First Boehner (R-Ohio) tried to corral some conservatives who bucked his leadership, then he pleaded with executives at Fox News to keep these rabble rousers off the airwaves, because they had no real policy agenda beyond self promotion.
“Controversy sells and outrage and rebellion are rewarded,” Boehner writes in “On the House: A Washington Memoir,” his new book recounting 25 years in the House. “In part, it’s because of people who come to Washington intent on promoting themselves instead of working together. They claim to be true believers and purists, like the right-wing Freedom Caucus or the left-wing Squad, but really they are just political terrorists.”
He failed, miserably, to tame those forces and by the fall of 2015, they helped push him into retirement. Now, after the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency, self-promotion is the name of the game inside the Republican Party, particularly Boehner’s old House GOP conference.
Before a reported criminal investigation into possible sex crimes threatened his career, Gaetz devoted himself to an entirely media-driven approach. Whether in a committee room or on the House floor, he focused on using the conservative media echo chamber to go viral.
“The way that you’re able to elevate your profile in Washington is to drive conflict, because conflict is interesting. And I think that the really powerful people in this town are the ones that can go on television and make an argument, and that’s power that leadership can never take away from you,” he told the producers of “The Swamp,” an HBO-sponsored documentary released last year.
First elected in 2016, along with Trump, Gaetz had come from a politically connected family in Florida aligned with former governor Jeb Bush. Even after Gaetz switched his endorsement to Trump, House GOP leaders initially saw him as an establishment type.
They awarded him with seats on the Judiciary and Armed Services committees, a rare feat for a freshman. He quickly made clear his interest was on media appearances and winning attention from Trump, who devoured cable news.
Once Republicans were banished to the minority in 2019, Gaetz upped his theatrics. He organized a storming of a secure intelligence room where House committees were interviewing witnesses about the first Trump impeachment. And in March 2020, he wore a gas mask on the House floor to poke fun at the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.
While he does not have many friends in Congress, on either side of the aisle, Gaetz’s antics have inspired many of the new GOP freshmen in the House.
Boehner, now 71, entered Congress 30 years ago as a political performance artist himself, as he and six other young rank-and-file Republicans banded together to expose small-time malfeasance at the House bank, post office and restaurant.
They offered privileged resolutions to expose both Democrats and fellow Republicans for receiving perks that the average voter couldn’t stand. “I was kind of used to my colleagues hating me. So I kept right on going. I had been elected to office to do something and now I had the power,” Boehner wrote in “On the House,” which will be published Tuesday.
But the incentive structure back then did not encourage more antagonizing of leadership. Fox News did not exist. Rush Limbaugh was just getting a national profile. Mark Zuckerberg was in elementary school, with social media almost two decades away from taking flight.
So Boehner took a path up the leadership ladder, becoming a lieutenant to Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) when he led Republicans to their first House majority in 40 years in 1994, then holding a committee chairmanship, and then back into leadership.
By 2007, he became House minority leader and said he decided maturity was the best path forward. Before his two weekly news conferences, Boehner would whisper something to himself: “It’s your job to be the reasonable, responsible adult in the room.”
In the following years before he grew wary of the forces he condemns in his book, he embraced them as a way to win the House and secure the speakership and the power it bestowed.
By 2010, Boehner latched on to dozens of angry tea party-infused candidates who despised President Barack Obama, delivering Republicans the House majority in a GOP landslide. At the time he told interviewers that he understood these candidates, because he was once one of them in the early 1990s.
In his new memoir, he finally admits that he couldn’t control this new crowd, that they often handled him, not the other way around. “They didn’t want legislative victories. They wanted wedge issues and conspiracies and crusades. To them, my talk of trying to get anything done made me a sellout,” he writes.
The very people who had delivered him the speaker’s gavel had now made his job a living hell. When Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-Minn.), then a rising House GOP star, demanded a prime committee assignment, she threatened to go to Fox News to blast Boehner.
“I wasn’t the one with power now, she was saying. I just thought I was. She had the power now,” he writes.
After a couple years Boehner met with Roger Ailes, a longtime friend who was then head of Fox News. He pleaded with Ailes to keep flamethrowers like Bachmann off the air. Instead the TV executive told the speaker that the Obama administration was spying on him — the conspiracy theories were within Fox headquarters.
Fox was afraid that other conservative personalities would eat into their ratings, so they ignored Boehner’s entreaties and steered deeper into that world, right through Trump’s own 2016 campaign, according to Boehner. “These shows went from real commentary pushing conservative ideas to just pissing people off and making money,” he writes, perhaps giving the shows more credit for seriousness in retrospect than they showed at the time.
Gaetz fed off this as much as any lawmaker the past five years. He never held any clout other than drawing attention to himself and the occasional call from Trump thanking him for his forceful defenses of him.
In the HBO documentary, Gaetz explains what he tells young Republicans looking for advice in how to advance their own brand: “I tell them at the outset, you make yourself a target when you live like I live. I mean, if you want to really get in the fight, there’s going to be some return fire.”
Now, he’s facing serious criminal allegations that could land him in prison. And Boehner, now a few years removed from helping lead the party he now criticizes, explained his final, full break from Trump after Jan. 6, believing people like Gaetz also have to be pushed aside.
“My Republican Party — the party of smaller, fairer, more accountable government and not conspiracy theories — had to take back control from the faction that had grown to include everyone from garden-variety whack jobs to insurrectionists,” he writes.