Giving Politicians A Good Name

WASHINGTON — Two politicians from different countries and with very different political pedigrees made news this week. Both spoke difficult truths and reminded us that we shouldn’t use the word “politician” with routine contempt.

The better-known story is the retirement of Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat who was never afraid to make people angry — or to make them laugh. But more on Frank in a moment. Far too little attention has been paid on these shores to a remarkable speech in Berlin on Monday by the Polish foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski.

He offered what may be the sound bite of the year: “I will probably be the first Polish foreign minister in history to say so, but here it is: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity.”

You don’t have to know much about Polish history (just remember the 1939 Nazi invasion) to realize what an extraordinary statement this was. The center-right Sikorski used the most dramatic language he could find to describe his fears about the collapse of the euro and to issue his “demand” that Germany use its financial might to help the eurozone “survive and prosper.”

He also spoke a truth that is inconvenient to Germany: “that it is the biggest beneficiary of current arrangements and that it therefore has the biggest obligation to make them sustainable.” Germany “is not an innocent victim of others’ profligacy.” I need to note that Sikorski is married to my Washington Post colleague Anne Applebaum, although that is not why I wrote this.

In fairness, none of this is easy for German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The world needs Germany to put up a lot of money to help Europe get through this crisis. But this will be understandably unpopular with German voters, who think they are being asked to pay for the mistakes of other countries. Those countries, in turn, are being asked to accept severe limits on their own democratic choices by having to agree to policies dictated by those with the cash to pay their bills. It is an awful mess that threatens prosperity around the world.

And this is why I admire what Sikorski did. He said what must be said, and in a way that commanded everyone’s attention. He was right to tell the Germans that for all their complaints, they have profited more than any other European country from the existence of the common currency. He was also right to underscore the dangers of dithering. If power corrupts, so does powerlessness. Only Germany has the power to fix things, and it has the obligation to use it.

One politician who would understand Sikorski’s extravagant bluntness is Barney Frank, who never walked away from a fight and never left a quip unspoken. Much has already been said about Frank’s rhetorical skills, his ornery personality — “I don’t even have to pretend to try to be nice to people I don’t like,” he said in describing one of the joys of leaving politics — and his sexual orientation. But what needs to be underscored is that he takes the process of governing, at every level, seriously. His is not a trendy sort of liberalism, but the old-fashioned kind that sees government as being there to solve problems and help those down on their luck.

“We have a very large number of people who, through no fault of their own, have lost everything they have,” he has said. “Now, I’m a great believer in the free-market system, but I also believe that there are important values that can only be vindicated if we act together through government.”

This is why he finds the current right-tilting Republican Party so hard to work with. Frank is often cast as ultra-partisan, but that’s not who he is. In 1978, he annoyed many Democrats by supporting two progressive Republicans, Sen. Edward Brooke and Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate Frank Hatch.

Such Republicans, however, have nothing in common with the current Republican House of Representatives, which Frank described with deadly accuracy. “It consists half of people who think like Michele Bachmann,” he said, “and half of people who are afraid of losing a primary to people who think like Michele Bachmann.”

I can’t wait for Frank’s debut as a political commentator. But he should be remembered as a politician who reminded us that the dictionary’s first definition of politics is “the art or science of government.” That’s the passion he and Sikorski have in common.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne(at)

(c) 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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