Politics

John Boehner’s Memoirs Are Served a Little Too Neat

A charming tale of a career where everyone else was ruthless and power-hungry.

Boehner speaks at a podium with American flags behind him
Former House Speaker John Boehner at a ceremony to unveil a portrait in his honor at the U.S. Capitol on Nov. 19, 2019. Alex Edelman/Getty Images

When House Republicans and Democrats go on their separate annual retreats, they typically reserve a slot in the schedule for an off-the-record happy hour for reporters and members to get to know one another. I have been to a few of these in the last few years. You’re not missing much.

Those reporters who went to the House Republican retreats under minority leader, then Speaker, John Boehner, however, speak of them as legendary events. Boehner did not just pop in, have a sip of something, and leave after 15 minutes. Reared from childhood in his family’s own drinking establishments, the Ohioan would hold court at length, rambling from story to story, leaning on the bar and regularly extending his wine glass for a refill without breaking stride.

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On the House, Boehner’s memoir, is effectively a composite of those sessions distilled into book form, from the scattered sequencing, to the conversational, (performed) profane tone, to the core audience of reporters, staffers, lobbyists, and anyone else living within a roughly 7-mile radius of the United States Capitol. It’s a well-timed monetization of Boehner’s affable post-speakership branding before it tips irretrievably into shtick: the ever-drinking, leather-skinned, chain-smoking Washington throwback who’s going to tell you what he really thinks and settle old scores against various “knuckleheads” looking out for themselves, whether he ought to or not.

Fine, it’s already shtick. But please, take my money. As someone who only covered Boehner from afar, I wanted to get his unshackled account of what happened in his tumultuous speakership, and whether he really despised everyone I presumed he despised (he did). The House Republican leaders I’ve covered—Paul Ryan and now Kevin McCarthy—were and are buttoned-up creatures of a newer, claustrophobic politics that prioritizes disciplined messaging over inside skill. Boehner may be the last of a breed that lets it fly.

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The result is an easy, quick read, and the stories are often entertaining—though those who don’t play golf may disagree with Boehner about the extent to which it’s a metaphor for life and an essential window into one’s character. (Even for someone like me who does play, “the most important thing to remember—in golf, in politics, in life—is that if you do the right things, for the right reasons, the right things will happen” is a little much.)

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But the stories are just stories. And though Boehner’s brand may be the salty, retired politician who’s ready to tell you the real story, he hasn’t lost his active politician’s skill for bending a narrative in his favor.

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To the extent there’s a throughline connecting these barman’s tales, it’s about power, how he saw it abused throughout his career, and his own supposed discomfort both holding and wielding it.

Boehner writes about his Democratic counterpart, Nancy Pelosi—“she may be the most powerful Speaker of the House in my lifetime, maybe the most powerful ever”—with a sense of awe and trepidation at her ruthless leadership style. He describes her replacement of longtime Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell with her ally Henry Waxman as having “gutted Big John Dingell like a halibut she found floating around San Francisco Bay,” after which she “calmly sat back and had a cup of coffee.”

“There is a pretty sizable pile of victims on the Democratic side of Congress that Nancy Pelosi turned virtually into non-persons,” he writes. “Pelosi understands power, and she is not afraid to use it.”

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Boehner, though, suggests that he personally—while trading those same speaker and minority leader jobs back-and-forth with Pelosi across the aisle—could either take it or leave it.

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“As Speaker of the House, second in line to the presidency, I was considered a pretty powerful figure in town,” he writes. “Most of the time I found this an annoyance.” He was hesitant to punish posturing, “knucklehead” members who voted against leadership to boost their star in right-wing media by, say, stripping them of committee assignments, not wanting to make martyrs out of them. “I’d have staff and other members chastising me every day,” he writes. “ ‘Boehner, you’ve got to be meaner,’ they’d say. I’d have to explain that I just don’t have a mean bone in my body. I don’t do mean.”

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When Boehner is low on the food chain, it’s the people in Washington above him misusing power; when he’s atop it, it’s those below him doing so.

Even with all that dishonorable behavior surrounding him in the system, Boehner rapidly rose in the ranks, becoming the No. 4 House Republican by his third term in office, in part by exposing the abuses of the old guard in the House banking scandal and Congressional Post Office scandals of the early 1990s. He lost his conference chairmanship race the next term, though, following a failed overthrow attempt of Newt Gingrich, but he resuscitated his standing as a committee chairman who co-authored No Child Left Behind.

