October 2, 2013
John Boehner (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)
John Boehner (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

I have often wondered who those men are who flank House Speaker John Boehner as we see him on TV about to approach the awaiting press. Some stand to the right and some to the left some behind him until he gets right to the cameras — and then they disappear. I now know who they are. They’re his backbone.

If the speaker didn’t have a disappearing backbone, he would no longer be the speaker. He would have, in the words of a Washington wag, taken a bullet for his country. He would have told his tea party brats that thinking you are right does not mean that you are — and anyway, the system is built on compromise. Holding one’s breath is hardly statesmanlike. It is infantile.

“Real people,” as we like to call those with whom we are in agreement, are suffering. Government workers — good as well as real people — are being punished capriciously. They have an implied contract with Congress: We do the work, you pay the wage. Congress is now violating that agreement. It is unconscionable.

Boehner, a nice guy everyone says, has allowed himself to be the gelatinous face of petulance. I am prepared to be told that he stands between us and something far worse than that tea party food-fighters. I am prepared to be told that he is loyally and at great personal sacrifice – smoke breaks not taken, wine not sipped – doing what he has been chosen to do. Maybe so. Still, history would favor him if he simply told the most recalcitrant members of his caucus that while they may be right, it is still wrong to shut the government. One alleged right does not trump an uncontroversial wrong.

Boehner ought to read Charles Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities.” The beginning is half appropriate — “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…” —  but it is Sidney Carton’s thoughts as he is about to be guillotined that I have in mind. “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

Take that bullet, John. It would be the best thing you’ve ever done.

Richard Cohen writes a weekly political column for The Washington Post.