The two couldn’t be more different. One is a quiet, conservative Midwesterner with a penchant for golf and cigarettes; the other a garrulous California liberal with a fiery streak. What Latham and Miller share is the ability to give wise counsel to the two most powerful figures in the House, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Each is first among equals as a trusted confidant to his party’s leader. Acting in very different manners, they effectively serve the same role.
“You need some friends around here,” Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) said in explaining the 20-year bond between his friends Boehner and Latham.
“It’s a big loss,” said Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), describing what the Pelosi-Miller relationship means to Democrats. “We like and trust George. He really has been her lieutenant.”
Latham, 65, announced last month that he will retire at the end of 2014. Miller, 68, made his announcement last week. They are among 16 House members so far who have decided to call it quits after this session of Congress; 13 more are leaving to run for higher office.
That’s a lot of turnover, but in line with the norm over the past two decades. There’s no clear edge for either party, as Democrats and Republicans are giving up swing seats. The ideological makeup of the House is not likely to change either, as retirements are coming from the far right (Reps. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Paul Broun of Georgia) and the far left (Miller and Moran).
What will be different is the dynamic for Boehner and Pelosi without their key lieutenants.
Boehner first met Latham when he campaigned for him in 1994. Miller has known Pelosi since her days in the late 1970s and early 1980s as a California Democratic Party operative. When she won a special election to the House in 1987, legend has it, Miller began introducing Pelosi to his colleagues as the woman who would break the House’s glass ceiling and become the first female speaker.
So vital are their links that some wonder whether the Latham and Miller retirements are a foreshadowing of Boehner’s and Pelosi’s own plans. Boehner has denied he will retire after this year, making a public showing of filing paperwork to run for reelection. Anyone trying to guess Pelosi’s intentions is on a fool’s errand, as she keeps a very tight lid on such matters.
Pelosi is now in her 12th year leading Democrats, and Boehner is in his eighth atop the GOP. If they do return next year, it will mark the first time that the party bosses will not have their close friends a short walk away from their Capitol offices.
“There’s not anyone quite like George,” said former representative Norm Dicks (D-Wash.). “But she has other trusted advisers. It’ll evolve.”
Dicks, a Pelosi ally who 20 years ago served in the inner circle of then-Speaker Tom Foley (D-Wash.), described these informal posts as critical. Party leaders can’t be everywhere and can’t speak to everyone. Often the other members of elected leadership are seen as rivals angling for the top spot — Pelosi and Boehner have had rocky relationships with their top deputies, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).
“I tried to be his eyes and ears,” Dicks said of his work for Foley.
Miller has been an all-
encompassing force in Pelosi’s rise, a trusted friend who also managed her leadership races and helped implement key policy steps such as increasing the minimum wage in 2007 and the health-care law in 2010. Her first chief of staff as speaker, John Lawrence, had previously served as Miller’s top adviser.
For years, Miller earned goodwill for Pelosi by helping run the steering committee, a very behind-the-scenes panel that determined committee slots and chairmanships. Those who were rewarded had Miller, and therefore Pelosi, to thank.
He also could play the role of enforcer. After Democrats won the majority in the 2006 midterm elections, Miller led a surprise attack against Hoyer. He served as campaign manager for then-Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), another Pelosi confidant, in an unexpected challenge to Hoyer for the job of majority leader.
It was the only time a Miller-led campaign lost a party leadership race, this time by a 2 to 1 margin.
Latham fills a different role for Boehner.
“It’s not about politics. It’s not about issues. We just enjoy each other’s company,” Latham said in a brief interview.
Several GOP colleagues concurred.
“Tom’s not a tactical tool for John,” said Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), a close friend of each man. “It allows the relationship to stay the same.”
But that may underestimate Latham’s importance. Boehner is a deeply emotional man and uses Latham to help keep him steady. He may not strategize on policy or campaigns, but he listens. Sometimes the talk is about golf, other times it’s about Boehner’s annual stop at Latham’s Iowa home over the August recess.
Sometimes he just quietly nods as Boehner vents about the latest trouble that a conservative faction is causing.
In times of crisis, Latham slips into the speaker’s office on a frequent basis. In 2011, as Boehner unsuccessfully tried to cut a $4 trillion debt deal with President Obama, Latham led a group of friends into a meeting with Boehner’s chief of staff to send a warning that Cantor was politically undermining the speaker, according to author Robert Draper’s “Do Not Ask What Good We Do,” a book about the tea party Congress.
In November 1998, House Republicans ejected Boehner from his junior leadership post in a shake-up orchestrated by a rival. Dejected, Boehner’s top aides and close friends went to Sam & Harry’s steakhouse downtown to eat and drown their sorrows.
The private room held up just fine until Latham delivered an emotional toast.
“Everybody in the whole room cried,” Boehner recalled in a 2010 interview.
There is some history on Capitol Hill to suggest that party leaders can lose their touch once their closest friends depart. In the late 1990s, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) dubbed his friend Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.) “Mikey” after the iconic Life cereal commercial. Coverdell undertook every awful assignment Lott gave him, no matter how personally distasteful he found it to be. Coverdell died from a cerebral hemorrhage in 2000, and some Senate insiders believe that’s why Lott never fully understood the growing discontent with his leadership that helped end his tenure after he made intemperate remarks at Strom Thurmond’s 100th-birthday party.
Friends of Boehner and Pelosi suggest the two can carry on just fine without their right-hand men. Other close friends will become even closer advisers.
“He’ll be just fine,” Latham said of Boehner. “He’s got a lot of friends — and he’s got my cellphone number.”