So why did he? I ask.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I still ask him that. Maybe he had a midlife crisis. He was 40.”
You can spend forever asking Boehner’s friends what his favorite movies are, and you won’t find one; he doesn’t really watch them. Nor does he watch TV, other than news, sports, and the Weather Channel. When the House GOP conference elected Boehner to be their leader in 2006, they chose him, in large part, because he was benign—easygoing, likable, a hail-fellow-well-met. (It also helped that he was a prodigious fund-raiser.) At that point in time, the ethics travails of the former majority leader, Tom DeLay, who was indicted in 2005, had exhausted House Republicans. Of all the candidates to succeed him, Boehner seemed the least inclined to his bare-knuckled style.
“I’ve never known John not to be a gentleman,” says Simpson. “In fact, a few of us have been on his case about his not meting out some punishment.”
Which is a more charitable way of saying (as others do) that Boehner is soft. All of Boehner’s allies try to encourage him to be tougher on party dissidents. LaTourette told me a story about sitting on the steering committee and listening to members, reasonable members, try to get Boehner to punish some of the more unreasonable characters for their disloyalty. Boehner declined. “And there are two ways to view that,” says LaTourette. “You could say that he’s nice—he’s not punishing them for voting their conscience. But the other way, which I think is haunting him now, is that it’s taken as a sign of weakness.”
Well, I say, Boehner did eventually strip four difficult members of various committee seats last year. “Too late,” says LaTourette. “If you have a rebellion and you don’t nip it in the bud in the beginning, it grows.” He mentions some of their worst acts of insubordination—failing to support Boehner’s “Plan B” fiscal bill, plotting a coup, sowing independent mischief in the press. “In the days of Newt—that person, we wouldn’t even be finding his body today.”
When Gingrich was speaker, he had gangs of acolytes and sycophants hanging off him, at least in the early days. Boehner, on the other hand, comes out quietly to the House floor and lingers in the back row among his closest friends. There’s no penumbra of urgency surrounding him, nothing that makes his aides spring to attention when he appears. After hours, it’s not uncommon to find him at the National Republican Club of Capitol Hill (the “Capitol Hill Club,” for short), having a glass of Merlot and kibitzing with members. On staff and member birthdays, he treats them to his famous birthday song, sung to the tune of “Ta-Ra-Ra Boom-De-Ay”: “This is your birthday song, it doesn’t last too long …” He razzes members for their bad taste in ties, their lousy golf game, their weight, their tardiness, their hair getting a quarter-inch too shaggy.
But nobody mistakes Boehner for an extrovert. “As a person, he’s very likable,” says the North Carolina Republican Walter Jones, one of the four members who were stripped of their committee seats. “But when Newt was speaker of the House, he’d say to members—not just me—‘What are you working on?’ Whether he meant it or not, he asked. I don’t see the same outreach from the speaker.” Or direct confrontation. After he’d stripped those four members of their committee seats, he never notified them directly, according to Jones. “We found out on the Internet,” says Jones.
Has he talked to the speaker since?
“Just to say hello.”
Of course, there’s another powerful leader in Washington who’s inconveniently introverted and allergic to conflict. His name is Barack Obama.
“When both Bush and Clinton were in office, their people stopped by and talked to us all the time,” Mike Simpson told me, referring to their representatives from the White House Office of Legislative Affairs. “And now,” Simpson said, “I couldn’t tell you who my Leg Affairs person is.”
Whenever things bog down in Washington, people divide into two camps: those who believe gridlock is a simple function of political math—that the incentives of both parties are impossible to align—and those who believe that shrewder, more muscular leadership could overcome these differences. But one of the reasons we’re still having this debate is that both parties are represented by men who have basically given up cajoling House Republicans. There’s really no way to know.
Here’s what’s so puzzling: When Boehner was still building his business career in Ohio, says Vanden Eynden, he was well known for being a terrific salesman. “You got paid on what you sold,” he says, “and he had enough confidence to say, ‘I can do that.’ He was very confident in his product.” Yet those very skills have deserted him in Washington. He’s a salesman who hasn’t made a sale, a speaker who’s more comfortable staying mute.