Frank became a touchstone figure in the national political debate in ways that were usually reserved for party leaders such as Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).
On the left Frank was a hero both for his effort to rein in the nation’s largest banks and for his role in promoting gay rights, having been the first member of Congress to declare his sexual orientation while in office. On the right, Frank became a stand-in, alongside Pelosi and Kennedy, for attack lines designed to gin up conservative activists.
Newt Gingrich’s recent rise in the GOP presidential campaign began, to some degree, six weeks ago when he suggested in a debate that Frank should be “thrown in jail” for his role in pushing the Clinton and Bush administrations to promote homeownership and then in his regulation of the industry.
Never one to hold his fire, Frank returned the retort over the past few weeks, repeatedly criticizing the former House speaker for his role working for Freddie Mac as a seven-figure consultant. “You talk about the ‘L’ word with Newt. Let’s be clear the two words apply to Newt: lobbyist and liar,” Frank said in a recent MSNBC interview, rehashing his role as a chief antagonist of Gingrich’s during his 1990s speakership.
Frank’s stature inside the Capitol dome reached its pinnacle in 2007, when he became chairman of the Financial Services Committee. For the next four years Frank oversaw Wall Street, the housing industry and the multitude of financial firms that packaged questionable mortgages into complicated trading mechanisms.
This placed Frank at the epicenter of the most critical debates of the past five years, beginning with housing legislation in 2007 and 2008 that tried to forestall the industry’s collapse. In the fall of 2008, Frank was the lead House Democratic negotiator for what became the $700 billion bailout of Wall Street, alongside then-Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.).
An openly gay, Jewish liberal representing a district south of Boston, Frank developed a deep trust with then-Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson — a Christian Eagle Scout raised in Illinois who went on to run Goldman Sachs.
“Two elements made it possible for Hank Paulson and me to work together despite partisan anger about our cooperation,” Frank wrote in the foreword to the paperback edition of Paulson’s book, “On the Brink.” “First, we trusted each other, admired each other’s integrity and commitment to the public good, and shared a similar and natural understanding of the crisis that faced us, and we were helped by the fact that we were both in power.”