BY Benoit Denizet-Lewis
December 03 2008 12:00 AM ET
“Hey, barney, I’ll bet you a glass of red wine that you get to 72% today,” Morin tells him as we drive to the first of a dozen polling places we will visit on this unseasonably warm morning. We’re in a Jeep with tinted rear windows. Ready sits in the passenger seat, while Frank is in the back reading the Boston Herald and barking out instructions.
“Don’t go this way -- turn left,” Frank says when Morin takes a right at a major intersection in Newton. “I told you to take a left. Then take a right.”
“Barney’s like a human GPS,” Morin tells me. “I’ve been his driver since 2002, and sometimes I feel like I’m driving Miss Daisy. He can get a little rambunctious, but then so can I. If he acts up, sometimes I’ll stop the car and say, ‘Congressman, would you like to walk home from here?’ ”
At a polling place in Newton, Frank is overwhelmed by well-wishers. “God bless you.” “Keep up the good work.” “Thanks for everything you’ve done for the gay community.” “Saw your commercial -- loved the elephants!” After a middle-aged woman shakes his hand, she practically levitates over to her waiting husband. “I feel like I just met the Beatles!” she gushes.
But as we’re about to leave, a slender, pale man with a thick Russian accent ruins the vibe. “We got into this economic mess because of people like you,” he tells Frank, declining to shake the congressman’s hand. “You gave a mortgage to everyone who didn’t deserve one.”
“No, you actually have that backward,” Frank blurts back. “I’ll show you articles where I was critical of that. If you want the facts, I can give them to you.”
“You’ve been in Congress too long. Look at what’s happening in Massachusetts. People are leaving.”
“Then why don’t you leave too?” Frank says matter-of-factly. “You should move somewhere else.”
The man seems momentarily taken aback. Has his congressman just told him to leave the state? “Well, then who will pay taxes for you?”
“A lot of people are very happy to pay taxes.”
Back in the car, Frank tells me that he relishes confrontation. “Getting in a heated exchange with someone is kind of cathartic in some ways for me,” he says, holding a list of local polling places. “I’ve always been good at verbal confrontation, and I’ve never had a fear of it. I have to be careful that I don’t get into it too much.”
Frank tells me that he rarely says something he regrets, although he concedes that his impatience and abrasiveness can be hurtful. “Some people still say I get angry too much,” he says. “In general, I think I’m getting a little more reflective, a little more understanding. It’s just that I get so impatient with people. My scarcest resource is my time, so I’m very protective of it -- maybe overly so. ”
Frank has been known to walk out of a room or start reading a newspaper if he thinks you’re wasting his time. Walter Schubert, a friend of Frank’s and the first openly gay member of the New York Stock Exchange, has learned not to take his eyes off the congressman for long. “He’ll be a guest speaker at some event, and if it’s running behind schedule, he’ll think nothing of just walking to the elevator and leaving,” Schubert says. “We’ll all be running after him saying, ‘Barney, you can’t just leave!’ The thing about Barney is that he suffers no fools. If you come unprepared to a conversation with him, or if you don’t know what you’re talking about, he has no problem saying, ‘That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.’ ”
Many colleagues and friends say they find this bluntness refreshing. House speaker Nancy Pelosi marvels at how much she gets done with Frank in a matter of seconds. “Not one wasted word,” she told me. Steve Elmendorf, a gay Washington lobbyist who was a senior adviser for 12 years to Dick Gephardt, has known Frank since 1987, the year Frank came out publicly. “Once people get to know Barney and get over the fear that he’s going to yell at them, they tend to like his style,” Elmendorf tells me. “There’s no bullshit with Barney. Unlike other congressmen who pretend to be nice to everyone, Barney tells you exactly where you stand. And I understand why he gets so frustrated with people. He’s usually the smartest person in the room, and I think he genuinely gets annoyed that people can’t keep up.”