WASHINGTON — It was hardly just a nostalgia tour when Barney Frank ambled into the Capitol on Wednesday. More like a return to the land of old grudges.
The former Massachusetts representative shuffled into his former committee room, taking a seat to testify in front of an overflow audience packed with advocates, aides, and banking lobbyists.
He was greeted coolly by Republicans, who now run the Financial Services Committee, and impassively by a large portrait of himself hung on the back wall, a reminder of the post-recession days four years ago when he guided passage of the Dodd-Frank financial regulations reform bill.
“Barney, do you miss us?” Representative Michael Capuano, the Somerville Democrat, asked halfway through the four-hour hearing.
“Uh,” Frank said, “no.”
Frank returned to Capitol Hill to defend his signature 2010 financial reform law. He was at times the same combative intellectual who served 32 years in Congress. Several times, he tried to speak when it wasn’t his turn — and Republicans had limited success reining him in.
But at other moments, Frank was more reflective, professing to have mellowed since he retired in January 2013. He just celebrated his two-year wedding anniversary with his longtime partner, Jim Ready, and has moved to Maine. He even has grown a beard (“My husband’s a beard guy,” he says, by way of explanation).
“The lack of stress is a major difference,” he said after the hearing. “I just reached a point where I was sort of emotionally worn out from doing [this], from making tough choices.”
Since he left Congress, Frank has not exactly kept a low profile. He’s appeared regularly on MSNBC and CNBC, where he has contracts. He’s been in one documentary (“Freedom Summer,” about young people like him who went to the Deep South in 1964 to crusade for civil rights) and he’s starred in another (“Compared to What: The Improbable Journey of Barney Frank”).
Notorious for resisting electronic office innovations while in office, he has obtained his own e-mail address for the first time and even set up a Twitter account. (One of his first tweets was: “I once said I did not intend to Tweet. As you can tell from reading this, I changed my mind.”) Generally, he tweets only every few weeks.
This spring, he finished a draft of his memoir, which he typed out on an oversize keyboard that Ready purchased at Walgreen’s to accommodate Frank’s clunky hands. He and Ready have spent considerable time at their home in Ogunquit, Maine. (Frank still has a condominium in Newton.)
He’s become a regular contributor to the Maine Telegram, writing columns on gay marriage, inadequate Veterans Affairs funding, the midterm elections, imposing sanctions on Thailand. He’s even styled himself as a television critic, penning a memorable takedown of the popular Netflix series “House of Cards.” After watching three episodes, he concluded that the show did a disservice because it portrayed a Washington where a powerful character controls too much and makes too few mistakes. (A better representation, he writes, is “West Wing.”)
“He’s doing pretty much what I figured he’d do: retire,” said Dan Payne, a former campaign adviser. “And try to pull his life’s lessons together.”
In the fall, Frank will start teaching a course at Harvard on the history of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender movement. In the spring, he’ll teach a course on Congress.
‘If you have the courage of your convictions, bring it on.’
It’s not uncommon to spot Frank in Maine grabbing breakfast at the Backyard Coffeehouse and Eatery, or heading to a cocktail or dinner party with his husband. He’s been active in Maine politics, cohosting several events for Representative Mike Michaud, who is running for governor and came out last year as gay.
“He’s provided some good advice to the congressman,” said Matt McTighe, manager of the Michaud campaign. “Over the last year since Congressman Michaud came out, he took some time to talk with the congressman and just talk a little bit about what campaign life was like for him and what things to be aware of and look out for.”
So has Frank mellowed?
“I would say yes,” McTighe said. “I attribute that to not being in politics anymore, where you’re always under scrutiny and reacting. Now he’s detached from that, even if he’s keeping one foot in it.”
During an interview last year with Bill Maher, Frank revealed that he was an atheist. Last month, as the American Humanist Association gave him an award, he told Religion News Service that he stopped going to temple when it didn’t mean anything to him. When he took the oath of office, he never said, “So help me God,” but because it was taking place en masse no one noticed.
“I have no beliefs in a supreme being and, frankly, not a lot of interest,” he said in an interview with the Globe on Wednesday. “I don’t like to wrestle with things for which I can’t possibly know the answer.”
What reforms should Congress make? “I’m not going to get into it.” How does he feel about his recently completed memoir? “Oh, you shouldn’t ask me what I think. Self-judgment is not very reliable.” Asked if he had taken up any new hobbies, he responded, “I don’t like to talk about that.”
But he was not mincing words in his exchanges on Wednesday with some GOP committee members, defending his signature legislation and appearing to relish a fight.
“This Republican Congress votes on a fairly regular basis to repeal the health care bill,” Frank said at one point. “But where’s your bill to repeal the financial reform bill? If you have the courage of your convictions, bring it on.”
“That [is an] outrageous suggestion,” Frank said at another point, bristling against the recollection of a Republican committee member about some of Frank’s horse-trading that impacted community banks in the bill. “I won’t have my motives improperly impugned.’’
On Thursday, Frank is planning to meet with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac regulator Mel Watt and have lunch with Senator Elizabeth Warren before dropping by to see independent Senator Angus King of Maine. In the evening, he’s attending a reunion with former staffers at a home on Capitol Hill.
Away from the nitty-gritty, four-hour debate in the Financial Services Committee room, Frank had time to reconnect Wednesday as he navigated through the corridors of Congress.
“There’s a face I haven’t seen!” called out a waiter in the members dining room. “Mr. Frank!” called a police officer holding the door outside the House floor. “Barney!” cried out a woman on the elevator.
When Frank saw an old colleague, Democrat Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin he ribbed, “Are you the dean yet? How many more have to die before you are?”
As Frank waited in the House dining room for Representative Maxine Waters, a California Democrat who was occupied with House votes, a delegation from Pakistan arrived, also to meet with Waters. The group included the country’s former president, Asif Ali Zardari.
“I’m Barney Frank,” Frank said. “I used to be a member here.”
Frank hurried to fetch Waters. “I have to tell Maxine the president of Pakistan is waiting for her,” he said several times. At one point, he stopped and looked around.
“I don’t miss all this hectic mess,” he said.
“I’m very happy I was doing it when I was doing it,” he added. “I’m very happy now I’m not doing it.”Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.