Speaking Softly

House Speaker John Boehner makes a big deal on his first day about being humble.

Usually when politicians come to their big moment they crank up the lofty rhetoric. They swirl around in the heavens, or do some resolving, or take a backstroke through the great American this or that. Backward run their sentences as Kennedy they try to approach but closer to Yoda they come. John Boehner, the new House speaker, went the other way. He started in the dust—the Catholic Ash Wednesday ritual of smearing ashes on the forehead. “The ashes remind us that life in all—all of its forms is very fragile, our time on this Earth fleeting,” he said early in his remarks after acknowledging his family and friends. “But as the ashes are delivered, we hear those humbling words: Remember, you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Humble. That’s the word Boehner kept repeating. Everything about his swearing-in was modest. When Nancy Pelosi became speaker in 2007, Richard Gere and Tony Bennett sat in her section. Boehner’s box was full of Boehners—10 of his 11 siblings. Four years ago, when members stood to announce the name of their candidate for speaker, many of the Democrats added a little filigree. Jesse Jackson Jr. nominated Pelosi in the name of Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman and “in the name of Jesus Christ.” Others nominated her in the name of the children of Katrina and Darfur. There was almost none of that this time. When Republicans announced who they were voting for, most simply said “Boehner,” not even bothering with his first name.

When the Ohio congressman finally took to the microphone, after twice having to press his white handkerchief into the corner of his eyes, he said: “It’s still just me.” Boehner did not try to lift his rhetoric above his lectern. It must be said: This speaker is no speaker. He gave a flat reading of a workmanlike speech. Boehner’s message was that all 435 members of the House are there temporarily, at the behest of the voters who can throw them out in two years. The age of austerity applies to everything from budgets to personal ambition. Though it was his day, Boehner spoke only 30 more words than Pelosi, who preceded him with a recitation of all that Democrats had accomplished and who went on a bit too long. He was one-sixth the length of Newt Gingrich’s 6,000-word indulgence in 1995.

Boehner’s main policy message was that the government and the debt have gotten too large and the 112th Congress will face difficult and painful decisions about what government can do. But he focused as much on how the House would work as he did on policy. He promised he would be a speaker to all members and open the process to the minority. “To my friends in the minority, I offer a commitment,” he said. “Openness, once a tradition of this institution, but increasingly scarce in recent decades, will be the new standard.” (Though it will not be the new standard immediately; Republicans are starting off with a closed process that shuts out Democrats.)

Boehner selected an XXL gavel for the ceremony and Pelosi handed it over (two hands, please) with  class, just as Boehner had four years earlier. Denny Hastert was Pelosi’s immediate predecessor but he was on his way out of office and stood at the back of the room at her swearing-in, as if he were merely a visitor. Democrats generally gave Boehner a polite reception. Barney Frank even stood to applaud at the right moment, though his hands made such imperceptible movements that he wouldn’t have activated the towel dispenser in a public restroom. The real star was MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough. Like all former members, he can walk on the floor, and that’s what he chose to do during the lull between the vote and Boehner’s entrance. Democrats greeted him with hugs, pats, and performance bonhomie, as if he’d just been named conference chairman.

Dan Quayle also took advantage of the former-member privilege. He was there with his son Ben, a freshman member from Arizona who did not look as if he had started to make good on his promise to “knock the hell out of” the place. Maybe he was waiting till Dad left.

That may have been the oldest parent-child pairing. Mostly there were little kids sitting in laps and backward in empty seats. During a pause one young lad in a blue blazer appeared to be making snow angels on the floor. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and her teenage daughter, who is a little taller than her mother, shifted positions regularly as they both tried to occupy a single front seat. It seemed a lumpy compromise when there were open seats to be had, but perhaps even this was in keeping with the day. In the age of austerity, everyone is going to have to double up.

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