John Boehner, behind the tears
Washington – — The “regular guy with a big job” has seemed at the center of palace intrigue forever, a man to shake things up in the old days, to be plotted against on and off ever since.
There was nothing regular about John Boehner’s rise and fall and rise and fall in the House, nothing constant except that tan and the smoke-filled rooms wherever he was allowed to light up.
Boehner’s announced exit as House speaker and from Congress altogether caps a political career that began as the head of a homeowners association in an Ohio neighborhood and made him second in line to the presidency.
A firm opponent of abortion rights, he was essentially undone by disaffection from conservatives who want to push an anti-abortion struggle over Planned Parenthood financing to the point of closing the government, a step too far for him. He was once one of the agitators — a member of the Newt Gingrich Gang of Seven who seized the Republican congressional agenda, then the reins of House power, in the 1990s. He was ultimately undone by tea partyers and other conservatives he’d kept in line as speaker for nearly five years — barely, and at a cost.
The 65-year-old Boehner was never one to hold back his exasperation with recalcitrance in his own ranks as well as frustrations with what he saw as a slippery negotiating partner in President Barack Obama.
In 2008, leading House Republicans in the minority, he lectured draggy members to get off their “dead asses.” He accused Obama of moving goalposts in budget brinkmanship and trying to “annihilate” the GOP.
Obama had his own frustrations with the speaker, although his most memorable line about Boehner was a tease about his tan. “He is a person of color,” Obama cracked in 2009, suggesting a common racial heritage. “Although not a color that appears in the natural world.” Both smiled over that.
Boehner summed up the lawmakers he was overseeing this way in 2011 to the Wall Street Journal columnist and Ronald Reagan speechwriter, Peggy Noonan: “We got some of the smartest people in the country who serve here, and some of the dumbest. We got some of the best people you’d ever meet, and some of the raunchiest. We’ve got ‘em all.”
Still, he loved the institution and brought a poker-faced demeanor to it, though with heavy eyes that welled up at the slightest poignant moment. The House speaker has been called House Weeper.
Over the years, no one has been more moved by Boehner’s life story than himself. If you could take the man out of the Ohio bar where he swept floors, you couldn’t take the bar out of him.
Second oldest in a Catholic family of 12 in the northern Cincinnati suburb of Reading, Boehner swept floors in his father’s bar, played high-school football and worked his way through university. He joined the Vietnam War-era Navy, lasted only weeks because of back problems, returned to college and climbed the ranks of a plastics and packaging company to the top. Boehner succeeded in local, then state, politics and won election to the House in 1990.
There he soon became a lieutenant of the rabble-rousing Gingrich, who as mid-1990s speaker steered him to No. 4 in House leadership, with a plush office and a taste of power and the high life for a man who loves his Merlot wine and golfing.
The first big fall came quickly, after Republicans suffered stinging losses in 1998 and voted him out of the leadership.
Boehner termed the smackdown “interesting. I’ve had to convince people for two weeks that I’m not going to jump off the side of a building.” He dug in and began rebuilding his influence.
He won election in February 2006 as House majority leader, the No. 2 spot, then became the top Republican, in a minority, after Republican losses that fall. Republicans then sealed his from-the-bootstraps climb when the 2010 elections handed them the majority, and made Boehner speaker. He cried, quite a lot, from the emotional heft of the moment.
This fall came on his own terms, at least as much as that can be for any imperiled leader. Hostility from some in his ranks had grown raw and he faced the possibility of a revolt on the House floor that has not been seen for a century. In 2013, conservatives had driven him to accept a partial government shutdown to try to delay Obama’s health care law. Their taste for confrontation was not abated after that.
He said Friday that a day after a historic high point — the pope’s visit and speech to Congress, Boehner’s longtime goal — he awoke and decided this was the day.
“I’ve done everything I can,” he told a news conference at which he confirmed he would be gone in five weeks. “Zippidy doo-dah, zippidy day.”
Then he left the room, probably to get a smoke.