On The House by John Boehner
The former Speaker dishes on his time - and on his colleagues - in Congress
I’ll readily admit that I read this primarily because I wanted to hear what he had to dish on other politicians. In that way this book was like People magazine or TMZ - a tabloid but for politics. The early reviews did not disappoint and in fact, the back of the book highlights his best barbs. Starting with everyone’s favorite politician in DC, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) of whom Boehner has this to say: There is nothing more dangerous than a reckless asshole who thinks he is smarter than everyone else.
In this memoir, Boehner talks about his childhood, growing up as one of a dozen kids living in a cramped but loving home in Ohio. An upbringing where he worked hard at his family restaurant, was the linebacker for his high school football and was headed in all likelihood for a ‘regular’ midwestern life. His political life began with him running for a township trustee position.
From there he talks about going on to becoming an Ohio state congressman and eventually to him getting elected to the US House of Representatives in 1990, and into leadership roles once in the house. And that’s when his life really began to get exciting! The first big lurch seems to come with Newt Gingrich leading the Republicans to a huge majority in 1994 in the Bill Clinton era. Fortunately for Gingrich, the unkindest thing Boehner has to say about him is his taste (or lack thereof) in ties.
Boehner’s honest about the awe he feels at the highest levels of power, and the episode with the Pope is one that is easy to empathize with. He is honest about his love for drinking and cigarettes and, of course, his well-known love for golf. And he’s happy to admit to doing something few politicians would: crying in public when emotionally overcome. And doing so frequently.
With all that said, I was hoping for a little more introspection about his own role in the direction the GOP took starting with the 2008 recession and the election of Barack Obama as president. Instead, he seems like he’s a hapless observer for the most part as newly elected members begin to twist his arm and threaten to ‘go on Hannity’ to complain if he doesn’t oblige. One would have hoped that a person occupying a post as important as Speaker of the House (next only to the Vice President in the order of succession) might try to flex his muscle more in the face of what he himself frequently describes as ‘Crazytown’. And not just for the sake of his own ego but also for the country and the broader historical context. There is a folksy aphorism he quotes: A leader without a following is just a guy taking a walk which he uses a a fig leaf for going along with his caucus even on issues he disagreed with. A true leader is more likely to sacrifice the following they have rather than their principles.
Instead Boehner missed the chance then to stand up to what he clearly believed, even at that time, to be wrong and he misses the chance now to be self-aware about that. Instead he tries to placate the reader by dishing on pretty much every prominent leader in congress during his time. If there was a mea culpa somewhere in the book, I missed it.
It was as if your friend, a 3rd grade teacher, asked you to manage her classroom for a few hours as she ran an errand. And of course it was going to be crazy town because none of the kids listened to you and things got more and more raucous and all you had to say in your defense later after the building burned down was that you were just a good ol’ chap doing your best but what could you even do when li’l Bobby the pyromanic refused to hand over the matchbox when you asked nicely? And now imagine it wasn’t a substitute teacher but the principal who came up with that excuse.
That disappointment apart, this is a fun, easy read and there is some vicarious pleasure reading about plenty of prominent politicians getting skewered by Boehner. This book is not the deep and thoughtful dive into recent political history told from a unique perspective that it could have been. Instead, it is a bunch of interesting and folksy anecdotes.
(Book cover courtesy of goodreads.com)