John Boehner, Matt Gaetz, and government by right-wing media

On Friday, Politico published an excerpt from On the House, a forthcoming memoir by John Boehner, the Republican former House speaker, that, in Politico’s words, is the story of “how America’s center-right party started to lose its mind, as told by the man who tried to keep it sane.” The excerpt made quite a splash. Politico’s Playbook team called it “juicy,” and noted that the book’s cover—which shows a crisply-suited Boehner with a goblet of red wine in his hand and tendrils of cigarette smoke wafting up from an ashtray to his left—is “very Don Draper.” Journalists admired the tightness of Boehner’s lede: “You could be a total moron and get elected just by having an R next to your name—and [in 2010], by the way, we did pick up a fair number in that category.” Jonathan Swan, of Axios, reported that in “wine-soaked” recording sessions for his audiobook, Boehner went off-script to “insert random violent attacks on Ted Cruz”; by way of receipts, Swan tweeted a clip of Boehner waxing lyrical about freedom, then telling Cruz to “go fuck yourself.” The clip was replayed on TV, under bleeps of various lengths.

Boehner sees right-wing media as a key factor in his party’s mind loss, and it’s a central theme of the Politico excerpt. “When I was first elected to Congress, we didn’t have any propaganda organization for conservatives, except maybe a magazine or two like National Review,” he writes. “There was no Drudge Report. No Breitbart. No kooks on YouTube spreading dangerous nonsense like they did every day about Obama.” This started to change, in Boehner’s conception, when Mark Levin started spouting such “crazy nonsense” on the radio, scoring ratings and eventually dragging Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh “to Looneyville” along with Boehner’s “longtime friend” Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News who, Boehner writes, “got swept into the conspiracies and the paranoia and became an almost unrecognizable figure.” (Fox’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, by contrast, was “a businessman, pure and simple,” who didn’t appear to entertain the conspiracies but “clearly didn’t have a problem with them if they helped ratings.”) Boehner accuses Republicans elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010 of aiming not to govern, but to get on Fox, and accuses Fox, in turn, of “creating the wrong incentives” by “making people who used to be fringe characters into powerful media stars.” An early “prototype out of their laboratory,” Boehner writes, was then-Rep. Michele Bachmann, who once said she’d squeal to Hannity if Boehner denied her a post on the House Ways and Means Committee.

New from CJR: ‘All I need is a pen, paper and the First Amendment’

Since the excerpt appeared, some commentators have drawn a straight line from Boehner’s warnings to another Republican lawmaker who is in the news at the moment: Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Trump ally who represents a district in Florida. “The widening Matt Gaetz scandal,” CNN’s Brian Stelter said, “is proving John Boehner right.” The specifics of that scandal—which involve allegations of underage sex, sex trafficking, and drug use against Gaetz; allegations of extortion made by Gaetz against others; and a Justice Department probe—are too mind-bending to explain here. (Gaetz, amid many weird statements to journalists, has denied wrongdoing.)

But Gaetz is practically a textbook Boehnerian example of a relatively junior GOP lawmaker riding conservative media attention to stardom. The Washington Post found recently that Gaetz has clocked nearly fifty hours of airtime on Fox since he was elected to Congress, in 2017, amid many appearances on other right-wing platforms, including the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’s radio show. In July, Politico reported that Gaetz installed a TV studio at his father’s home, with taxpayers footing the bill for the camera. “If you aren’t making news, you aren’t governing,” he wrote, in a book that came out last year. “The hairdressers and makeup ladies and cameramen pick our presidents. As well they should. They are closer to the viewers and therefore the voters.” The first day of the Gaetz scandal, last Tuesday, began with Axios reporting that he was considering quitting Congress to take a job at Newsmax, and ended with a Fox hit that his interlocutor, Tucker Carlson, described as “one of the weirdest interviews I’ve ever conducted.”

