The Lesson of Barney Frank and Joel the Harvard Law Student: Ideas Matter

Ideas matter. So do intellectual depth and precision. Frank wasn't bullying--he was being honest.


By John Aloysius Farrell, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

In my years as a reporter and editor at The Boston Globe I regularly had the often bruising but invariably invigorating task of having to cross-examine Rep. Barney Frank.

To tell you the truth, Frank usually handed me my hat, just as he did the other night to Joel the Law Student.

I didn't mind. The tongue-lashings from Frank (he is a non-partisan abuser) kept me sharp, and drove me to do better next time. I learned to have my facts ready, and my questions honed before I took him on again.

If Frank made me look silly, that was my fault. Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo was the same way. I appreciated the fact that Frank and Cuomo always took my question, and me, seriously. Other pols would pander and smile, and give you vacuous talking points, and then, when you had left, have their staffs stab you in the back. Frank and Cuomo met you man to man. They were the drill sergeants of politics--the ones who toughened you up.

At Harvard University the other night, Joel the Law Student asked Frank a snide and clever question, along the lines of: "How guilty are you of the economic mess you've helped cause?"

Frank wasn't about to fall for it, not from some pissant Harvard kid. "What do you suggest I should have done better?" he asked.

Joel the Law Student answered with a non sequitur.

Frank pointed that out.

Joel the Law Student tried another non sequitur.

(Note to Stanford and Yale and the U.S News college rankings: Harvard's standards appear to be slipping.)

Frank called him on it again.

Finally, Joel the Law Student maintained that he wasn't trying to trap Frank at all, and would have been satisfied if Frank had answered: "Not guilty at all."


Conservatives are now casting frail little Joel as a kind of victim, roughed up by the rude congressman. Joel the Law Student is happily playing along. Like Joe the Plumber, he's getting his 15 minutes of notoriety.

Who knows? In the end the Right might win this one. If you don't listen to what's actually being said in the YouTube clip, Frank rampant can seem like he's bullying. And Americans, God bless us, don't like bullies.

But that would be the worst thing we can do for Joel. The congressman gave him the honor of taking him seriously. Sure, he leveled him--but he also leveled with him.

If Joel still has a capacity for intellectual growth, he needs to know it's not all glib and sheen and Fox TV and politicians' talking points. He needs to learn that ideas matter, as does intellectual depth and precision. That there is spin, and there is thought, and there is truth--and they are not all the same thing.

And if Joel the Law Student comes away from this encounter having learned any of this--than Barney Frank will have done him a great favor indeed. And maybe one day Joel will thank him.

And Barney will say, abrasively, and dismissively, "You're welcome."

On Facebook? You can keep up with Thomas Jefferson Street blog postings through Facebook's Networked Blogs.

  • Read more by John Aloysius Farrell.
  • Read more from the Thomas Jefferson Street blog.
  • Read more about Barney Frank.