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After climbing his way back up leadership and taking the speaker’s gavel in 2011 following the “Tea Party wave,” Boehner found himself consistently stymied from getting things done by power-hungry members cloaking themselves in ideological purity. He writes about former Rep. Michele Bachmann (a “lunatic,” in his estimation) effectively leveraging her power over conservative talk radio to extort him into giving her an important committee slot; and Rep. Mark Meadows—who would later become Trump’s chief of staff—enthusiastically soliciting his help on the campaign trail, then voting against him for speaker, and later trying to force him out of the speaker’s chair. Former Rep. Mick Mulvaney would preach dogmatic fiscal conservatism and vote against any spending or debt ceiling bill while a member of the House Freedom Caucus, then preside over a blow-up in spending while serving as Trump’s Office of Management and Budget director. He hates Sen. Ted Cruz, “a reckless asshole who thinks he is smarter than everyone else,” to such a degree that it’s become the chief selling point for the book.

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“Most of these guys who poke their heads up in these crises and vote ‘no’ on every compromise and claim they’re doing it all for ‘conservative principles’ don’t actually give a shit about fiscal responsibility,” he writes in a scathing chapter about the “legislative terrorists” who made his speakership hell. “Most of these guys weren’t about principles. They were about chaos and power.” (No, he doesn’t think House Democrats have it made either, and he believes that only Pelosi is capable of stopping them from “destroying themselves with some batshit scheme. They are all screwed when she is off the scene.”)

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Somehow, in his recounting of episodes battling with corrupt old congressional bulls, purists stoking outrage for their own celebrity, ruthless Democratic leaders, earmark-grabbing transactionalists, and other forces subsumed by the quest for power, John Boehner was able to rise twice into Republican leadership, and ultimately to the most powerful role in Congress, by always doing the right thing. Either John Boehner is the luckiest politician in history, or something’s missing.

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Consider his retelling of the breakdown of the “grand bargain” on deficit reduction that Boehner negotiated with President Barack Obama ahead of the debt ceiling crisis in 2011. In his version of what happened—which isn’t new to this book—he and Obama shook hands on a deal to cut spending and raise revenue, only to see Obama come back and ask for more revenue that Boehner couldn’t deliver the votes for. Boehner describes the collapse of the grand bargain as the biggest regret of his leadership, and something he was prepared to lose his job in order to pass.

“I have made my peace with the possibility that this deal could be the end of my Speakership,” he said, knowing that it would rely on Democratic votes to pass. “I knew it would piss off enough shortsighted Republicans that they just might be able to get together and boot me from office if it passed.”

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Maybe he was prepared to get the boot. But it’s easy to say, after the fact, that you would have been willing to lose your job by putting a deal on the floor when that deal fell apart before you had the opportunity to put it on the floor. Consider, then, a bill that Boehner did have the opportunity to put on the floor, and pass with mostly Democratic votes, and probably lose his job over: the comprehensive immigration reform bill that the Senate passed in 2013 on a comfortable bipartisan vote.

Boehner writes that the failure of immigration reform was his “second biggest disappointment” behind the collapse of the grand bargain. But the way he describes that “disappointment” was in the “unwillingness—in both parties—to seriously fix our immigration laws so that they seriously work for real people.” He considered Obama a serious negotiator on fiscal matters, but “with immigration reform, I don’t believe he was really interested in a solution. He just kept poisoning the well with things he knew we would never agree to. He would politicize everything to no end.”

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These are excuses from a politician who knew, despite his protestation, how power worked, and what he needed to do in order to maintain it. The carefully negotiated Senate immigration bill had the votes to pass the House, but putting it up for a vote probably would have cost John Boehner his speakership—even a trace whiff of immigration reform friendliness cost Boehner’s No. 2, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, his dinky congressional primary in 2014—and could have hurt GOP base enthusiasm ahead of the midterms. So given a choice between accomplishing something or protecting his own standing, Boehner sat on the bill and ran out the clock.

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The book doesn’t have a word to say about mass shootings or gun control either, although he did say during an interview in his ongoing publicity tour that he’d like to see Congress act, as mass shootings are “embarrassing our country.” But he didn’t lift a finger when he was speaker after the Newtown massacre. He was fortunate that a Senate bill on background checks couldn’t get past a filibuster, so he never needed to act on it.

I don’t judge someone’s likability on whether someone has checked the proper moral box at every decision point, and I like John Boehner. He was a proper legislator and a character, too many of whom have left Congress only to be succeeded by replacement-level creations of public relations firms. The book is only 250 pages long, and he probably could’ve doubled that with more stories about members putting knives to his throat or baffling encounters on overseas congressional delegations. But John Boehner didn’t rise to the top of legislative politics despite an allergy to power and its trappings. He wanted it, took it, and did what he could to maintain it, until he could see that his time was up. There’s no need to whitewash that, as the book often does. It’s what makes him—and all of them—interesting.

In the seven years I’ve been covering news and politics for Slate, I’ve written about some of the United States’ best and worst moments, people, and ideas. Your continued support of Slate Plus will allow me to continue to give our country’s high-stakes struggle to define itself the coverage it deserves. Thank you! —Ben Mathis-Lilley, senior writer

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