Boehner’s more than three decades in public life coincide with his party’s rise to national majority status during the 1980s and ’90s — powered by Ronald Reagan’s takeover of one end of Pennsylvania Avenue and Newt Gingrich’s of the other — followed by its degeneration into a vehicle for White grievance that, as a clearly dismayed Boehner describes it in this unvarnished account, borders on the psychotic. “I was living in Crazytown,” Boehner writes of his years leading the House Republicans in the 2000s. The House Republican Conference was “a clown car I was trying to drive.” His party’s loss of the White House in 2008 only made things worse. “Every second of every day since Barack Obama became president, I was fighting one bats--- idea after another.”
There’s an odd and poignant disconnect between the book’s tone and its unsettling subtext. The voice is warm, engaging, occasionally profane — that of a guy who just plopped down on a bar stool next to you, fortified with a glass of his beloved merlot and an unfiltered Camel (both of which feature prominently in Boehner’s portrait on the cover of the book), to tell you about a bunch of interesting people, most of whom he genuinely likes, and an amazing career that he’s still pinching himself to make sure he really had.
It’s as if Boehner himself hasn’t quite processed the transformation of the sunny “morning in America” Republicans he joined in the 1980s into the dark conspiracy theorists who dog-whistled a mob to the Capitol on Jan. 6.
The former speaker doesn’t equivocate when it comes to laying the blame for that. Donald Trump “incited that bloody insurrection for nothing more than selfish reasons,” Boehner writes, adding, “It was especially sad to see some members of the House and Senate helping him.”
His assessments of other members of what he dubs “the Knucklehead caucus” are, if anything, more withering.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) is the “head lunatic.” Two House conservatives turned senior Trump administration officials, Mick Mulvaney and Mark Meadows, get lumped under the sobriquet “jackass.” Former congressman Steve King (R-Iowa), a leader of the GOP’s anti-immigrant wing, is “an a--hole.” Former representative Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), now the dean of the school of government at Regent University, was “a kook” (whom, Boehner confides, he nonetheless steered to the House Intelligence Committee to keep her off the tax-writing Ways and Means panel). The false “birther” theories fomented about Obama by Republicans and conservative talk show hosts were “truly nutty.”
Boehner’s disdain for the ideological purists who took over his party and eventually drove him to resign the speakership and his House seat in 2015 is not exactly breaking news: He called for Trump to resign after the Jan. 6 putsch and rehearsed many of his book’s themes in a lengthy 2017 Politico Magazine interview with Tim Alberta, now with the Atlantic. Still, having his excoriating assessments collected between hard covers makes for a powerful indictment, the more so because Boehner’s book vividly captures the growing horror of a bartender’s kid who evolved from a reflexive Democrat to a Reagan Republican to a tea party whipping boy.
Boehner describes one trip he made to New York to meet with “my longtime friend, Roger Ailes.” He says he pleaded with the then-head of Fox News “to put a leash on some of the crazies he was putting on the air.” In response, he says, Ailes stunned him by sharing a series of complex conspiracy theories involving Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and the financier George Soros, and confiding that he had a “safe room” where the government couldn’t spy on him. “I walked out of the meeting in a daze,” Boehner writes.
Recalling his frantic efforts to round up enough Republicans to approve President George W. Bush’s emergency bailout bill in 2008, as the world teetered on the edge of financial collapse, Boehner says that too many of his colleagues “cared more about what Sean Hannity thought than the secretary of the Treasury.”
Boehner, who says Reagan inspired him to make his first run for office — a 1981 campaign for a seat on his local township board — insists that today’s GOP has abandoned them both. “I don’t even think I could get elected in today’s Republican Party,” he writes, “just like I don’t think Ronald Reagan could either.”
Arriving in Congress in 1991, Boehner was, by his own description, a bomb-thrower. As a freshman, he upset (deservedly) leaders of both parties by inveighing against the corrupt House Bank and “earmarks” — special deals that powerful lawmakers worked to get funding for pet projects in their districts. Boehner joined the Conservative Opportunity Society, the first in a series of increasingly ideological GOP sub-caucuses. The difference between that and today’s Freedom Caucus, Boehner says: “We even worked with and liked many members of the opposition party.”
That and some schooling from former president Gerald Ford, a longtime House member whom Boehner bonded with over their mutual love of golf, turned the young Turk into a seasoned dealmaker.
By his own account, Boehner’s signal accomplishment as a member of Congress was the No Child Left Behind Act. Bush signed the landmark legislation in 2002 after intensive negotiations with Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and the equally liberal Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.). Boehner, then the head of the House Education and Labor Committee, delivers a blow-by-blow account of how the unlikely foursome worked together to foil efforts to torpedo the deal by ideologues in both of their parties, including Bush’s vice president, Dick Cheney. It was arguably the last major piece of social legislation to win wide bipartisan support in Congress.
His biggest disappointments, Boehner says, were failures to reach similarly sweeping pacts on immigration and spending with Obama. While he puts a good deal of blame on the former president, who, he writes, “could come off as lecturing and haughty,” Boehner also recognizes that he was often not in the best negotiating position. The takeover of his GOP conference by “far-right knuckleheads” who were “radicalized by blind Obama hatred” would have made it hard for him to deliver votes.
A onetime opponent of legalized marijuana, Boehner now serves on the board of a cannabis company. So far, he says, he hasn’t inhaled, but “I’m not ruling it out.” For Boehner, opportunity and personal chemistry have always trumped ideology. One of the book’s most tantalizing stories is about how, in 1996, Boehner initiated a secret negotiation to have Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia give up his lifetime appointment to become Bob Dole’s running mate on the GOP presidential ticket.
Boehner, who was convinced that this would be just the thing to vault Dole over Bill Clinton into the White House, describes trying to cut the deal in a backroom of A.V. Ristorante, an unprepossessing D.C. Italian joint since shouldered aside by the fancy development along the New York Avenue corridor. It’s an interesting thought experiment, to say the least, to consider how history might have changed had Dole not gone with Jack Kemp and instead created another vacancy for Clinton to fill on the nation’s highest court. But for Boehner what mattered was how he and his new friend — “Call me Nino” — bonded over red wine and an anchovy and pepperoni pizza.
The old-school pol was not without blind spots. On summertime cross-country bus trips with other Congress members to campaign and raise money for promising GOP candidates, golf clubs and fishing rods were always packed in the hold, and, Boehner writes without a hint of embarrassment, there was just one rule: “No girls allowed on the bus.” Good luck to the women who wanted to rise up the ranks of House GOP leadership. This may partially explain why there have always been so few of them.
Mostly, Boehner is clear-eyed about his weaknesses and knows how to compensate for them. He describes how he used “colorful language that probably wasn’t appropriate” to chew out Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty — then a congressional correspondent for Time magazine — after she asked him a pointed question as he emerged from a private meeting that hadn’t gone well. The remorse was immediate, particularly after he saw she was pregnant. “I apologized to her right then and I apologized pretty much every time I saw her for the next ten years,” he writes.
Boehner makes no apologies and offers no explanations for failing to call out his party’s destructive elements sooner. He says the GOP will have to purge itself of a faction that now includes “everyone from garden-variety whack jobs to insurrectionists” if it wants to survive. “I hope to do my part, even in retirement,” he adds. Boehner offers no plan for how to accomplish this. But he does have one recommendation for American voters: “You can vote to send people there to represent you who actually want to get things done instead of hucksters making pie-in-the-sky promises or legislative terrorists just looking to go to Washington and blow everything up,” he writes.
We can all raise a glass of merlot to that.
On the House
A Washington Memoir
By John Boehner
St. Martin’s. 266 pp. $29.99