It’s His Party and He’ll Cry If He Wants To

John Boehner’s Republicans are on the verge of a nervous breakdown. You’d cry too, if it happened to you.

The snow had been falling all morning in big quilted flakes when John Boehner walked into the fusty and formidably chandeliered grand ballroom at the Capital Hilton. It was mid-January and the minority leader of the United States House of Representatives was slated to deliver the keynote address at the second day of the Republican National Committee’s winter meetings. But Washington traffic had been backed up, and an early conference call with the White House ran long, and now he was scurrying into a seat while his two-person U.S. Marshal security detail stood watch at one of the exits. As Boehner situated himself, Jo Ann Davidson, a former speaker of the Ohio statehouse and current cochair of the RNC, was recalling their years together in Columbus. “We were in the minority then in the Ohio House of Representatives,” Davidson said, “pretty deeply in the minority, I’d say, and John was the ranking Republican member of the commerce and labor committee. It was fun to sit back and watch all the trouble that he gave the Democrats who started messing around with the American free enterprise system.”

When Davidson finally called Boehner to the podium, the applause wasn’t exactly thundering but the audience rose to its feet. At that moment, with the Republican presidential nominee still uncertain and George W. Bush little more than a millstone around the party’s neck, Boehner was in more than just title the Republican leader. All eyes were—and are—on him to figure a way out of a mess that could well banish his party to the political hinterlands for years to come. “He’s critical for the long-term health of the Republican Party,” says John Kasich, the former Ohio congressman and Fox News personality. “If he fails at this—which I don’t think he will—but if he fails at this, the party fails.”

Boehner stood crisp and gleaming on the stage, looking like a bank manager back from two weeks in Barbados. His style of dress evinces the power of a corporate boardroom: a well-pressed white shirt (which he washes and irons himself), a well-tailored dark suit, and a well-dimpled power tie. The chandelier lights glinted off his tightly coiffed, dark brown hair and warmed his unseasonably tanned face. Here was a man of status, a creature who might well have popped out of an injection mold in GOP headquarters. The image truly clicked when Boehner began to talk, his voice deep and smoky, sounding as if he were blowing his words through a bassoon.

He recapped his party’s success of the previous 12 months, insofar as he optimistically conceived it, and delivered his speech with a confidence and poise that would have been impossible to muster the previous year, when he addressed this conference on the heels of the Republicans’ staggering 2006 election defeats. But then there came a jarring fracture in this picture of perfect command and orderliness. At an applause break a few minutes into his prepared remarks, Boehner reached into his trouser pocket, pulled out a white handkerchief, and blew his nose. A loud, wounded-goose heeee-yonk. There was something quite captivating about this—the incongruousness of it, the unpretentiousness of it. The hankie would be summoned again about 10 minutes later, as the speech crawled to its conclusion.

“I continue to believe that America’s best days are ahead, not behind,” Boehner said, his voice beginning to wobble and crack. “And I came here to ensure that my kids and their kids continue to have a better shot at the American dream than I did. The challenge is: Will we as a party and we as a nation do what we have to do in order to ensure that a brighter future is ahead for all our kids?”

The audience stood once more and applauded, but only Boehner seemed overcome with emotion. He walked off the stage dabbing his eyes with his handkerchief, and if you weren’t familiar with his history of public waterworks, you probably would have been a bit stunned by the scene of a man crying—in particular, this man crying—at such a drab affair.

“I never get too excited and I never get too down,” Boehner told me two weeks later in his office in the U.S. Capitol. “I don’t know why, I just don’t. But I was a pretty happy camper right before Christmas after what had been a very tough year. I would argue it was the most effective year any minority party has had in the 18 years I’ve been here.”

It takes an impressive reservoir of positivity—or cunning—to deliver such an upbeat assessment when your party is so clearly in the doghouse. But as the words spilled out, Boehner sat steady as a statue, the only motion coming from his left arm, which shepherded a cigarette between his mouth and an ashtray. An inveterate smoker, Boehner would go through four more in the next hour while an air purifier hummed beside him. He has made a few attempts to quit smoking, but the inclination has never taken hold. He has come to accept this failing. He is who he is, he says.

