A modest Boehner takes Congress's most powerful office

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 6, 2011; A01

The clerk called his name twice to vote for speaker, but John Boehner wasn't on the House floor. He didn't have to be, of course. Once the tally was announced, the Republican from Ohio emerged, now officially speaker of the House. He looked up at his wife, two daughters and 10 of his 11 siblings in the gallery above. They were crying, and so was he.

The new speaker, his hair perfectly parted and his suit perfectly pressed, dabbed his eyes with a white handkerchief. Then he took an oversize wooden gavel he had picked and began his maiden speech to his new House.

"Thank you all," Boehner said, engulfed in the applause. "It's still just me."

Wednesday's ceremonial installation capped a remarkable and at times quixotic political journey for Boehner, 61, who rose from a tough upbringing and years of mopping floors and tending bar to the highest office in the U.S. Congress.

The Ohioan, who was once banished from the GOP leadership in an internal power struggle, took the speaker's oath on a day steeped in the ritual and grandeur of every Washington turnover, but notable for the understated and austere tone he set.

Boehner tends to shun big moments such as these. He's more at home on the golf course with his rank-and-file buddies than at the rostrum making grand gestures. Before the official proceedings began, he stepped from a side door onto the House floor. He was alone and went largely unnoticed - except by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), who embraced him for a photo.

Others quickly circled around him in the well. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) shook his hand. Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) patted him on the back. Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) introduced his grandson, Jack, 6.

And moments later, Boehner disappeared. He stayed away for an hour, until he was officially made speaker. It was a fitting prelude: Boehner is presenting himself as a low-key, easygoing leader, in deliberate contrast to his predecessors Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Newt Gingrich (Ga.), who took over the last time Republicans regained the House.

Boehner is also promising an environment far more hospitable to the minority than in recent decades, saying he will permit Democrats to offer amendments and debate controversial bills.

"This isn't about him," said Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), one of Boehner's closest allies. "It's about his vision for how this House should be run. When he says he's humble, he's humble."

Boehner began his day by walking out of his English basement apartment on Capitol Hill, where he told camped-out reporters, "The sun is out, and the American people are in charge."

He made his way to a private, bipartisan, prayer service at St. Peter's Catholic Church, where he was the first member of either party's leadership to arrive.

Inside the church, there were Bible readings from Pelosi and incoming Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). Boehner, a Roman Catholic, declined to offer any words of his own.

Boehner then traveled with his wife, Debbie, their two grown daughters, Lindsay and Tricia, and two busloads of extended family to his new office. There, he posed for pictures and enjoyed his new digs, which have a sweeping view down the Mall to the Washington Monument.

About 500 of Boehner's constituents, including family friends from the Cincinnati area, came to see him sworn in. Many of them, as well as some D.C. lobbyists, came through his office late Wednesday morning for coffee and to pay their respects.

Tourists walking along the hallway stopped to take pictures of the wooden sign hanging in the domed foyer of his new office suite: "SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: JOHN A. BOEHNER."

Bob Boehner, the eldest of the 12 siblings, said this was his first visit to Washington since his brother took office in 1991.

"His office is much bigger than it was before," said Bob Boehner, who has been out of work after losing his municipal job in Reading, Ohio, last year. "We have a lot of pride in John. When he got involved in politics, I had no idea he'd rise to this level. I keep using the word 'surreal' because I can't come up with a name for it."

With the day's official proceedings about to begin, the Boehner clan lined up outside the speaker's office for the walk toward the House chamber. "You're on TV," an aide alerted them, as they walked single file, shoulders straight, past a bank of cameras.

They took their seats in the front rows of the gallery and watched as the son of a tavern owner, a man who worked as a janitor while attending Xavier University and who took seven years to graduate, took the oath of an office that he had been methodically preparing to assume.

"In the Catholic faith, we enter into a season of service by having ashes marked on our head," Boehner said in his remarks. "But as the ashes are delivered, we hear those humbling words: Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return.

"The American people have humbled us. . . . They've reminded us that everything here is on loan from them. That includes this gavel, which I accept cheerfully and gratefully, knowing that I am but its caretaker."

At that, Debbie Boehner raised a tissue to her eyes.

Asked later whether it was an emotional moment, the speaker's wife, her mascara wiped away, said: "Doesn't it show?

"He was a janitor in khakis when I met him - one of 12, you know?" she said. "It's been emotional the whole time."

But there was little time for her husband to absorb it all. Speaker Boehner was due in the Rayburn Room. He had to pose with hundreds of lawmakers for their ceremonial swearings-in.

Boehner stood at a masking-taped X, 16 American flags standing against the mahogany wall behind him, floodlights shining down, cameras clicking. He just shook hands, one after another, and smiled.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company