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Farewell to Frank: a bully leaves his pulpit

The morning after his retirement announcement, Rep. Barney Frank scored an interview on NBC's "Today" show, gaining the opportunity to act as an elder statesman in front of a TV audience of millions. Instead, the Massachusetts Democrat chose to quarrel with the interviewer.

"You said that your district has been redrawn in a way that would make it more difficult for you to win re-election," host Savannah Guthrie said.

"I didn't say I wasn't running because I was afraid I couldn't win," Frank retorted.

Guthrie asked for his response to those who take his retirement as a sign the Democrats won't win control of the House in 2012.

"I wish we could talk substance sometimes in the media," Frank complained. "I know that's against, kind of, apparently, the rules." He went on to say that "I have decided not to serve until three months before my 75th birthday. I guess I don't understand why that is so hard for people to grasp."

The amiable Guthrie tried again. How does he feel about the worsening tone in Washington?

"Well, you exemplify what I think is a change in the tone," Frank said. "You've managed to ask all sort of negative questions. ... It's 'gotcha' journalism. It's 'gotcha' politics. And it does lessen our chances to get things done."

The interviewer gave it a final attempt. Does Frank "feel any responsibility for your own role in, kind of, that tone that we do see in Washington?"

"Well, congratulations," Frank said with derision. "You're four-for-four in managing to find the negative approach."

It was a chance for the nation to see what so many in the Capitol had seen up close over the years: That Barney Frank, liberal lion, gay pioneer and respected legislator, is also one mean and ornery S.O.B.

The media tributes to Frank have been generally glowing, praising his "authenticity and intelligence" and "his ability to cut the opposition in half without breaking an intellectual sweat."

No question, Frank is one of the smartest on Capitol Hill and probably the most colorful. But he is also one of the most notorious bullies, known for berating staff, alienating allies and causing aides to cower in fear of his gratuitous and frequent browbeatings.

The stories are legendary: scolding a young network employee for trying to un-rumple him before a TV appearance; demanding that an aide "answer the (expletive) question" before giving him a chance to respond; asking a woman escorting him to a Chicago meeting, "Why do you care what kind of flight I had?"

The invective poured forth with great fluency. He asked critics: "On what planet do you spend most of your time?" When the Huffington Post's Ryan Grim asked a question Frank didn't like, he replied, "What is this, some kind of idiotic contest?"

Berating reporters rarely hurts a politician, and few could begrudge Frank an elegantly worded swipe at the opposition. But the gratuitous nastiness, to allies and especially to his own staff, have kept him from achieving far more in his three-decade career on the Hill. People who worked with Frank tell me that the former chairman of the House Financial Services Committee is "smart but not thoughtful." He loved to fight and was a master of political combat, but he had little to show for it. He advanced gay rights, but trends have been moving in that direction anyway. He enacted the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul, but the fiddling-around-the-edges legislation has pleased few on the left while antagonizing business.

This isn't to take away from his role as a modern Mark Twain. "Conservatives," he quipped, "believe that, from the standpoint of the federal government, life begins at conception and ends at birth." And: "The problem with the war in Iraq is not so much the intelligence as the stupidity." And: "I'm used to being in the minority. I'm a left-handed, gay Jew." But in the end, Frank's legacy is more that of an entertainer's than a legislator's.

The Republican strategist Karl Rove, writing on FoxNews.com, welcomed the retirement of the "petulant, abrasive and downright nasty" Frank. Rove, who knows something about nastiness, wrote: "Brilliant, but acid tongued and generally unpleasant, Mr. Frank ruled with an iron gavel, ran over critics with delight and treated committee members and especially Republican colleagues as lesser forms of life."

The Republicans often deserved what they got from Barney. And, unlike Rove, I will miss Frank's tart tongue. But he would have been a more successful lawmaker if he had learned that it's sometimes better to hold it.

Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. Email him at danamilbank@washpost.com.