And who is that, exactly? First and foremost, John Boehner is an organization man, and his one-and-a-half year reign as Republican leader on Capitol Hill has distinguished itself most by its emphasis on managerialism. Back in Cincinnati, in his pre-political life, Boehner’s success derived from bringing order to chaos. Like many before him, he came to Washington viewing government as a dysfunctional business that he was determined to fix. But history has affirmed over and over that disruption and disorder have their beneficiaries, and few contemporary politicians on either side of the aisle know this better than Boehner, who has ascended the Republican ranks in the midst of some bewildering political turbulence.

If former Ohio Congressman Donald “Buz” Lukens hadn’t been caught having sex with a minor 18 years ago, Boehner might very well not be in Congress at all. And if Florida Congressman Mark Foley hadn’t been caught sending sexually explicit messages to Congressional pages…and Jack Abramoff hadn’t been caught bribing politicians…and Tom DeLay hadn’t been caught up in conspiracy charges—in short, if the Republican Party hadn’t seen its best-laid plans go up in scandalous smoke over the last two years, then Boehner likely wouldn’t now be in leadership, let alone the minority leader. But here he is, the top Republican in the House, with the potential to either be a modern political paladin or a goat for the second time in his career.

Boehner has been a hard man for members of his own party to peg. Philosophically he is a committed right-winger; The National Journal rated his voting record as one of the most conservative of any House member last year. And yet at times he has bristled at encroaching conservative ideologues and taken issue with the social wedge issues they’ve pushed. “I’ve been endorsed by Right-to-Life in every election I’ve run,” Boehner says, by way of example. “I’ve told thousands of audiences, ‘I’m sure it wasn’t convenient for my mother to have 12 of us. But I’m sure glad she did.’ I’m Catholic; I believe life begins at conception. But I don’t talk about it unless people bring it up because it’s a divisive issue in American society.”

Boehner was never more upset about Washington than on the night when Republicans in the House tried to intervene in the Terri Schiavo end-of-life case in March 2005. “We should not have involved ourselves,” he sternly asserts. “I am a common sense Midwest Republican. I am not an ideologue in any way, shape, or form.”

Perhaps he’s not, but Boehner has had his moments of strident partisanship. After all, he made his bones as a backbench hellion in Newt Gingrich’s army. But after enduring the disjointedness of Gingrich’s reign as Speaker, and then being shoved to the sidelines by the ravenously power-hungry DeLay, Boehner looked forward to bringing some good old-fashioned order and calm to the leadership. So far, his adjustments have been modest but consequential. He instituted a daily leadership meeting to rave reviews—a morning bull session at which minority whip Roy Blunt of Missouri, conference chairman Adam Putnam of Florida, and National Republican Congressional Committee chairman Tom Cole of Oklahoma, among others, discuss party business and strategize mission plans. Unlike his one-time mentor, Boehner preaches inclusiveness; he’s not opposed to hearing other people’s ideas. And having previously served as conference chairman under Gingrich—that is, the head of party PR for the House—he places great emphasis on consistency and continuity in the party’s message. “He sympathizes with the challenges embedded with this job,” says Putnam. “He basically walked in my moccasins. We have had an opportunity to have his ear and total support.”

Tapping his own business DNA, Boehner recently launched a somewhat amorphous “re-branding” initiative—soberly dubbed “Reasons to Believe”—to associate Republicanism with more positive ideas than, say, Jack Abramoff. An article in Roll Call in April reported that the party would roll out an agenda “based on plans for tax relief, health care, border security, energy, and earmarks,” and quoted Boehner as likening it more to a “refurbishing” than a re-branding. As part of this undertaking, he brought in the man who created General Electric’s “We Bring Good Things to Life” marketing campaign as a consultant. Members say it has helped to reboot the party’s mindset. And, remarkably, Boehner’s managed to engage these issues without enraging his colleagues.

Boehner likes to say that he’s just a regular guy with an important job. He prefers that no one address him as “Congressman” but instead call him “John” or simply “Boehner.” Close friends and colleagues, President Bush among them, endearingly refer to him as “Boner.” “His willingness to poke fun at himself helps,” says Rep. Thad McCotter of Michigan, chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee. “A lot of times when you have people in leadership positions, because of the [time] crunch and all the other pressures, they tend to be so focused on things. For Boehner there is a sense of proportion. He’s able to joke about himself.”

