Smahtguy: The Life and Times of Barney Frank. Eric Orner. Henry Holt. New York. 2022. 222 pp. $25.99
Barney Frank was a tireless public servant. We need more of his kind of dedication: someone who gets things done. He was a man ahead of his time and, sadly, a little too much of his time too. Frank came of age in the 1950s, great for some bright kids with bright futures, but not all kids. And hardly an easy time for a bright gay kid. For much of his life, the guy who got things done for so many, lived life in the closet. Critically acclaimed cartoonist Eric Orner provides a unique perspective on one of the great legislators of our time with his debut graphic novel. Orner is a former congressional aide to Frank and that shows in the level of detail found on these pages. It was my pleasure a few years back to review a collection of Orner’s comic strip, The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green, which ran from 1989 to 2005. And it’s a honor to share with you this most impressive work.
Orner has that particular sensibility you find with the best cartoonists: an inquisitive mind; a compulsion to get to the essence of a subject; and the ability to express complexities in a concise and clear way. Barney Frank may not appear to be an obvious choice for the subject of an in-depth graphic novel but, oh, he most assuredly is! The big mistake made my some marketing folks is to have tunnel vision and think that a protagonist in a narrative needs to look and act a certain way. Well, Barney Frank fits that unconventional profile and that’s part of the beauty of his story. Here we have a guy who didn’t dress well, or eat well, or was careful about social niceties. He could be curt and rude. But he cared, heart and soul, about improving the lives of others as a public servant. His weakness was that he was afraid that, if he was outed, that would end his life in politics. But it didn’t and he learns that he can have a good life too. Orner deftly conveys this whole arc of a fascinating life filled with one battle after another, both personal and political.
For my money, I’m just captivated by all the accounts of political intrigue. If you’re a political junkie, that alone is reason enough to read this book. Born in New Jersey, and graduating from Harvard, Frank proved to be an exceptional student of government with a decidedly New Deal inspired fervor to do good in the world. Determined to see through his PhD thesis, those plans keep being derailed in favor of the public arena. Massachusetts politics keeps beckoning. Right out of the gate, Frank impresses the right people. After helping to run a successful Boston mayoral campaign for a local scion, Frank is promoted to a top level position in the Mayor’s office. Frank’s star just keeps rises as he himself enters politics and wins election as a state legislator and, ultimately, as a congressman. Of course, it should come as no surprise that he makes some political enemies along the way as he’s no slouch for a good fight. It’s Frank’s fight for gay rights that takes him closest to the edge as he fears his involvement will lead to his undoing.
Orner has set up a graphic novel with as quick and urgent a tempo as his subject. It is packed with so many assorted details, all neatly presented, sometimes even itemized within a panel. All the better to evoke the whirlwind of activity. Orner’s Barney Frank is a hero to relate with and to root for, all the more so given one of the greatest of challenges a politician can face, a sex scandal. The story begins with it in a brief prologue leaving you to wonder what exactly is supposed to have happened. And, believe it or not, it’s complicated. From that teaser, the narrative mostly keeps to a steady chronology all leading up to that fateful denouement. By then, the reader has come to believe in Frank from a multitude of vantage points: as he runs to catch that last train to an important meeting; or simply struggles to be likable; or pleads with a man to understand he’s not quite ready yet to come out. Barney Frank is the “smahtguy” who, through conviction and sheer will power, is ready and willing to do the work that others would rather avoid. Politics is not romantic and can kill idealists. But if you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and do the work, then there’s a chance to make a real difference. That’s the greatest lesson from Barney Frank and it adds up to a very compelling life story which Orner so vividly tells in this book.