A Crayola Peach-Colored Speaker

The New Yorker’s Boehner profile

The New Yorker lands today with an 8,739-word look at Speaker-elect John Boehner and the challenges he faces in setting out to control “the Tea Party Congress.” Magazine staff writer Peter J. Boyer’s piece is fleshed-out, detailed stuff of a very New Yorker variety, hanging more meat onto some of the same issues covered by Michael Grunwald and Jay Newton-Small’s comprehensive Time cover profile from early November. Both articles touch on Boehner’s ties to lobbyists, the focus of a The New York Times’s September report, “A G.O.P Leader Tightly Bound to Lobbyists.” The story asserted that Boehner “maintains especially tight ties with a circle of lobbyists and former aides representing some of the nation’s biggest businesses, including Goldman Sachs, Google, Citigroup, R. J. Reynolds, MillerCoors and UPS.”

The latest life and times of John Andrew Boehner covers many of the tropes quickly becoming familiar as the media works to acquaint the public with the incoming Speaker. There are the personal tics—the love of Merlot, his Camel Light 100s, and “GTL” (Gym, Tanning, Lobbyists). There is the working-man’s bio—one of twelve children raised in a two bedroom house, he spent much of his youth working in a tavern the family owned in Cincinnati. And then there’s the transition from businessman to politician, to his place in Gingrich’s inner circle, then out of it to hard-working legislator, then minority leader, and now Speaker-elect. Mercifully, there is no mention of his overplayed tendency to tear-up.

Despite the sense that we’re treading some familiar ground here, Boyer’s piece is, as ever, more than worth a look. An expert with both politics and place, as readers of his New Yorker blog posts will attest, Boyer quite brilliantly synthesizes the recognizable and colorful chapters of Boehner’s rise with the realities he faces in the current political climate. He is also extraordinarily well sourced and scores a rare coup—he managed to get Boehner to sit down and talk. He also makes good use of Gingrich, Boehner’s family, and others.

The most interesting stuff, politically, comes towards the end, as Boyer lays out the potential tensions between the new Speaker and a more agitated trio of ambitious young GOP-ers—Republican Whip Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy, and Paul Ryan—co-authors of the book Young Guns, which is subtitled “A New Generation of Conservative Leaders.” Boyer uses the book to establish the latent fissure:

The title came from Fred Barnes, who, in a 2007 Weekly Standard cover story, named Cantor, Ryan, and McCarthy “the leader,” “the thinker,” and “the strategist” of a Republican revival. (Boehner’s name appears in the book only three times, though it was published in September, just a week before he announced what was supposed to be the defining manifesto of the Republican campaign, the glossy, forty-five-page Pledge to America. The Pledge laid out general conservative principles but, unlike Gingrich’s Contract, avoided specific to-do lists.) “Young Guns” is insistently contrite (“We lost our way when we were in the majority”), while implicitly distinguishing the authors’ generation from that of the ten-term, sixty-one-year-old Boehner: “We had a majority of people who came here to do something, and we atrophied into a majority of people who came here to be something.”

Boyer takes time to outline the individual rises, and aggressive Tea Party-friendly-and-courting positions, of the three “young guns,” and highlight the difference in style, and to an extent, ideology, between them and the man whose lead they may or may not follow.

Next to the Young Guns, Boehner can sometimes seem a bit languid. One of the criticisms of him, levelled again this summer by Joe Scarborough on the air, is that Boehner cares too much about his leisure to be an effective leader. That perception is shared across the aisle, where Barney Frank, for one, sees potential problems for a relatively weak Speaker. “He has not established himself, it seems to me, as a strong personality—people don’t think of him in that way,” Frank says. That means that the “Midwestern mainstream conservative” will be pulled to the right by a more assertively ideological caucus. “Unlike with most Speakers, now there’s more power in the caucus than in the Speaker,” Frank says.

Boehner’s friend Jim McCrery says, “He enjoys playing golf. He enjoys having a drink of Merlot. He doesn’t work eighteen hours a day. But he gets a lot done during the course of a day, when he does work. And he does delegate to staff, and he gets a lot out of his fellow-members. He’s very effective. But he is not a dynamo. Like, Newt was go-go-go-go-go, banging his fist on the table and raising his voice, and very histrionic—John’s not like that at all. So some people look at the outside John Boehner and say, ‘Golly, he’s not a dynamic leader.’ Well, he’s got a different style. But he’s not lazy. He’s very effective. And he gets results.”

Not surprisingly, a lot of the value of the profile comes from Boehner’s comments, which are more candid at times than you might expect. Though his final word on the Young Guns is fairly diplomatic:

“Hey, I was one myself, I know exactly how this works,” he says. “I told them, ‘My job is to get you guys ready to take my place.’ I’m very open about it. That’s what a good manager does, that’s what a good leader does. You’ve got to give them room to grow. You’ve got to give them room to be rebellious, from time to time. If you try to tighten down the pressure cooker too much, it’s gonna explode.”

Boehner’s comments on the group that the GOP’s young guns has been so aggressively courting—the so-called Tea Partiers and other fresh-eyed congressional newbies—are more eye-grabbing. The new Speaker veers toward condescension when he discusses how the new class will handle an inevitable vote on raising the government’s national debt ceiling, describing it as an “adult moment.”

“This is going to be probably the first really big adult moment” for the new Republican majority, Boehner told me. “You can underline ‘adult.’ And for people who’ve never been in politics it’s going to be one of those growing moments. It’s going to be difficult, I’m certainly well aware of that. But we’ll have to find a way to help educate members and help people understand the serious problem that would exist if we didn’t do it.”

The “adult” motif runs through the piece.

Finally, one of the more valuable sources in the profile is Boehner’s brother Bob. He’s frank on a number of issues, including his brother’s famous skin tone. For Boehner tan-watchers, the mystery is finally solved.

At the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner last year, President Obama joked that Boehner was “a person of color, although not a color that appears in the natural world.” This fall, Bob Boehner explained to me, “This whole thing about the tan—besides John, there’s three other brothers and a sister who are very dark-complected. Even in March and April, they look like they’ve been out in the sun all day.” Eventually, Boehner told the Wall Street Journal, “I have never been in a tanning bed or used a tanning product.” By the transition period, Boehner had either been staying off the golf courses or applying gobs of sunblock, as his skin tone had softened noticeably to a commonplace Crayola peach.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.