The Washington Post Sunday

When John Boehner drove the GOP’s “clown car.”

- Kathy Kiely is the Lee Hill chair in free press studies at the Missouri School of Journalism. She was a longtime congressio­nal correspond­ent.

Most political memoirs these days are staid, buttoned-down affairs, written with an eye on a higher office or a place in history. Leave it to former House speaker John Boehner to drop the airbrush. The 71-year-old Ohio Republican’s autobiogra­phy, “On the House,” is already a talker, even before its publicatio­n next week. It’s got plenty of grist for Washington’s gossip mill — now-it-can-be-told tales and score-settling stories. More important, it’s an insider, as-it-happened account of a disturbing and still-unfinished chapter of American history.

Boehner’s more than three decades in public life coincide with his party’s rise to national majority status during the 1980s and ’90s — powered by Ronald Reagan’s takeover of one end of Pennsylvan­ia Avenue and Newt Gingrich’s of the other — followed by its degenerati­on into a vehicle for White grievance that, as a clearly dismayed Boehner describes it in this unvarnishe­d account, borders on the psychotic. “I was living in Crazytown,” Boehner writes of his years leading the House Republican­s in the 2000s. The House Republican Conference was “a clown car I was trying to drive.” His party’s loss of the White House in 2008 only made things worse. “Every second of every day since Barack Obama became president, I was fighting one bats--- idea after another.”

There’s an odd and poignant disconnect between the book’s tone and its unsettling subtext. The voice is warm, engaging, occasional­ly profane — that of a guy who just plopped down on a bar stool next to you, fortified with a glass of his beloved merlot and an unfiltered Camel (both of which feature prominentl­y in Boehner’s portrait on the cover of the book), to tell you about a bunch of interestin­g people, most of whom he genuinely likes, and an amazing career that he’s still pinching himself to make sure he really had.

It’s as if Boehner himself hasn’t quite processed the transforma­tion of the sunny “morning in America” Republican­s he joined in the 1980s into the dark conspiracy theorists who dog-whistled a mob to the Capitol on Jan. 6.

The former speaker doesn’t equivocate when it comes to laying the blame for that. Donald Trump “incited that bloody insurrecti­on for nothing more than selfish reasons,” Boehner writes, adding, “It was especially sad to see some members of the House and Senate helping him.”

His assessment­s of other members of what he dubs “the Knucklehea­d caucus” are, if anything, more withering.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) is the “head lunatic.” Two House conservati­ves turned senior Trump administra­tion officials, Mick Mulvaney and Mark Meadows, get lumped under the sobriquet “jackass.” Former congressma­n Steve King (R-Iowa), a leader of the GOP’s anti-immigrant wing, is “an a--hole.” Former representa­tive Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), now the dean of the school of government at Regent University, was “a kook” (whom, Boehner confides, he nonetheles­s steered to the House Intelligen­ce Committee to keep her off the tax-writing Ways and Means panel). The false “birther” theories fomented about Obama by Republican­s and conservati­ve talk show hosts were “truly nutty.”

Boehner’s disdain for the ideologica­l purists who took over his party and eventually drove him to resign the speakershi­p and his House seat in 2015 is not exactly breaking news: He called for Trump to resign after the Jan. 6 putsch and rehearsed many of his book’s themes in a lengthy 2017 Politico Magazine interview with Tim Alberta, now with the Atlantic. Still, having his excoriatin­g assessment­s collected between hard covers makes for a powerful indictment, the more so because Boehner’s book vividly captures the growing horror of a bartender’s kid who evolved from a reflexive Democrat to a Reagan Republican to a tea party whipping boy.

Boehner describes one trip he made to New York to meet with “my longtime friend, Roger Ailes.” He says he pleaded with the then-head of Fox News “to put a leash on some of the crazies he was putting on the air.” In response, he says, Ailes stunned him by sharing a series of complex conspiracy theories involving Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and the financier George Soros, and confiding that he had a “safe room” where the government couldn’t spy on him. “I walked out of the meeting in a daze,” Boehner writes.

Recalling his frantic efforts to round up enough Republican­s to approve President George W. Bush’s emergency bailout bill in 2008, as the world teetered on the edge of financial collapse, Boehner says that too many of his colleagues “cared more about what Sean Hannity thought than the secretary of the Treasury.”

Boehner, who says Reagan inspired him to make his first run for office — a 1981 campaign for a seat on his local township board — insists that today’s GOP has abandoned them both. “I don’t even think I could get elected in today’s Republican Party,” he writes, “just like I don’t think Ronald Reagan could either.”

