Liberal icon Barney Frank eyes high-profile retirement

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U.S. Rep. Barney Frank is readying for

Even in retirement, Barney Frank promises to antagonize the right wing.

The 72-year-old Massachusetts representative ends a storied congressional career in less than three weeks. In a tenure that spanned more than three decades, Frank has helped lead the civil rights debate as one of the first openly gay elected officials, crafted a financial reform bill designed to prevent another global crisis and become a liberal hero for his willingness to clash with conservative critics.

His days on C-SPAN may be almost over. And he has already moved out of his Capitol Hill office and Washington apartment. But this man will not go away quietly.

Frank has retained Hollywood super-agent Ari Emanuel to ensure he is a paid fixture on cable television, the lecture circuit, in bookstores – and maybe the occasional sitcom or Broadway show. He has already sent his agent two book proposals, one offering a recipe for future liberal success and the other a “semi-memoir” about the history of the gay rights movement. And he leaves Washington with a particular disdain for Fox News.

“I’m hoping to get paid well to do what I do now for nothing,” a relaxed Frank said last week from the anonymity of an unmarked temporary office across the street from the Capitol dome. Much of his staff is gone. He answers the phone himself with an abrupt, “Yeah?” And he’s learning how to check his own email for the first time in his life.

Look for him soon on a television set near you.

Frank has little interest in hosting his own cable television show but plans to be a regular paid commentator on political programs. When asked for which network, he says he’s only begun to narrow the field: “Not Fox,” Frank declares with no hint of a smile.

“I have no interest in encouraging people to watch it,” he says of Fox News. “They’re so overwhelmingly biased that being a voice there a few minutes a week, an hour a week, it lends a legitimacy they don’t deserve.”

Frank’s unapologetic criticism of conservatives has earned him a special place in the political arena. He has become a polarizing figure on the national stage celebrated by liberals and hated by conservatives. He dismisses the hatred as a validation of his effectiveness and calls it “a source of pride.” But Frank’s congressional career is dotted with colorful and cringe-worthy confrontations.

He earned particular notoriety for a remark during a 2009 town hall meeting at the height of the health care debate when asked about President Barack Obama’s “Nazi policy.”

“On what planet do you spend most of your time?” Frank quipped in a clash that became an instant YouTube sensation. “Ma’am, trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to have an argument with a dining room table – I have no interest in doing it.”

But for all his politically charged YouTube hits, those familiar with Frank’s work say he is best known locally for an extensive constituent services operation, which offered an effective bridge to the federal government. And he may be hated by many conservative activists, but Republican officials who know him best often respect his wit and effectiveness, according to Andy Card, who served in the Massachusetts legislature with Frank a generation ago and went on to become chief of staff for President George W. Bush.

“He is very smart and extremely funny. He and I don’t share the same philosophy or the same party, but I think we have mutual respect. I know I have a lot of respect for him,” said Card, who now serves as the dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. “If he wants to work to legislate to get something done, he’s very, very good at it. If he wants to be an impediment, he can be very, very good at that.”

Indeed, in the policy arena, Card was most frustrated with Frank’s work on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the federal housing agencies partly blamed for the recent collapse of the housing market. As the top Democrat on the House Committee on Financial Services, which he chaired from 2007 to 2011, Frank also led efforts to craft the financial regulatory bill dubbed “Dodd-Frank,” which was attacked almost daily by GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney as a job-crushing government overreach that hurts small banks.

Frank defends the sweeping law, well on its way to full implementation, as necessary to prevent another global financial crisis.

He announced last year that he wouldn’t seek a 17th term. Frank will be succeeded by another potential political star, Rep. Joe Kennedy, grandson of Robert F. Kennedy.

Frank plans to make two homes in retirement, one along the southern Maine coast and the other in the Boston area. He hopes to teach at Harvard University and Harvard Law School next fall in addition to the paid public gigs his agent has already begun to arrange.

“If he comes to your town, go hear him. Because he’s refreshing, he’s as informed about such a broad of issues, and he is willing to say the things that other people are thinking,” says Massachusetts Democratic Party Chairman John Walsh. “We’re going to miss him as an elected representative, but I’m excited that we probably won’t lack an opportunity to hear from him.”

One of Frank’s first public appearances will come in New York City’s theater scene the first Saturday in February. He says he’s agreed to a walk-on part in “Fiorello!”, a Broadway musical about former mayor Fiorello LaGuardia of New York.

He hasn’t ruled out movie appearances, but says he’s more likely to focus on being an active voice in the political arena.

“I had a request to do a cameo on a network TV show, but I didn’t like the script,” Frank says, declining to name the show. “So, if they won’t change it, I won’t do it. It was kind of demeaning to politicians.”