Happily for Boehner, he and Gaetz are, indeed, very different creatures. But they aren’t, as some coverage has implied, at opposite poles of a sane-crazy continuum. Progressive critics have pointed out that Boehner failed, at minimum, to rein in the Gaetzes of the world when he was speaker. “Boehner’s I-Was-Just-a-Feather-in-the-Gales-of-Crazy act gets a little wearisome for those of us who lived through it,” Esquire’s Charles P. Pierce wrote Friday. “If there’s any evidence that John Boehner tried to arrest the prion disease before it took over his caucus, and then his entire political party, it was not evident in his performance as Speaker.” On MSNBC, Mehdi Hasan accused Boehner of trying to ride the Tea Party wave for political advantage. “The reason we are where we are today is because these ‘old school Republicans’ didn’t stand up to the crazies,” Hasan said. “Now the crazies are ascendant, and John Boehner wants to be celebrated for calling them crazy. For now finally calling it like it is. Well—too little, too late.”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Nor was Boehner quite a helpless victim of right-wing media culture. He has complained of partisan “echo chambers” while also touting his longstanding relationships with Ailes, Hannity, and other flamethrowers who may have moved farther to “the dark side,” but were hardly Jedi Knights to begin with. In his book excerpt, Boehner recalls meeting with Ailes “to plead with him to put a leash on some of the crazies he was putting on the air.” According to a prior account of the meeting, in Tim Alberta’s book American Carnage, Boehner’s pleading came with a “sweetener”—advance knowledge of the Congressional probe he would shortly be launching to investigate the 2012 attacks on the US compound in Benghazi, Libya, and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s handling of them. Benghazi, of course, has long been a Fox obsession; Trey Gowdy, the then-Republican Congressman who headed the probe, has since become a contributor and host on the network. Boehner recalls phoning Hannity in 2015 and questioning his coverage—not, apparently, by citing moral objections, but to find out “why he kept bashing House Republicans when we were actually trying to stand up to Obama.” When Bachmann demanded a plum post on Ways and Means under threat of right-wing media reprisals, Boehner said no. He helped find her a seat on the House Intelligence Committee instead.

It’s worth noting, too, that Boehner is no stranger to cultivating an image in the media. This isn’t the first time he’s spoken out since quitting Congress; he was candid, too, in a 2017 Politico profile that was written by Alberta and littered with photos of Boehner golfing, playing with his lawnmower at home, and lying back in an armchair, cigarette in hand. The cover of his new book evokes the pleasures of retirement, too, as well as a certain nostalgia for country-club Republicanism and deals cut in (literally) smoke-filled rooms—a nostalgia to which many journalists and pundits have proven themselves susceptible. Some recent coverage of Boehner (including Alberta’s) has been insightful, to be sure. But we should be careful not to put Boehner in the past tense and Gaetz in the present, with a bright dividing line in between. And we should avoid saying that Boehner is only now “free to speak his mind.” Powerful people always are.

Below, more on the right:

  • “Bad, bad, bad, bad, bad”: After the New York Times first reported on the investigation targeting him last week, Gaetz went on a media blitz, confirming the probe and airing his counterclaims of extortion. This wasn’t unusual for Gaetz—but the subjects of federal investigations don’t typically comment before charges are filed, and legal experts told Bart Jansen and Kevin Johnson, of USA Today, that Gaetz may have complicated matters for himself by speaking out now. “It’s very dangerous because it paints him into a particular story, which later facts may show he’s not telling the truth about,” Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor, said. “It’s a bad, bad, bad, bad, bad idea legally.”
  • Riggle room: Jeremy W. Peters, of the Times, profiles Denver Riggleman, a former Republican Congressman who lost his seat last year, and is now trying to combat the disinformation and conspiracies gripping his party. “The undoing of Mr. Riggleman—and now his unlikely crusade—is revealing about a dimension of conservative politics today,” Peters writes. “The fight against radicalism within the GOP is a deeply lonely one, waged mostly by Republicans like him who are no longer in office, and by the small handful of elected officials who have decided that they are willing to speak up even if it means that they, too, could be headed for an early retirement.”
  • Another new memoir: Hunter Biden, son of Joe, is also out with a memoir—and according to Maureen Dowd, of the Times, its opening scene features Gaetz trashing Hunter’s struggles with drug addiction on TV. Hunter uses the book to address problems in his personal life, and also his central place in right-wing media campaigns targeting his father. Today, Hunter is being interviewed by Anthony Mason, on CBS This Morning.
  • Meanwhile, at Fox: In his column for the Times, Ben Smith profiles Viet Dinh, who he calls “the lawyer behind the throne” at Fox. “Two former Fox employees and one current and one former Fox News employee familiar with his role painted him as the omnipresent and decisive right hand of a chief executive [Lachlan Murdoch] who is not particularly hands-on,” Smith writes. “While Mr. Dinh is not running day-to-day programming, he manages the political operation of a company that is the central pillar of Republican politics, and he’s a key voice on corporate strategy.” (Dinh has previously denied that he is anything more than an in-house counsel at Fox.)


Other notable stories:

ICYMI: A traumatic news cycle for journalists and audiences

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.