“Too shy to be a good journalist,” a young southern Jew runs for Congress and wins
“A lot of people my age, my contemporaries, got into politics because of the Vietnam War or because of Watergate,” said former Congressman Martin Frost, who began a two-year term as Vice President of the US Association of Former Members of Congress in July 2016. “My primary motivating factor was civil rights.”
Though the historic Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka declared segregation of public schools to be unconstitutional in 1954, change came slow to the country, including Ft. Worth, Texas, where former Congressman Martin Frost grew up. His high school would not desegregate until eight years after his graduation — 14 years after the Brown decision — but Frost was eager for change.
As a young Jewish boy from the South, he attended a leadership institute in Pennsylvania organized by the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY), where he had his first exposure to social action and activism.
“I had a chance to just think about a lot of issues in a substantive way that I hadn’t really done too much before then,” said Frost. “I basically decided based on that experience and some other experiences growing up in the South that if I ever had a chance I wanted to do something about civil rights.”
NFTY was also his first experiences to elected office. “It was very formative in my life,” said Frost. “If I had never been in Temple Youth, I’m not sure I would have ever been in politics, quite frankly.”
But before politics, there was political journalism. He studied at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, one of the oldest formal journalism schools in the world. With an inherent interest in politics, he moved to Washington to work for Congressional Quarterly. There he said he discovered two things.
“One was that, like most journalists, I met a bunch of congressmen and I decided these guys weren’t so special. I could do that. Most journalists think that; very few act on it,” said Frost. “The other thing — this is kind of counterintuitive — but I decided I was too shy to be a good journalist.”
Though a good writer, he said his social reluctance hampered his ability to develop persistent sources. But what of the image of an outgoing, back-slapping, elbow-rubbing politician? Perhaps it was in his blood: his grandfather was mayor of Henderson, Texas and his great-uncle had been a member of the Texas state legislature. Maybe, said Frost, but many politicians don’t start out with that personality. What was more important was learning how to campaign, how to work with constituents, and how to build name recognition in the local community, which he did by volunteering for campaigns after moving in 1970 to Dallas — just 30 miles from where he grew up in Ft. Worth, TX.
Eight years and two congressional bids later, Frost was elected to the 96th Congress and would eventually serve for 26 years before redistricting changed the makeup of his constituency. During his tenure, he overcame his inherent shyness and was recognized for his fundraising prowess. In 1995, he was elected by his peers as Chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). He served for four years and then was elected Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. Among his legislative accomplishments, he highlights legislation that created the National Amber Alert, which was named for one of his constituents.
In addition, Frost is the namesake of the Frost-Solomon Task Force, also known as the House Special Task Force on the Development of Parliamentary Institutions in Eastern Europe. Working with the Library of Congress’ Congressional Research Service, the taskforce provided assistance to new parliaments in emerging democracies after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990.
“I often talk about how Members of Congress wind up working on things they never thought they would work on when they first ran for office,” said Frost. With a degree in history and a family history from the 19th century in the region though, Frost found the taskforce to be not only interesting and satisfying, but also fun. “And that kind of led to the work that I’ve been doing in recent years.” Frost has been on the board of the National Endowment for Democracy since 2009 and became the organizations Chair in 2013, which he considers an extension of the work he did in Congress.
He has also taken up the banner for bipartisanship together with former Congressman Tom Davis and journalist Richard Cohen.
“Tom and I had been on some cable news talk shows together,” said Frost. “We realized that even though we don’t agree philosophically on every issue that we do largely agree on the institutional problems facing Congress and we thought we had something to say about how Congress got in its current state of disarray and some suggestions for the future.”
In a case of “it’s better to be lucky than smart,” they connected with Davis’ college roommate who is an executive with a publishing company. In less than a year, they wrote, edited, and released The Partisan Divide: Congress in Crisis, which discusses the challenges posed by divided government, gerrymandering, polarization, the media, and money — and makes suggestions for reform.
“You can’t have things continue the way they are. Congress has to function, and it can only function on a bipartisan basis.” This is the message he and his co-authors emphasize as they speak at schools, university campuses, presidential libraries, book festivals, media outlets, and the National Archives.
The combination of promoting bipartisanship at home and democratic values abroad attracted him to leadership in the US Association of Former Members of Congress (FMC). “In addition to doing some work here in the United States,” said Frost, “we do international work, too.” In recent years, his travels with and representing FMC have taken him to a study tour in China, the former battlefields of Normandy, and the annual meeting of the Canadian Association of Former Parliamentarians. He is also proud of The Congressional Study Groups, FMC’s international legislative exchanges for current Members of Congress which are a part of the seamless fabric of programs that combine the experience and wisdom of former Members of Congress with the insights and interests of their colleagues currently in office.
“And I get to stay in touch with my former colleagues which is very important to me personally.”
Frost also chairs FMC’s annual Statesmanship Awards Dinner. In addition to honoring individuals and organizations who display exemplary commitment to public service, the dinner serves as the Association’s sole fundraiser.
“It provides the working capital for the organization to keep the office open,” said Frost. “The organization gets a lot of grants for particular programs, but you can’t have an organization like this unless you raise money just to keep the doors open.” With his experience fundraising for the DCCC, working on the dinner was a natural fit.
“A lot of Members once they retire don’t ever want to do fundraising again in their lives, but this is for a good cause, and we’re a charitable organization,” said Frost. “I believe in the work of the organization.”
One more question…
Google is a funny thing, and we were talking about the importance of name recognition earlier. There are two other Martin Frosts –
That Swedish clarinetist! … As far as I can tell, his family was from Germany, where my family comes from. So there may be some connection. But he’s tall and blonde, so I don’t think he’s necessarily Jewish, even though he does play a lot of klezmer music! It’s interesting.
And the other one is this movie called The Inner Life of Martin Frost –
Yea, I don’t know where that came from. It doesn’t have anything to do with me.