Despite all the choruses of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” Boehner is well-versed in the realities of Capitol Hill: Those who operate most effectively do not squelch chaos, they manage it. He may be atop his party, but his party is in the minority, so he must find a wedge through which his party can reclaim power. Which is why his theatrical efforts at disruption grabbed attention last year, even as they left some wondering if he’d been co-opted by the same partisan single-mindedness he criticized.

Last August, during the so-called “stolen vote” incident, in which Democrats ruled that a Republican motion regarding taxpayer benefits to illegal immigrants had failed even though an electronic scoreboard in the chamber showed differently, Boehner stormed up the aisle of the House floor, took the microphone, unleashed some indignant words, and then led his troops in a walkout. When the smoke cleared, Republicans were galvanized in a way they hadn’t been for a while.

As the year unfolded, Boehner kept his party unified in opposition against Democrat-sponsored bills that attempted to expand the State Children’s Health Insurance Plan (SCHIP) and tie Iraq War appropriations money to predetermined benchmarks. The real win came in December when Boehner employed all manner of legislative expedients to force Democrats into meeting Bush’s budget demands. He headed off to winter recess with renewed confidence. As he looked back on the year, he felt he had toughened significantly since his first leadership stint a decade ago.

“Some people are driven by always wanting to win,” he told me. “Some are driven by a fear of failure. In my case, it’s a blend of the two. I always wanted to succeed because I could not live with failure. It just is not who I am. So many days it’s not winning that’s the goal, it’s avoiding failure that becomes the goal.”

Republicans have conceded that the Contract with America, born of a desperate ingenuity that followed four decades out of power, was a once-in-a-generation thing. Furthermore, John Boehner is neither as visionary nor as domineering a leader as Newt Gingrich, the chief architect of the 1994 Republican Revolution. Then again, as some members caution, now is not the time to go for broke. The idea behind the “Reasons to Believe” re-branding scheme Boehner has hatched is to lead his members back to the principals of the Contract and to the orthodoxy of Republicanism, and to take voters with them. How America responds to this ideological reawakening will rest, in no small part, on his salesmanship. “That was the one thing I always thought we were lacking in,” says Iowa Rep. Tom Latham, “and John is a very good spokesperson for the conference.”

Since the 2006 election, 29 Republican congressmen have announced their retirement (as of early April), so success from now through the November election must be judged, for Boehner’s sake, with lowered expectations. At the moment, the party is in his corner, but it has been known to be fickle before. “I think the real challenge will be if he is challenged for leadership by one of the ideological conservatives,” says Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution. “Can he imagine a road back to the majority soon? Just being in opposition mode may get old after a while. And let’s say if someone like Obama comes into office and really makes overtures [to Republicans], or even McCain tries to work with Democrats. [Boehner] may find it very difficult to preside over the Republican party, part of which will be tempted to do business while others will try to keep the ideological polarization of the party alive and well.”

Whatever his leadership capabilities, Boehner knows how to stay poised. He was born that way. “I have more patience than any human being I know,” he says, “and at some point in my life I looked up and said, ‘I know why.’ My mom and dad were the most patient people in the world.”

In a house with eight brothers, three sisters, two bedrooms, and one bathroom, conciliation was key. Older siblings instinctively learned to look after younger ones, and everyone knew to pitch in. Boehner didn’t relish the close-quarter hubbub as much as his mother, Mary Ann, nor could he ignore it as easily his father, Earl, who oversaw the household with impressive equanimity when he wasn’t off delivering food to the homeless or running Andy’s Café, their family owned bar in Carthage. By early high school, young John had become something of a neat freak.

“I want things where they belong,” he says. “Organized. Clean. It wasn’t a priority for anybody else except me. I would be yelling at everybody: ‘You do this! You do this!’ In an hour, the place was perfect. I can’t handle things not being where they belong. I don’t think my wife has ever picked up an article of my clothing off the floor in 34 years.”

