By Michael Kranish, Globe Staff
WASHINGTON -- In the course of 18 hours, Representative Barney Frank went from being castigated as a "coward" during an interview with Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly to being hailed by House leaders this afternoon as the indispensable "maestro" who played a key role in winning passage of the financial rescue package.
The Newton Democrat seemed to revel equally in both moments.
Irascible, rumpled, combative and endlessly accessible to the press, Frank was designated by the House leadership to shepherd one of the most unpopular bills in recent history through Congress and then explain why it needed to be approved. In a week of role reversal, he worked closely with his usual nemesis, the Bush administration, while he struggled to bring his usual allies, fellow liberals, some of whom viewed the bailout as a giveaway to Wall Street.
Unlike some congressional leaders, who speak in circumspect language and operate largely behind closed doors, Frank held forth before the media in hallways, conference rooms and television studios. While the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee is famous for his biting wit and willingness to engage nearly anyone in debate, his agreement to appear on "The O'Reilly Factor" - a flagship of conservatism - seemed designed to set off sparks.
O'Reilly began the Thursday evening segment by playing a clip of Frank saying last July that the quasi-governmental companies known as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were "not in danger of going under" and, while "not the best investment these days...are in good shape going forward." With the government having since bailed out the two mortgage-related companies, O'Reilly said Frank's statement has been proven wrong.
A five-minute argument ensued, with O'Reilly at one point blaming Frank for enticing investors to put their money into Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Frank responded by noting he had said it wasn't a good investment at that moment.
Fed up with Frank's comments, O'Reilly fumed: "None of this was your fault! Oh, no. People lost millions of dollars. It wasn't your fault. Come on, you coward! Say the truth."
"What do you mean, coward?" Frank responded.
"You're a coward! You blame everybody else. You're a coward!" O'Reilly said.
"Bill, here's the problem with going on your show," Frank said. "You start ranting. And the only way to respond is almost to look as boorish as you."
Frank said the experience was "totally nuts" and said he came out looking better than the Fox host. "I will go down as the man of calm and restraint compared to O'Reilly," Frank said.
This morning, Frank was at the pinnacle of his power, on the floor of the House, working on behalf of the Democratic leadership to manage the financial rescue bill. He button-holed legislators who had opposed the bailout on Monday, assuring them he would use his newfound influence with the Bush administration to put pressure on lenders to restructure home loans that could result in foreclosure.
Representative Al Green, a Texas Democrat, cited Frank's promise to push for the restructure of home loans as a key reason for switching his vote from "no" to "yes."
"I did talk with Chairman Frank," Green said. "He assured us" that he would work for the loan restructuring.
After the bill passed, Frank was front and center at a press conference with House Democratic leaders, who heaped praise on the congressman. When Frank noted that his staff had to put up with him for long hours during the negotiation, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi laughed and told the press, "No comment."
Afterward, asked what the day meant to him, Frank became reflective - to a point.
As he ignored a call on his cell phone from Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson, Frank told a small group of reporters, "In some ways, it is an out-of-body experience. I've got to go home and take out the garbage and hope I get to the laundry before it closes at 5 o'clock - and you are doing things that are historic. You read about people and all of a sudden you are one of the people you read about. And then you realize, yeah, they had to go to the laundry, too."
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.