to see what type of guy he is when he’s not around me.” Robinson’s bottom line:

“Barack was very team-oriented, very unselfish. He fit in like he was one of us — he wasn’t trying to be president of the Harvard Law Review. But the best part about it was that when we were on the same team, he did not pass me the ball every single time. He wasn’t trying to suck up to my sister through me. I thought, You know, I like that. I was relieved to give my sister the good news: “Your boy is straight, and he can ball.”

Time’s interview with Obama, in the same issue, is also worth reading. It includes this heartening answer when Obama is asked to list some of the benchmarks on which he should be judged two years from now: “On foreign policy, have we closed down Guantánamo in a responsible way, put a clear end to torture and restored a balance between the demands of our security and our Constitution?”

Sinner: Dennis Lim, for rhapsodizing about director David Fincher in The New York Times, immediately after the filmmaker had released The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which is easily one of the worst movies of the season. Lim specializes in observations like this one (about Fincher’s 1999 film Fight Club): “this adrenalized jolt of designer nihilism tapped right into late-capitalist disaffection and premillennial anxiety”—thus proving one of the enduring truths of George Orwell’s greatest essay, Politics and the English Language: “In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning.”

Winner: Dan Klaidman, former Jerusalem bureau chief and current managing editor of Newsweek, for an excellent explainer on the cover of this week’s magazine, laying out how peace might still be possible in the Middle East—especially if President Obama is willing to show some genuinely tough love towards the Israelis.

Winner: Harper’s blogger Scott Horton, who excoriated sinner Eric Lichtblau for referring to to the interrogation techniques authorized at the highest level of the Bush Administraton as “near torture.” Horton wrote:

Dear Times editors: read your own pages. When Russia used the practice of stoika in the Stalin era, you called it “torture.” It is. Why does it become “bordering on torture” when the Bush Administration uses it? When the Nazis used the practice of Pfahlbinden during World War II, you called it “torture.” So when Bush uses it, suddenly it becomes “bordering on torture”? By consciously softening your language, you are allowing those who introduced torture to escape the opprobrium that is their due. Moreover, you are enabling torture. Your readers deserve better.

And as FCP has repeatedly pointed out, at least 160 prisoners have died in U.S. custody since the beginning of the Bush administration, including “more than 70” whose deaths “were linked to gross recklessness, abuse, or torture,” according to the ACLU. Amazing how lethal “near torture” can be when practiced by Americans.

Winner: Frank Rich for doing what he does best: cutting through everyone else’s blurry rhetoric to provide exactly the right take on Obama’s choice of Rick Warren to offer the opening prayer at his inauguration: “there’s a difference between including Warren among the cacophony of voices weighing in on policy and anointing him as the inaugural’s de facto pope.”

In this instance, Obama would have done better to follow the example of Ronald Reagan, who chose Peter Gomes, the conservative, African-American chaplain of Harvard, to deliver the benediction at his second inauguration. In The New Yorker, Robert Boynton reported what Gomes said seven years later, after a campus magazine had described gay life as “immoral” and “pitiable”:

“Gay people are victims not of the Bible, not of religion, and not of the church, but of people who use religion as a way to devalue and deform those whom they can neither ignore nor convert,” [Gomes] said. He let the audience know that he spoke about this issue with ample theological authority: as the minister of Memorial Church, as the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals, and, finally, as “a Christian who happens as well to be gay.” The explosion of cheers and applause at Gomes’s revelation lasted well over a minute. He continued: “These realities, which are irreconcilable to some are reconciled in me by a loving God, a living Saviour, a moving, breathing, healthy Holy Spirit whom I know intimately and who knows me.”

It’s hard to imagine that Rick Warren will ever say anything as intelligent as that.

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Charles Kaiser is a former media critic for Newsweek and the author of three books, most recently The Cost of Courage, about one family in the French Resistance.