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The Speaker Is Mute But Not Unintelligible

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Maybe the most important clue to the puzzle of John Boehner is staring us in the face: John Boehner is speaker of the House. Still. Despite everything. It is very easy to judge his tenure as weak and vulnerable, but another interpretation is that it is astonishingly durable, given the circumstances. It’s doubtful that most people, faced with the dire internal politics of Boehner’s job, would hang on as long as he has.

On the Hill, people like to compare Boehner to Mad Men’s Don Draper. The point is that he’s of another era, fond of cigarettes and pretty women and cocktails (or Merlot, in the speaker’s case) yet in some ways forever a fifties square. As a businessman, Boehner was even in plastics, the very prospect of which made Dustin Hoffman’s character in The Graduate do a face-plant in the family pool. Boehner was roughly the same age as Hoffman’s character in 1967. Boehner, though, didn’t have the same luxury of contempt. His parents didn’t have a pool and couldn’t pay for college.

The real reason that Boehner is so reminiscent of Don Draper has little to do with booze and cigarettes. It’s that he’s a creature of his own invention—and, like Don, carries both vestiges of where he came from and an unabashed taste for the stuff he’s earned. In Washington, Boehner may seem like an improbable speaker—too laid-back for the job, devoid of the hungry striver’s metabolism one finds in so many politicians. (“Born with extra glands,” as Jack Valenti once said of LBJ.) But Boehner does have it, if you look at where he started and where he is now. He grew up the second of twelve children, in Reading, Ohio, in a house with just two bedrooms and one bathroom. His dad owned a bar, Andy’s Café, and John, like most of the kids, wound up working there in some way or another until he left the house.

Most of Boehner’s siblings remain clustered around Reading. Boehner was one of just two to get a four-year-college degree, much less leave the state. “John had more ambition than the rest of us,” says Stephen, the third Boehner, born one year after John. “If he wanted a nicer car, he went out and got a nicer car.” The speaker’s ambition showed up mostly outside the classroom. He was willing to take a lot of extra jobs to upgrade his life—as a roofer, a janitor, a detailer of cars. He always dressed nicely. “Always, John wanted to look good,” says Vanden Eynden. “I don’t think he even wore blue jeans much. He wore cologne.”

Boehner may sometimes appear weak and passive. But beneath that passive exterior, he, like many self-created people, is exerting a great deal of unseen energy trying to preserve himself. From nearly the moment Boehner arrived in Congress in 1991, it was clear that he wanted to be speaker, probably for the same reasons he wanted a nicer car and better clothes: Up was the place to go, his natural trajectory. In 1994, he was voted chairman of the House Republican conference, and quickly became known as one of Gingrich’s craftiest lieutenants, regarded almost as warily as Eric Cantor is now. When Newt was forced out in 1998, Boehner was the only one in leadership to be taken down with him—that’s how treacherous he was considered—and out of leadership he stayed until 2006, when he returned as majority leader.

This experience makes Boehner a rare breed in Washington, one of the few politicians who know what it is to lose power but remain on the job. He had to find a means to occupy himself and save face—which by all accounts he did, becoming chairman of the House’s education committee and passing No Child Left Behind with Ted Kennedy, but the experience clearly stung. And the question is: Could Boehner bear losing his leadership position again?

It seems unlikely. The speaker’s golfing and dining with lobbyists may be the stuff of cliché, but they’re also his life; this is what he does, who he is, what his existence has become. Unlike Dole (who was educated on the G.I. bill), he didn’t enter government with much sympathy for it, and he’s not the party’s heir apparent to the presidency. There’s nothing left to reach for. So this is the gripping drama taking place in Washington this summer: a slow-motion tragedy of a man forsaking everything for a lousy job, a job that no sane outsider would ever want, but that he can’t afford to lose.


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