After graduating from Moeller High School in 1968, Boehner found work as a janitor at Merrell Dow, where he met his future wife, Debbie, while mopping the floor of her workspace. They married in 1973 and he started taking business classes at night at Xavier University, while rising from maintenance duties to the credit department; eventually he left the company to work for Nucite Sales, a small manufacture representatives business that dealt with packaging and plastics. Not long after he was hired there, the owner died, leaving Boehner in control of a mess. The deceased had all but run the business into the ground. With the principals and the company’s few remaining clients griping, Boehner took over ownership and swiftly righted the ship.

In 1977 he graduated from Xavier with a degree in business marketing and moved into a new house in the West Chester subdivision of Lakota Hills. A baby, the first of the couple’s two daughters, would soon be on the way and for the first time in his life, Boehner’s financial situation improved. The prime indicator was a new and abiding interest in the game of golf. Boehner had caddied in high school but rarely played; after inheriting his first set of clubs from a dying friend, he turned into a committed golfer. At 57, he’s even more avid. And good. He has a 6 handicap (meaning he shoots regularly in the 70s), and those who have played with him say he’s easygoing on the course but competitive. “All of this is a way to really get to know people,” he philosophizes. “You can’t hide who you are on a golf course.”

By the spring of 1979, life was good. The working-class boy who once freighted other people’s golf bags for tips had become a business owner who carried his own bag for pleasure. Then, tax time rolled around and Uncle Sam took a big slice. Boehner says he wrote a check to the IRS that year that exceeded his gross pay from two years prior. “That is when I became a follower of Ronald Reagan,” he says.

While fiscal conservativism would come to chiefly define his politics, it’s not what got him into the game. He had to be nudged. Friends pushed him to run for a seat on the Union Township Board of Trustees in 1981, which he surprised himself by winning. Three years later, at 34, he surprised himself again by winning a seat in the Ohio state legislature. Affronted by the level of pork barrel politics in the statehouse, he learned a lot but did not impress his colleagues as a man-on-the-go.

“If you told somebody in Columbus that one day John would be the Republican leader in the House,” says Barry Jackson, Boehner’s former chief of staff, “they would have guffawed. Nice guy, right on the issues, but they just never saw him that way.”

But the 1990 election coughed up an exquisite hairball of serendipity for a fresh-faced challenger in Ohio’s Eighth Congressional District. The race included the spectacularly shamed Republican incumbent “Buz” Lukens—who ran for reelection despite his sex scandal—and Tom Kindness, who had formerly held the seat. It quickly became a two-person contest with Boehner assuming the role of underdog to Kindness. “He had 99 percent name identification,” Boehner says, “I had five. Anybody can get five percent.”

In need of significant brainpower to counter Kindness, Boehner found a gifted chief strategist in Jackson, whom he met through a mutual friend. Jackson hadn’t anticipated joining the campaign, but in a preliminary two-hour conversation Boehner won him over completely. With Jackson’s help, Boehner was able to upset Kindness in the primary and win the election. It was the beginning of a decade-long partnership that ended in 2001, when Jackson was hired by the White House. He now has Karl Rove’s old job.

Shortly after he arrived on Capitol Hill, Boehner joined Gingrich’s Conservative Opportunity Society. It was here that the pair forged their initial bond. “He is a visionary and he’s a very strategic thinker,” Boehner says of Gingrich. “And one of the lessons from those early years is that there has to be a mission, a vision of why we’re here. A big goal you’re going after.”

What really got Boehner noticed was his involvement with the “Gang of Seven,” a group of Republican congressmen from the 1990 freshman class who unearthed a scandal involving members overdrawing their House Bank office accounts. Seized upon by the Republican leadership, the scandal eventually led to a number of members losing their seats, the lion’s share of them Democrats. “I think John, in contrast to the rest of us, was really interested in moving up through the leadership structure,” says former Wisconsin Congressman Scott Klug, a fellow Gang of Seven member. “John saw the opportunity early on to be a change agent.”

