A great piece of reporting by Jonathan Weisman of the Washington Post may answer the big question of Friday night’s presidential debate: Why was John McCain so angry that he refused to look Barack Obama in the eye?

The New York Times was out first, you may recall, with its own behind-the-scenes report of what happened at the White House meeting on Thursday, called at McCain’s request. This is the well-known account of how McCain sat largely silent while Obama “peppered” Henry Paulson with questions. McCain, says the Times, spoke at the end of the meeting but declined to take a firm position on either the Paulson/Congressional compromise or the alternative House GOP plan.

The Post story, which took a full day longer to piece together, offers much new insight. Assuming it’s true, it is so eye-opening that I almost feel I have to rethink my opinion of the current Democratic leadership — Pelosi, Reid, et alia, who’ve often seemed so irresolute, so ready to cave, as though they’ve been permanently cowed by the ruthless GOP attack machine.

1. To start with, the Democrats apparently huddled beforehand and agreed on a plan to fuck with John McCain’s head. Because when the meeting comes to order — that is, after Bush’s brief opening remarks, after reporters are cleared from the Cabinet Room — Nancy Pelosi turns to Bush and announces that Barack Obama will be speaking for the Democrats.

Think about this. Barack has had no role in the negotiations. He’s in town for one day, ONLY because John McCain decided to make his Hail Mary pass. So the Democrats have decided, quickly and secretly, to respond with a presidential-politics gambit of their own.

2. Obama opens quietly: “We’ve got to get something done.”

3. The Republicans then start talking. Immediately it’s obvious there is division in the GOP ranks. John Boehner, GOP House leader, talks about this confused alternative plan being pushed by conservative members. He is “pressed hard,” according to the Post, by Barney Frank of Massachusetts to spell out exactly what his people want — do they really mean to scuttle the whole agreement?

4. Obama “then jumped in to turn the question on his rival: ”What do you think of the plan, John?’ he asked repeatedly. McCain did not answer.”

McCain CAN’T answer, of course, because he barely knows what the hell is going on. As late as Tuesday night, he hadn’t even read the Paulson plan, which is all of 3 pages long. (We don’t know for sure if he’s read it to this day.) Also, he’s caught between rival factions in his own party. Obama sees all this, and won’t let him off the hook.

5. The meeting breaks up in confusion. McCain’s so flustered and angry that he storms out alone, refusing to speak to anyone.

6. The Democrats huddle again, deciding whether to make a joint appearance before the cameras. Obama makes the call — no statement. Per the Post: “Without McCain next to him, he said, he would be skewered for using the White House as a backdrop.”

And that’s how it ends. McCain wanted a meeting, he got his meeting, and the whole turns out to be a fiasco. McCain can’t even talk to reporters to put a smiley face on it. He doesn’t know what to say.

Friday night he’s still boiling with anger, and it shows throughout the debate. Now we know why.

Meanwhile, there stands Obama, calm and statesmanlike, generously agreeing with his pal “John” on any number of issues, declining to go on the attack despite numerous opportunities. Why should he? That sorry motherfucka’s still bleeding from the shiv Barack stuck in him the day before.

What I'm talkin about

Chicago model

You have to go back to LBJ to think of a Democratic politician who could bloody an opponent so adroitly. And Pelosi, Reid, Frank and company deserve credit for recognizing a leader when they’ve finally got one.