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Harvard student vs. Barney Frank: who caused the economic meltdown?

April 8, 2009 |  9:05 am

Recently, Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank was giving a speech at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government when a student asked him how much responsibility, if any, the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee felt for the global economic meltdown.

Frank, perhaps defensive over charges that he fought Bush administration efforts to reign in Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae in 2001, dismissed the question as "a right-wing attack," and challenged the student to make clear what else a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts might have done to prevent the crisis.

The student, Joel Pollak, replied that perhaps Frank could have done more to patrol executive bonuses to AIG and other giants bailed out with $700 billion in taxpayer funds.

The exchange got pretty heated -- another student came to Pollak's rescue, imploring Frank not to label the student as a conservative but to answer his question.

But Frank insisted that he had not been chairman of the committee before 2007, and was hardly to blame for policies before that.

Here's the video. See what you think.




And here's a transcript of an interview Pollak gave afterward to Fox News' Greta Van Susteren ...

VAN SUSTEREN: Joining us live is Harvard law student Joel Pollak, who you just saw debating Congressman Frank. Welcome, Joel. Joel, first of all, I want to, I guess, play a little bit of law school with you and parse what you said. You said -- this was the question that the congressman took issue, is that how much responsibility, if any, do you have for the financial crisis? Was that the question?

POLLAK: That was the question.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right. So when Congressman Barney Frank says you're accusing him of something, I guess I would say the "if any" would give him a way to get in or out, saying he had responsibility or none. So your thought on that?

POLLAK: Well, he could have said none. I would have been satisfied if he had acknowledged some of his role as ranking Democrat prior to the time he became chairman and his long history on the Financial Services Committee. But he didn't want to do that. Instead, he wanted to deflect blame onto everybody else except himself.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right. The question seemed like a -- at least in my opinion, seemed like fair one, since it wasn't accusative or leading, as you might say in law school, but asking how much, if any, giving him an out. But was he -- did he have that same demeanor in answering other questions, or was it just with yours?

POLLAK: Well, to be fair, some of the people who preceded asked some fairly crazy questions. We had a 9/11 conspiracy theorist there and some of the LaRouche people. But I asked him what I felt was a pretty straightforward question. I actually was going to ask him about his position on the AIG bonuses because the Wall Street Journal reported that he paid bonuses to his own staff. So I was going to ask him about that, as well as about his plans to regulate executive pay across the board.

But when I saw him not just in his responses to questions, but when I heard his speech and I heard him blame everyone from Ronald Reagan to the conservatives of the 1930s for opposing whatever it was he was pushing, I thought to myself, Hang on a second. This guy is someone in a position of responsibility and authority. This guy is the one who's making the regulations. He's responsible, essentially, for recreating and redesigning our financial system, and he's not taking any responsibility for what happened at all.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right. He said that it was part of a right-wing attack. I think at some point, you said that you were a conservative. Are you part of some, you know, right-wing organization? You know, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

POLLAK: Sure. Well, when I came to law school, I was actually a Democrat. My first year, I was the section representative to the Harvard law school Democrats. But I found that my positions differed widely from those of some of my friends and those of the Democratic Party, especially on foreign policy, but on other issues, as well. And I liked many Democratic politicians. I voted for Senator Obama when he was running for senator in 2004, but I was disappointed with the job he did for Illinois.

I still had some hope for him as a candidate, but as the election cycle started, I really was alarmed by some of the things he was saying about foreign policy and about free trade and the economy. So I had always admired Senator McCain, and I volunteered on the McCain campaign, and that was my first time that I was involved in Republican politics of any kind.

And one of the reasons I don't consider myself a Democrat anymore is because whenever you ask a question, you're labeled. You're put into a box. I found that even when I was a left-wing Democrat, as I was -- and I was so left-wing in my undergrad days that I thought Bill Clinton was too far to the center. When I would go to left-wing events, I found that questioners did exactly what Congressman Frank did. When I went to conservative events, they listened to the question and they gave me an answer. And so I think that that has a profound effect on you over time, if you're the kind of person who's curious about the way the world works.

VAN SUSTEREN: Joel, thank you. And good luck completing your studies at Harvard. Thank you, Joel.

POLLAK: Thank you.


-- Johanna Neuman

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