Gingrich soon deputized him to help craft the Contract with America and later threw his support behind Boehner’s successful run for Republican conference chairman. His swift rise would not be without snags, however. Gingrich was a pugilistic politician, a disposition Boehner was uncomfortable with. Moreover, he found Gingrich’s capriciousness as an idea man and his deficiencies as a day-to-day manager frustrating. (Gingrich declined to speak for this article.) Boehner had an even more contentious relationship with former Texas Congressman Tom DeLay, who served as majority whip under Gingrich and later as majority leader during Dennis Hastert’s speakership. “It was just oil and water from the beginning,” Boehner says. “To this day I couldn’t tell you—different personalities, different styles. I don’t know whether he saw me as a threat.”

DeLay engineered the K Street Project, a Republican-led effort to meld lobbying firms with Congress in a mutually reinforcing system of quid pro quos. Boehner himself wasn’t directly involved, but his closeness with moneyed interests over the years has often prompted comparisons between the two, especially from the left. “DeLay was relentless in pressuring K Street to pony up,” says Thomas Mann, as opposed to Boehner, who “just sees it as a natural alliance and works it to his and his party’s advantage.”

Boehner often felt like a lone hand in a leadership structure he viewed as “over-aggressive.” He says he made his differences known privately but kept a tight lid on his feelings in public. “Our goals were the same,” he says now, “[the difference] was how we were trying to get there.”

The entropy that Gingrich harnessed in the early 1990s to power the Republican Revolution eventually boomeranged with destructive force. And when the Speaker’s hold on the House began to crumble amid a flurry of ethics charges in 1997, Boehner found himself in the middle of the meltdown. First came a surreal incident in which a Florida couple picked up a telephone conversation over their police scanner between Boehner and other party members, who were discussing Gingrich’s woes in less than diplomatic terms. (In April a federal judge awarded Boehner $1 million to cover the legal fees he incurred from the lawsuit he brought against Rep. Jim McDermott of Washington for leaking the tape of the call to the press.) Then Boehner got mixed up in an unsuccessful coup attempt against Gingrich.

Boehner admits he participated in conversations with the coup’s three principals—DeLay, former New York congressman Bill Paxon, and former majority leader Dick Armey—and on the day of the attempted overthrow, the four reconnoitered over lunch. But that was as far as his involvement went. “The participants tried to rope me in as a coconspirator,” he says, “but I didn’t have a clue.” (Paxon confirms this account. “He was never interested in overthrowing [Gingrich],” he says.) Still, after Gingrich eventually resigned, a seething Republican conference was looking to place blame. Boehner, who hadn’t self-inoculated as successfully as others, paid the price. When the next round of leadership elections were held, he lost his post as conference chair to J.C. Watts of Oklahoma.

In the aftermath of his first real professional setback, as he walked out of the chamber with Barry Jackson by his side, Boehner tried to look at the loss as a blessing in disguise. Over the 1998 Thanksgiving recess, he asked Jackson to put together a memo that charted a course back to leadership. “Did it hurt me to stand on the floor of the House at the beginning of the next congress when the guy who beat me was sworn in to be conference chairman?” Boehner asks. “Yeah, it was awful. But I was never going to let the bastards see me sweat. I just smiled and went to work and helped out where I could.”

A passing glance at the walls in either of Boehner’s two Washington offices affirms the almost mythic importance of the No Child Left Behind Act in his decade-long political re-ascension. In the reception area of his personal office in the Longworth building hang three framed photographs commemorating the bill, one matted next to the pen President Bush used to sign it into law. Simply recounting the political machinations leading up to the bill’s passage is enough to set Boehner’s lip quivering and voice cracking.

No Child Left Behind represents Boehner’s crowning legislative success, not only because of the change it brought about in his mind but also because of how he put his political life on the line for it. In 2000, when then-President-elect George W. Bush invited him to participate in preliminary discussions regarding an educational reform package, Boehner insisted an invitation be extended to California Congressman George Miller. (Miller was set to become the ranking Democrat on the Education and Workforce Committee, which Boehner chaired at the time.) When the suggestion was initially pooh-poohed, Boehner says he threatened not to participate in any further meetings. Bush relented, and Miller ultimately was instrumental in getting the legislation drafted and passed. “We went through the year where I was being blasted by my conservatives and [Miller] was being blasted by his liberals,” Boehner says. “And all it did was push us closer together.”

