For decades, when Minnesota editorial writers took on a weighty national or international topic -- say free trade, federal budgeting, Social Security reform, Middle Eastern policy or how best to stimulate the economy -- the assignment inspired a call to former U.S. Rep. Bill Frenzel.
Frenzel was consistently generous with his abundant knowledge, even with journalists who were far from experts. That's why editorial offices are among the Minnesota places in which news Monday of Frenzel's death in Virginia at age 86 was keenly felt.
Republican Frenzel's long career of public service started with his election to the Minnesota House in 1962, representing Golden Valley. He was soon allied with about a dozen generational peers in the Legislature who acquired the label "Young Turks." They were moderate Republicans, mostly from the metro area, who favored high-quality public services and were unafraid to deploy state government toward that end. He was a standout in a group that was loaded with ambition and talent.
When the Third District congressional seat opened in 1970, Frenzel won it by only 2,780 votes out of 220,000 cast. It was his last close election, though he would run nine more times. In Congress, his ability was soon rewarded. He became ranking Republican member of the House Budget Committee, an important voice on the House Ways and Means Committee, and for 15 years a congressional representative to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade talks in Geneva. He became a strong exponent of free trade, holding that is key to securing a peaceful world.
Frenzel stayed in Washington after leaving Congress, but never retired. He signed on as a guest scholar with the Brookings Institution and became director of its governmental affairs institute. He said yes when President Bill Clinton called on him to help sell the North American Free Trade Agreement and when President George W. Bush asked him to serve on commissions on trade and Social Security reform. He was ever-ready with a quip, a cogent explanation and a quotable line when asked -- and he was asked often.
I was among the Minnesotans who was disappointed in 1990 when Frenzel decided to remain in Washington, and bold enough to tell him so. I hope that in one of the many conversations we had thereafter, I told him that I changed my mind. He was doing stellar service for his state and country right where he was.