At the end of the audio version of John Boehner’s book, the former Republican speaker of the US House of Representatives ad-libs a closing line: “PS, Ted Cruz: Go fuck yourself.” Given Boehner’s fondness for swearing, he might as well have put that into the printed version.
Fans of Cruz, the Texan Republican senator with a pyromaniac’s taste in politics, will not approve of Boehner’s memoir. That may limit sales of On the House in America’s Bible belt. Everyone else will lap it up.
“There is nothing more dangerous than a reckless asshole who thinks he is smarter than everyone else,” writes Boehner. “Ladies and gentlemen, meet Senator Ted Cruz.” To be fair, others got there first. In his equally amusing memoir, Al Franken, the former late night comedian-turned Minnesota Democrat senator, wrote: “I like Ted Cruz more than most of my colleagues like Ted Cruz. And I hate Ted Cruz.”
Yet Cruz is only a figurehead for Boehner’s more general unhappiness with the condition of today’s Republican party. As a former lieutenant in Newt Gingrich’s “new model” Republicans during the 1990s, Boehner’s profession of pragmatic conservatism might seem belated. Many date the origins of Cruz-style conservatism to those days.
But the former Ohio congressman, with a taste for Camel cigarettes and Merlot, makes an impassioned case that the real shift took place in 2010 when the anti-tax Tea Party insurgents helped deliver a Republican victory in President Barack Obama’s first mid-term elections. Unfortunately for Boehner, in early 2011 he became speaker, the leader of the House. The majority he led was not interested in cutting deals with Obama — as Boehner was. They wanted to blow the town up.
That meant that Boehner, the second of 12 children of a Cincinnati bar owner, was often forced to submit to the mob he wanted to lead. For nearly five years Boehner tried to negotiate old-style deals with the White House while attempting to corral a Republican party that saw any kind of compromise as a sellout. His efforts amounted to an almost continuous noble failure. The former plastics salesman grew increasingly alienated from the stunt politics championed by talk radio conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh, who had once been an ally. “I was being denounced by the [rightwing] talk-show circuit as if I were a hippie with flip-flops and beads plotting a socialist takeover of America,” Boehner writes.
This must have been galling to a figure who had been a leading shock trooper for small government during the Clinton era. Though Boehner says he now regrets having voted to impeach Bill Clinton in 1998, nobody then saw him as a moderate. But judgments change. Today Boehner personifies old-fashioned conservative traits of honour and duty — laced with a mild dose of Tourette’s syndrome.
One of the more entertaining aspects of Boehner’s disarmingly funny book is the range of monikers he uses for the Tea Party, the Freedom Caucus and ultimately Trumpian Republicans who made his life so hard. Collectively he calls them the “knucklehead caucus”. At other times they are “wild-eyed crazies”, “kooks”, “lunatics”, “jackasses”, “chickenshits” and plenty more. Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice-presidential candidate “was kind of a folk hero of the freak show set”.
They turned Obama’s second term into a hellish game of chicken in which the US debt ceiling and government funding were held hostage to the forlorn demand that the president abolish his healthcare reform. Obama — “the coolest customer God ever put on this earth” — had little sympathy for Boehner’s travails. “These guys had no clue what kind of clown car I was trying to drive on the Republican side of the House,” Boehner writes.
Half measures have a habit of turning into full ones, as Boehner’s bar-owning father would attest. So it should have been no surprise that Trump was the end result of a party that had long since lost interest in governing. In Boehner’s telling, all of this just sort of happened. There is precious little analysis of how a party that once cheered Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America” could embrace nightfall with such passion. And in spite of everything, he again voted for Trump last year.
What Boehner lacks in introspection, he makes up with irreverence. He has a taste for one-liners that blend the folksy with the sweary, which he calls Boehnerisms. Among the highlights are: “If my aunt had balls she’d be my uncle”; “there’s a fine line between stupidity and courage”; and “as lucky as a dog with two dicks”. As regards the future of America, Boehner says: “We’re about halfway through a double-decker shit sandwich, served up to us by an outrage-driven media and a self-interested political class.” It is hard not to enjoy a memoir like this.
On the House: A Washington Memoir, by John Boehner, St Martin’s Press, RRP$14.99, 304 pages
Edward Luce is the FT’s US national editor
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