Arriving in Congress in 1991, Boehner was, by his own descriptio­n, a bomb-thrower. As a freshman, he upset (deservedly) leaders of both parties by inveighing against the corrupt House Bank and “earmarks” — special deals that powerful lawmakers worked to get funding for pet projects in their districts. Boehner joined the Conservati­ve Opportunit­y Society, the first in a series of increasing­ly ideologica­l GOP sub-caucuses. The difference between that and today’s Freedom Caucus, Boehner says: “We even worked with and liked many members of the opposition party.”

That and some schooling from former president Gerald Ford, a longtime House member whom Boehner bonded with over their mutual love of golf, turned the young Turk into a seasoned dealmaker.

By his own account, Boehner’s signal accomplish­ment as a member of Congress was the No Child Left Behind Act. Bush signed the landmark legislatio­n in 2002 after intensive negotiatio­ns with Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and the equally liberal Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.). Boehner, then the head of the House Education and Labor Committee, delivers a blow-by-blow account of how the unlikely foursome worked together to foil efforts to torpedo the deal by ideologues in both of their parties, including Bush’s vice president, Dick Cheney. It was arguably the last major piece of social legislatio­n to win wide bipartisan support in Congress.

His biggest disappoint­ments, Boehner says, were failures to reach similarly sweeping pacts on immigratio­n and spending with Obama. While he puts a good deal of blame on the former president, who, he writes, “could come off as lecturing and haughty,” Boehner also recognizes that he was often not in the best negotiatin­g position. The takeover of his GOP conference by “far-right knucklehea­ds” who were “radicalize­d by blind Obama hatred” would have made it hard for him to deliver votes.

A onetime opponent of legalized marijuana, Boehner now serves on the board of a cannabis company. So far, he says, he hasn’t inhaled, but “I’m not ruling it out.” For Boehner, opportunit­y and personal chemistry have always trumped ideology. One of the book’s most tantalizin­g stories is about how, in 1996, Boehner initiated a secret negotiatio­n to have Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia give up his lifetime appointmen­t to become Bob Dole’s running mate on the GOP presidenti­al ticket.

Boehner, who was convinced that this would be just the thing to vault Dole over Bill Clinton into the White House, describes trying to cut the deal in a backroom of A.V. Ristorante, an unpreposse­ssing D.C. Italian joint since shouldered aside by the fancy developmen­t along the New York Avenue corridor. It’s an interestin­g thought experiment, to say the least, to consider how history might have changed had Dole not gone with Jack Kemp and instead created another vacancy for Clinton to fill on the nation’s highest court. But for Boehner what mattered was how he and his new friend — “Call me Nino” — bonded over red wine and an anchovy and pepperoni pizza.

The old-school pol was not without blind spots. On summertime cross-country bus trips with other Congress members to campaign and raise money for promising GOP candidates, golf clubs and fishing rods were always packed in the hold, and, Boehner writes without a hint of embarrassm­ent, there was just one rule: “No girls allowed on the bus.” Good luck to the women who wanted to rise up the ranks of House GOP leadership. This may partially explain why there have always been so few of them.

Mostly, Boehner is clear-eyed about his weaknesses and knows how to compensate for them. He describes how he used “colorful language that probably wasn’t appropriat­e” to chew out Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty — then a congressio­nal correspond­ent for Time magazine — after she asked him a pointed question as he emerged from a private meeting that hadn’t gone well. The remorse was immediate, particular­ly after he saw she was pregnant. “I apologized to her right then and I apologized pretty much every time I saw her for the next ten years,” he writes.

Boehner makes no apologies and offers no explanatio­ns for failing to call out his party’s destructiv­e elements sooner. He says the GOP will have to purge itself of a faction that now includes “everyone from garden-variety whack jobs to insurrecti­onists” if it wants to survive. “I hope to do my part, even in retirement,” he adds. Boehner offers no plan for how to accomplish this. But he does have one recommenda­tion for American voters: “You can vote to send people there to represent you who actually want to get things done instead of hucksters making pie-in-the-sky promises or legislativ­e terrorists just looking to go to Washington and blow everything up,” he writes.

We can all raise a glass of merlot to that.

 ?? MELINA MARA/THE WASHINGTON POST ?? Former House speaker John Boehner colorfully recalls his career in Washington and criticizes the Republican Party’s transforma­tion from Reaganism to Trumpism.
MELINA MARA/THE WASHINGTON POST Former House speaker John Boehner colorfully recalls his career in Washington and criticizes the Republican Party’s transforma­tion from Reaganism to Trumpism.
 ??  ?? ON THE HOUSE A Washington Memoir By John Boehner St. Martin’s. 266 pp. $29.99
ON THE HOUSE A Washington Memoir By John Boehner St. Martin’s. 266 pp. $29.99

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