John Boehner sets humble tone as he claims House gavel

Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) was elected speaker of the House Wednesday, ending the time of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) at the helm.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 6, 2011; 12:00 AM

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.

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