Former Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank is associated with many causes and accomplishments over the 32 years he spent on Capitol Hill. These includes gay rights, which was especially important to him as one of the first openly gay members of Congress. Add his Harvard education and acerbic wit, and you can say he was a pretty smart guy – which happens to be the title – with a Boston twist – of a new graphic novel biography, “Smahtguy: The Life and Times of Barney Frank,” by political cartoonist Eric Orner.
Orner, 57, worked for Frank at multiple points in his life, including as staff counsel and press secretary. A panel in the book features Frank unloading on a hapless intern driver whom Orner identifies as himself.
“Barney would know the roads far better than I,” Orner said. “I was the one behind the wheel.”
“Smahtguy” shows how Frank navigated the roads of state and national politics over three-plus decades, with his final years in office highlighted by his chairmanship of the Committee on Financial Services and the passage of the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010 to protect consumers against predatory lending. Readers of Orner’s book might recognize many current and former landmarks, from Harvard Yard to Mimi’s Corner to the Citgo sign near Kenmore Square. Throughout, a “Who’s Who” of state and national power players populates the pages, from Boston Mayor Kevin White to President Barack Obama to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
There are Jewish connections to the story. Frank’s Jewish-American parents, Sam and Elsie Frank, admired David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel. A panel shows them cuddling over the stove while Elsie makes liver and onions and praises Eleanor Roosevelt’s denunciation of the British for refusing to let a refugee ship arrive in Mandatory Palestine prior to World War II.
“As I look at things around my life, I’m obviously in tune with all Jewish traditions and values,” Frank said, mentioning one in particular: the concept of tikkun olam (repair of the world).
Orner is also Jewish-American.
In speaking with the Journal, Frank displayed his erudition, referencing both the poetry of Robert Burns and the late Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter at different points in the conversation. Asked about what it felt like to be depicted in graphic-novel format, Frank replied, “It was actually very flattering.”
A longtime resident of Newton who is now based in Ogunquit, Maine, Frank returned to the Boston area last month for a book talk with Orner at the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square.
“I think I saw “Casablanca” there in 1957 or 1958,” said Frank, now 82.
To research and write the book, Orner interviewed Frank at length multiple times. He also delved into his own Boston experiences. Born in Chicago, Orner has spent quite a bit of time in Massachusetts, going to college at Tufts. Arguably his most famous work is the gay comic strip “The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green,” which debuted in 1990 in Bay Windows, a Boston LGBTQ newspaper, and was soon syndicated nationally.
“Smahtguy” opens with a controversial moment from Frank’s career. In the 1970s and much of the ‘80s, he was a closeted gay man who represented a state that Orner describes as more conservative than its liberal reputation. However, after Frank went public about his sexual orientation, a man named Steven Gobie told The Washington Times that from 1985 to 1987, Frank paid him for sex, settled his parking tickets, and allowed him to operate a prostitution ring in the congressman’s Washington apartment. Congress voted to reprimand Frank, clearing him of knowing about the prostitution ring but not of settling Gobie’s tickets. The Boston Globe urged him to resign, but Frank ran for reelection and won.
The controversy opens the book, and one panel depicts Frank’s wit on display.
“A lot of people were asking at that point, ‘How can you be so stupid?’” Orner said. “His answer: ‘How much time do you have?’ It allows me to then start chronologically at what shaped his personality, his life.”
One of the few fellow members of Congress to vote against reprimanding Frank was Pelosi, at the time a freshman Democrat from California.
In a sweet moment, Pelosi appears at the end of the book, as speaker of the House, dancing at Frank’s wedding to his husband, Jim Ready.
“I don’t think anybody could have foreseen that scene,” Orner said. “An important congressman marrying his same-sex spouse with a celebrated speaker of the house in attendance, cutting a rug with some intern. I don’t think it would have happened even 10 years before.”