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The Speaker Is Mute But Not Unintelligible

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And sure enough, this June, Boehner’s conference torpedoed a farm bill too. Boehner blamed the Democrats. But nobody was buying it. (Though last Thursday, the House passed a pared-down, far more partisan bill.)

At one of his weekly press briefings in the spring, Boehner made a telling slip: He said there were 70 new members in the House GOP. The context was the repeal of Obamacare—the House was voting on it for the 37th time, and when asked why, the speaker explained that these new members hadn’t yet had a chance to do so. The problem was, Boehner’s conference didn’t, at that moment, have 70 new members. It had 35. All public officials misspeak, but what I couldn’t help wondering was whether Boehner misspoke because he felt like he had 70 new upstarts to mind.

The irony is Boehner was once one of those upstarts himself. The 1994 Gingrich revolution is what made his career take off, just as the 2010 tea-party rebellion made Michele Bachmann’s career take off, and everyone else’s who today causes Boehner headaches. Back in 1994, ­seasoned Republicans like Bob Dole—himself once a hothead in his political youth—could not get over how radicalized Boehner’s young generation had become.

Today, Boehner is Bob Dole: a ­befuddled party leader who can’t believe all these crazy kids in his midst, these shameless ideologues who have a total-victory policy and can’t be content with getting 90 percent of the loaf (which was Dole’s famous standard for any worthy piece of legislation). His louche South Beach look has morphed into a gentleman’s tan, just like Dole’s.

And, like Dole, there’s something fundamentally lonely and melancholic about Boehner. It’s an impression one gets not just because he has “very effective tear ducts,” as his friend the Oregon representative Greg Walden puts it. He spent 200 days on the road last year. He lives alone in a basement apartment down the street from a popular Capitol gym. The tabloid press recently had a field day when his oldest daughter, Lindsay, married Dominic Lakhan, a Jamaican-born construction worker with a modest arrest record (marijuana possession), but what’s more interesting is that Boehner’s family never lived with him in Washington, and today neither of his daughters shares his politics. “I think it was a typical, father’s-gone-all-the-time-and-we’re-gonna-rebel type of thing,” explains his childhood friend Jerry Vanden Eynden. The speaker faces rebellions on all fronts.

Roughly once a month, Boehner’s closest allies get together with the speaker over sandwiches. Team Boehner, they call themselves. “Our job, really, is to tell John what we’re hearing, what people won’t say to him directly,” says Simpson. He adds that the opposite is also true, and just as critical: “So that he can get messages out by telling us what’s going on, and what his thinking is.”

I tell Simpson it seems a little strange that Boehner needs his own designated corps to be his eyes and ears—and to ­personally broadcast his own logic. Doesn’t he know what’s going on? And can’t he make his views plain?

According to Simpson, no: “As you become speaker, you become more and more isolated.” Speakers don’t sit on congressional committees, which means they can’t catch up on gossip from the rank and file; they’re caught in an endless series of meetings of their own. “So he really doesn’t have that interaction with individual members.” Which makes sense, so far as it goes. But few people would say that Nancy Pelosi lived in isolation from her members when she was speaker. The distance between a leader and his or her caucus is as much a function of style as anything else.

And that’s where Boehner runs into trouble. He doesn’t lead through inspiration and hardball, as Pelosi does, or ideology and intimidation, like Gingrich did. When Boehner decided to run for public office, it wasn’t because he had a singular ideological vision, or a gift for leadership and oratory, or a drive to change the world. It was because he, as a small businessman in Ohio, did not like the look of his tax bill. (In 1978, he told the Wall Street Journal, his income topped $74,000 per year, which nudged him into a considerably higher tax bracket.)

“I’d never have bet any money that he’d be the future speaker of the House,” says Joe Koziura, a Democrat who served with Boehner in the Ohio State Legislature in the late eighties. “To me, he had a pretty boring persona,” agrees Bob Hagan, a current Democratic state legislator who also served with Boehner. “Granted, he was in the minority, so there wasn’t much of a chance to be colorful. But the only color he had was tan.” Even his friends were stunned, in 1990, when he ran in the congressional primary to go to Washington. “None of us could believe he would leave it all to go to Congress,” says Vanden Eynden, who’s known Boehner since grade school. “He was making a lot of money. Why would you want to do that?”


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