Or perhaps, as he leaned back in a leather chair in his office overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue, it was just that he seemed -- at long last -- truly relaxed.
His double-digit loss to Rep. David Brat (R-Va.) in the June primary proved to be the most stunning of the 2014 cycle. And given the swift nature of his fall from power, which jolted him not only from the congressional seat he held for 14 years but also from a shot at becoming Speaker of the House, a measure of bitterness could be forgiven of the former number two House Republican.
But on a gray day in late November, just a few months after his post-defeat resignation, the turmoil of June seemed to lie in a very distant past.
“It’s a huge privilege to be majority leader, it would have been a huge privilege to Speaker, sure,” he said. “But I’m a firm believer, when things happen there’s doors that close and others that open.”
In this case, the door opened to investment bank Moelis & Company, where he is now a vice chairman and member of the board -- a position, he said, that will allow him to continue his advocacy for the free market and job growth.
And while it lacks some of the trappings of his old post, it also comes with the freedom to speak his mind away from the pressures of holding together an increasingly divided Republican Conference.
And he has some concerns.
Cantor said a war-weary nation wary of U.S. involvement abroad poses a special challenge.
“I’ve always been a believer that if America’s not going to lead it’s not going to come from anywhere else,” he said. “And if we want to continue global progress increased trade and relationship, you gotta have a continuation of the world order that really came out of World War II and American involvement in leadership. I do that that’s a pretty big challenge for our party right now.”
Another hurdle for lawmakers: a toxic political environment that makes movement on a positive agenda an increasingly remote possibility.
“What I always tried to focus on is results, is trying somehow navigate a very complicated process with very complex personalities and trying to get some results,” he said. “Regardless of what the perception was about my being sort of the front man in terms of opposing this president and his health care bill...really deep down inside was a belief that we could get some things done if we didn’t always take these polar opposite positions.”
Of course, Cantor's congressional career was born at one of the most intense partisan moments in memory. His first win came in the chaotic 2000 election -- and his first term began as the nation remained deeply divided following President George W. Bush's victory over then-Vice President Al Gore.
“I’ll never forget, probably at least a year if not more there were protests on the House floor about the outcome of the election,” he said.
He rose through the ranks quickly, tapped as then-Majority Whip Roy Blunt’s (R-Mo.) chief deputy in 2002. He served in that position for six years before rising to the whip position in 2008.
And while his mentorship from Blunt later turned into a rivalry of sorts, his most scrutinized relationship was with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). Rumors constantly swirled that the ambitious Cantor was gunning for his job -- just waiting for Boehner to slip up.
Asked about the relationship, Cantor laughed, downplaying the dynamic.
“That’s the biggest misconception,” he said of that time. “That there was some kind of nefarious thing that my team and I were always about. I mean, listen: it’s a rough and tumble world, but it’s team and family first, and John Boehner was a teammate.”
He wasn’t just perceived as Boehner’s foil: he was cast as a nearly instant adversary to the newly-elected President Obama -- the Republican villain.
“My wife will say, it’s unfair, this vision or profile that they have conjured up about your being this villain is just not who I am,” he said. “I think it’s unfortunately part of the business of politics up here that causes that and, listen, a lot of learning experiences along the way.”
Just months after leaving the Hill, Cantor said he already misses the people in the Capitol the most.
“When you are in a place for 14 years and elected by your constituents and trying to work towards an end you develop relationships and the people that you work with every day,” he said. “It’s almost like it’s an extended family and when all of the sudden you just leave the family, you gotta go in and make due with phone calls and texts and emails."