In Brazil, it's tradition to bestow political figures and athletes with nicknames. Sometimes they simply call these folks by their first name. No one's ever heard of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva or Edson Arantes do Nascimento. But they do know about Lula, Brazil's president and Pele, the most-legendary soccer player of all time.
The customs of Capitol Hill are a far cry from colloquial Brazil. The buttoned-up culture here dictates that key figures are referred to as "Mr. Chairman" or "Madam Leader." Lawmakers even refer to one another as "the senator from Oregon" or "Mr. Johnson of Illinois."
Shorthand monikers are far and few between.
But everyone on Capitol Hill loses the stuffiness ritual when it comes to one lawmaker in particular.
"Did you here what Barney said in that hearing?" asks one reporter of his editor over a cell phone.
"Barney, I need to talk to you about that amendment," says one lawmaker as he buttonholes the Congressman in question in the Speaker's Lobby just off the House floor.
After all, there's only one Barney in Congress. And come January, 2013, Barney will be gone.
Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) announced his retirement Monday after 16 terms in Congress. Controversial. Outspoken. Cantankerous. While he may have officially been "Mr. Chairman" or "Mr. Frank," everyone in Washington simply knows him as "Barney."
"Bye bye Barney," Tweeted Republican National Committee Communications Director Sean Spicer.
"No one's ever doubted for a minute what Barney Frank thinks or where he stands, and if you weren't sure, trust me, he'd tell you," said Sen. John Kerry (D-MA). "That's the special quality that has made Barney not just beloved and quotable, but unbelievably effective as an advocate and a legislator."
Kerry's assessment of his Bay State colleague explains why new members of the Capitol Hill press corps quickly learn one truism when they're assigned to cover this beat: if Barney Frank is involved, it's likely he'll make news.
It's always a quip. A barb. A rich quote. Dressing down a witness at a hearing. A confrontation with a fellow lawmaker or maybe upbraiding a reporter. Perhaps a taste of his dry, sardonic wit. Barney Frank is a polarizing figure and is always a lightning rod for controversy.
Which is why, as Frank edges toward retirement, Congressional scribes have so many tales about covering The Massachusetts Democrat.
Most Members of Congress are deferential to their constituents. They realize they'll just never agree with some of the people they represent and those folks will hold their representative in utter contempt. Most lawmakers simply try to be diplomatic and shrug off the disagreement with a smile. When met with harsh invective, few politicians would dare suggest that one of their constituents was a secret, intergalactic trespasser. Even if they thought so privately.
But Barney Frank isn't any lawmaker.
At a hostile town hall meeting about health care reform in August, 2009, a woman holding up a picture of President Obama depicted as Adolph Hitler challenged Frank.
"Why do you continue to support a Nazi policy as Obama has expressly supported?" the woman asked.
Frank responded in kind.
"On what planet do you spend most of your time?" queried Frank, drawing both cheers and jeers from the audience. "Trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to argue with a dining room table!"
The first openly gay member of Congress, Frank was outspoken on ending the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Late last year, then-CNS News reporter Nicholas Ballasy asked Frank on-camera about the end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell and what it meant for homosexuals serving openly in the armed forces. Ballasy's question and Frank's response went viral.
"They recommended that straight military personnel will have to shower with homosexual..." Ballasy started.
But before Ballasy could get any further, Frank did a theatrical gasp and seized his chest, Redd Foxx-style.
"Showering with homosexuals? What do you think happens in gyms all over America?" Frank hectored Ballasy. "What do you think goes wrong when people shower with homosexuals? Do you think the spray makes it catching?"
It was classic Barney Frank.
Hearings with Barney Frank were always an adventure.
In December, 2008, Frank chaired the House Financial Services Committee. He summoned the CEO's of the Big Three auto manufacturers to Capitol Hill for a hearing about their financial conditions. At the outset, Frank explained he would enforce a time limit of five minutes for each lawmaker to question the auto executives.
"If you ask a question that takes four minutes and 47 seconds, you can expect an answer that lasts 13 seconds," Frank said.
At one point, Ford CEO Alan Mulally struggled to finish an answer before the five-minute window expired.
"Quickly!" Frank badgered Mulally as he finally spat out his final words.
A bit later when Frank adjourned the panel of auto executives and seated additional witnesses, he curtly dismissed the captains of industry.
"Please leave! Right now! Go!" ordered Frank.
Mulally tarried for a moment, shaking hands.
"It may seem trivial to you, Mr. Mulally! Just please exit!" Frank excoriated as he tried to begin questioning the next set of witnesses.
But despite Frank's ornery nature, he could be bring down the house with his humor. At the same hearing, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) spoke about how her family once owned a wood-paneled station wagon they called "the chick magnet."
A quizzical look came across Frank's face as he heard this description. Capito nervously glanced at Frank, fearful she might invoke the chairman's ire.
"I'm sorry Mr. Chairman," Capito apologized.
But this time, Frank was amused.
"Chick magnet," deadpanned Frank. "It's just not something I'd ever want to drive."
The room howled.
In the summer of 2004, Frank testified before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing about the prospects of banning gay marriage. During a brief chat with reporters in the hall, Frank suggested that some opposed gay marriage simply because they were uncomfortable being around homosexuals.
"They probably think that two of us together is twice as bad," Frank said.
Over the years, Frank had a few run-ins with Rep. Steve King (R-IA). In the spring of 2010, Frank and other Democrats denounced epithets hurled at them during the health care debate. King declared that Frank needed to toughen up when hearing such derogatory language.
"I would think that Barney Frank has a thick skin," King said. "If he doesn't, I'll give him some thick-skin lessons."
But Frank passed on the offer of his Hawkeye State colleague.
"I appreciate the offer of lessons," Frank said in an interview. "But I cannot think of any issue on which I'd like to learn something from Mr. King."
In 1990, the House reprimanded Frank for his dealings with Steve Gobie who ran a male escort service out of the Congressman's apartment. In fact then-Rep. Larry Craig (R-ID), who later left office after his arrest for soliciting sex in an airport bathroom, led efforts to censure or expel Frank.
Frank also found himself in the headlines in the winter of 1995, but not by his own doing.
Then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-TX) ignited a firestorm when he called Frank "Barney Fag" during a Q&A session with radio reporters.
Armey blamed the garbled syntax on a lack of morning coffee. But Frank didn't buy it.
"There are many ways to mispronounce my name," Frank said. "That one is the least common."
Frank later said no one ever pronounced his mother's name "Elsie Fag."
While Frank's demeanor could be choleric, he has his courtly moments, too.
In the summer of 2009, I casually mentioned to Frank's staff that I was traveling to the Congressman's district to attend a wedding. I had never visited the part of Massachusetts which Frank represents. Much to my surprise, Frank himself called my cell phone a few days later to suggest a few restaurants and sightseeing venues in the district. True to the people he represented, Frank wanted to make sure a reporter from Washington saw the best his district had to offer.
So Barney Frank retires soon. He wasn't the first lawmaker to announce his retirement this term. He's preceded by Lynn (Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-CA), Jerry, (Rep. Jerry Costello, D-IL) and Mike (Rep. Mike Pence, R-IN) and many others.
Few know those lawmakers by their first name. But everyone on Capitol Hill knows who they're talking about when they say "Barney."