A Barney Frank smackdown! You go!

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There aren't many profiles in courage to be found in national politics these days, but Rep. Barney Frank reminded us a few nights ago that speaking the truth, sometimes rudely even to a deeply misinformed constituent at a health-care town hall meeting, is part of the responsibility of governance.

"Why are you supporting this Nazi policy?" demanded a relatively young woman who obviously got her ideas about President Barack Obama's health-care push from conservative talk radio and the Internet. Mr. Frank, a Democrat from Boston, responded with the kind of bemused exasperation that should flow from the core of every Democratic politician confronted by such craziness this summer: "On what planet do you spend most of your time?"

Mr. Frank didn't back away from his obligation to answer the question, but he did put it within a larger context that many of his Democratic colleagues are reluctant, afraid or unable to do. "You stand there with a picture of the president defaced to look like Hitler and compare the effort to increase health care to the Nazis," he said. He then reminded those gathered to have a serious discussion with their congressional representative that it was "a tribute to the First Amendment that this kind of vile, contemptible nonsense" could be freely expressed.

Even so, Mr. Frank made it clear that even though it was a constituent's right to ask a foolish question, he was under no obligation to dignify it by spending much time on it: "Having a conversation with you would be like arguing with a dining room table. I have no interest in doing [so]."

Most politicians lack Barney Frank's self-assurance and intellectual heft. He knows he's more than a match for the average town hall heckler juiced up on warmed-over rhetoric from Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh. That's why Mr. Limbaugh resorted to a crude pun about Mr. Frank's homosexuality the next day. He couldn't discuss the incident without first attempting to marginalize Barney Frank as some kind of "deviant" on the edges of American life. Barney Frank is a deviant of sorts because he isn't afraid of mocking the intellectually lazy conspiracy theories of his constituents.

Last week, Sen. Arlen Specter showed similar courage during town hall meetings across our state. Unlike Rep. Frank, Sen. Specter uses old-fashioned courtliness which emboldened those inclined to accuse him of collaborating with a Nazi-like regime. Every politician has his or her style of dealing with conflict. Perhaps Sen. Specter chooses to be unfailingly polite because he has a tough Democratic primary ahead of him where Rep. Frank has a relatively safe seat. Even so, Arlen Specter is looking more and more like a "fighting Democrat" every day.

Profiles in Courage II: Kudos to the U.S. Supreme Court for granting Georgia death row inmate Troy Davis a new evidentiary hearing earlier this week to prove his innocence of the murder of off-duty police Officer Mark MacPhail 20 years ago. Troy Davis has been on death row for 18 years and came close to being executed before the Supreme Court intervened.

Seven of the witnesses who implicated Mr. Davis at his murder trial have recanted, citing intimidation by the police. You'd expect the usual suspects like former President Jimmy Carter to campaign for a new hearing, but they were joined by such notorious "bleeding hearts" as former Republican presidential candidate Bob Barr. This case smelled to high heaven even to conservatives.

It is the first order of its kind from the Supreme Court in 50 years, a fact that infuriated Justice Antonin Scalia and his soulmate in perpetual injustice, Justice Clarence Thomas.

In a blistering dissent, Justice Scalia wrote: "This court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is 'actually' innocent. Quite to the contrary, we have repeatedly left that question unresolved, while expressing considerable doubt that any claim based on alleged 'actual innocence' is constitutionally cognizable."

Troy Davis' actual guilt or innocence doesn't matter to Justice Scalia. A lower court has already ordered his execution on the basis of a guilty verdict at a trial where most of the witnesses have admitted lying on the stand. The U.S. Supreme Court should be content to rubber-stamp whatever injustice is handed up to it according to Mr. Scalia. That a man like this sits on the U.S. Supreme Court should cause us all to lose a lot of sleep.

Profiles in Courage III: The Philadelphia Eagles sign Michael Vick. What? Is it possible that someone who has actually paid a debt to society can be allowed to make an honest living? What's this -- a sports franchise that not only pays lip service to the idea of redemption, but practices it?

Thanks for ignoring the Scalias in your fan base, Philly. You're doing the right thing.

Tony Norman can be reached at tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.


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