If you think golf is not only a great form of recreation or business meeting, but a grand metaphor for life and politics, if you admire people like Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford and Dick Cheney, if you hate taxes and regulation, if you like your prose heavily infused with four letter words, then you’ll like former Republican House Speaker John Boehner’s 2021 book, “On The House,” his personal and political memoir of his life and political rise to (and fall from) Speaker of the House of Representatives from 2011 to 2015.
Boehner (pronounced “Bayner” — he notes with some humor that some of his critics have called him “Boner”), was elected to Congress in 1990 and became an early co-author of Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America.” One of his first accomplishments in those days was to lead the charge to abolish the “House Bank,” a small but basically corrupt cash operation that “loaned” money to members of Congress. His more senior colleagues were not happy. “When a member of Congress saw me or one of my boys walking their way, they looked like they wanted to either strangle us on sight or jump under their desk. But I was kind of used to my colleagues hating me, so I kept right on going. I had been elected to office to do something and now I had the power to get people on my side.”
Boehner was the second of 12 children of a Catholic Democrat bar owner so he spent much of his formative years in the bar, “Andy’s Place,” in Reading, Ohio, hence the amusement of his book’s title: “On the House.” Before being elected to Congress, Boehner was a plastics salesman.
Boehner spends much of his book denouncing what started as the right-wing political movement known as the Tea Party, then became the “Freedom Caucus” and lately Trumpism, getting nuttier and more partisan with each incarnation. Boehner variously describes the Magas as “freaks,” “knuckleheads,” “kooks,” “insane,” “jackassess,” “chickenshits,” “clowns,” etc., and says he couldn’t be elected, much less become Speaker of the House, in the current version of the Republican party. “I’m not sure I belong in the Party that Trump created.” Boehner says the main thing the most Trumpists have in common is not “getting things done,” but their irrational hatred of Barack Obama.
Boehner is most proud of his work with the late Ted Kennedy to help pass George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” Act through Congress. He thinks Joe Biden is “a nice guy,” and, although he thinks President Obama was “one of the coolest customers God ever put on this Earth,” he didn’t like Obama backing out of some hand-shake political compromise deals Boehner had pre-arranged after Obama was pressured by other more partisan House Dems.
Boehner also notes that former Vice President Mike Pence, an attorney, was much more of a right-wing firebrand compared to his current pseudo-reserved style when he hosted a Limbaugh-inspired talk radio show in Indiana in the late 90s, using it as a platform for his congressional campaign and later being selected as Trump’s VP.
Politics aside, Boehner has a listenable, avuncular conversational style which, in the recorded version I listened to, sounded slightly slurred by alcohol and/or his life-long love of Camel cigarettes. One of the (unintentionally) funniest moments in the book is toward the end when he declares himself a red wine aficionado, having “matured” from beer (“too bloating”) and old fashioneds (too much sugar which is bad for your health) into merlot and chianti. Boehner isn’t joking when he trots out words like “varietal,” and “vintage,” and espouses red wine (never white, mind you) because he can sip it over long periods of time without much mental dysfunction.
Boehner admires Nancy Pelosi for her “ruthless” treatment of her fellow Congressional Democrats, which kept “their team” in lockstep when Boehner, not quite as ruthless, was unable to keep his chaotic Republican “team” together, especially when they were trying to repeal or gut the hated Obamacare.
The book’s best sections are his Congressional anecdotes.
He describes an incident in the aftermath of Boehner’s limitation of Congressional earmarks when then-Alaska Representative Don Young cornered him in a Capitol hallway and put a hunting knife to Boehner’s throat, rudely ordering Boehner never to do anything like that again. Despite that criminal assault, Boehner and Edwards went on to work together on several pieces of Republican legislation, and Boehner even served as Young’s best man at his late-in-life wedding.
Boehner has a special hatred for Senator Ted Cruz as the sponsor and cheerleader of the maga “shitshow” in Congress. “There is nothing more dangerous than a reckless asshole who thinks he’s smarter than everyone else. Ladies and Gentlemen, meet Senator Ted Cruz.” At the end of the audio version of the book, in a line which is not in the print version, Boehner abruptly shouts: “PS. Ted Cruz: Go fuck yourself!”
The best part of the book is Boehner’s insider account of Obama’s big bank bailout in 2008 and the political fallout. As one of the congressional leaders involved in the bailout discussions (Boehner was not yet House Speaker), Boehner was convinced by the Obama financial officials that if they didn’t bail out the big banks, businesses would close and “ATMs would stop working,” and therefore they had no choice but to bail out the big boys, despite many of Boehner’s fellow Republicans (especially the “Freedom Caucus”) preferring to let the banksters fall into bankruptcy for their own recklessness. Boehner says that the banksters later paid back that bailout, thus justifying it, although we have not seen any reliable accounting that there was indeed a pay back. (It’s pretty complicated. According to ProPublica the banks issued some bonds, i.e., borrowed private money, to pay back some of the interest on the bailout over the years but have not paid back any of the initial $200 billion. Wells Fargo reportedly sold some stock to pay back some of what they owe. Etc. There was no specific requirement that it be paid back. Who knows?)
Boehner described a meeting leading up to the Bailout where Obama’s presidential opponent John McCain cut short his political campaign bus tour to return to DC and weigh in on the bailout negotiations. But, according to Boehner, McCain hadn’t studied the issue or been briefed by his staff, so that when Obama pointedly asked McCain for his opinion, McCain could only offer empty rhetoric instead of cold political or financial analysis. Boehner thought that the much more clever Obama had known that McCain wasn’t very good on money matters and used the opportunity to expose McCain’s financial ignorance. All the Republican high-rollers in the meeting were disappointed. It was at this point, Boehner says, that McCain’s campaign lost its momentum and he went on to lose badly to Obama, thus pushing the Republican Party even further to the nutball right.
We found Boehner’s defense of Congressional junkets (“Condels,” i.e., congressional delegations) to be inconsistent with his otherwise no-frills style. First, he says that overseas junkets are necessary so that congresspeople can see first hand what their foreign handouts are doing. But then he goes on to describe a typical junket that was nothing more than a fancy sight-seeing world tour with no mention of what was being done with taxpayer money.
Overall, while Boehner’s book is predictably riddled with the usual Republican cliches, right-wing talking points (“entitlements” bad, etc.), and silly oversimplifications, it’s better and more interesting than its self-serving liberal equivalents and gives a decent peek into the mind and political life of a diminishing breed of pro-business, straight-shooting, blunt-talking Republicans.
Now retired and living in Florida, Boehner’s not as optimistic as he was while in office: “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.”