In the summer of 2001, a few days before the bill was set to come to the floor for a vote, Boehner arrived 15 minutes late to a meeting in the White House with the president, vice president Dick Cheney, Speaker Hastert, Armey, and DeLay to discuss a package of amendments. Boehner remembers DeLay was in the midst of slamming the bill when he walked in, and he caught the president’s eye. Bush gave him a wink. When DeLay finished, the president turned to him and said, “Alright, Boner, what do you have to say for yourself?” Boehner stated his case to maintain bipartisanship on the legislation. “Anybody got anything to say?” Bush announced. “Alright, good. I’m with Boehner.” The rest of the room seemed stunned. After the others departed, Bush put his arm around the congressman and asked, “How’d you like that?”

“It was a big moment,” Boehner says, “it really was, and in more ways than one. Part of this bill was about transforming the federal role. The fact is we’re succeeding. Poor kids are getting a better chance at succeeding. But in another aspect—I ran away from this education issue for a long time. That year I spent working on [NCLB], seeds were sown on my soul, and as you probably have heard and can probably see, it’s become a very important issue for me. God knows why.”

He points across his Capitol office to two photos hanging next to the fireplace.

“As you can see, there are only a couple pictures in this room,” he says. The pictures are of Boehner posing with inner-city schoolchildren, part of his work with The Center City Consortium, a Catholic charity in Washington that he and Senator Ted Kennedy host a fun-raising dinner for every year. “I’ve been to every classroom in every school,” Boehner says, “and I love these kids.”

Tearing up, he walks over to his desk, grabs a tissue and blows his nose. Heeeee-yonk.

“Of course, I can’t go to the classroom very often because it just about kills me emotionally,” he says. Why? “No idea.”

He points again to the photos. “That picture on top, that happened about one second before I totally lost it. We were doing this thing at one school, we had Office Depot donating $100,000 in school supplies, and they had a truck there and all the kids there, and the cardinal was there, and I was trying to explain to these kids how lucky they were, except I couldn’t quite get it out of my mouth. And so this little girl comes over to hug me to try to help me. Then I really lost it.”

About three years ago, Boehner’s stock began to rise again on the Hill. The Abramoff scandal broke in the summer of 2005, followed by a Texas grand jury’s indictment of DeLay. A year later, as the mid-term elections approached, the congressional page scandal splashed across the headlines, effectively neutering Hastert’s reign as Speaker. As Republicans braced for the fallout, Boehner ran for the position of majority leader—DeLay’s old post. Squaring off against Roy Blunt, Boehner cast himself as a reformer, harkening back to his Gang of Seven work. In one particular PowerPoint presentation during the race, he went so far as to assert, “We should think seriously about bringing greater transparency to the lobbying industry.” This thought would be short-lived.

“He started out running as a reformer,” says Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. “But along the way when it became fairly clear that the notion of radically reducing the role of lobbyists and, at that point, earmarks, was not something that the Republican conference wanted, he very substantially adjusted the tone of his campaign and didn’t talk about it much anymore.”

A litany of published reports at the time questioned Boehner’s own relationship with lobbyists. Eyebrows hiked over the significant political donations and privately funded trips he had taken from special interest groups, and it was revealed that he was renting his Washington apartment from a lobbyist with clients whose business interests were, as The Washington Post reported, “directly at the heart of Boehner’s work.” There was also the revelation that back in 1995, he had been caught handing out checks from tobacco lobbyists to members on the House floor, a move he confesses was “stupid” and “a big mistake.” In a commentary in the political newsletter Counterpunch, former Democratic Congressman Pat Williams, who worked with Boehner on the Education and Workforce Committee, argued that his former colleague’s involvement with the Republican take-over in 1995 and his “sordid” relationship with K Street directly set the stage for the party’s corruption a decade later.

Boehner says that characterization is “just wrong,” and is unapologetic about his ties to lobbyists. “The reason I have a relationship with them is that I came out of the private sector,” he says. “What I believe in is the same thing they believe in, which is to help our economy grow and to help us have a vibrant free enterprise system in America.”

When Boehner beat out Blunt for the majority leader post, he all but abandoned his calls for reform. He adamantly opposed proposals, including one by then-Speaker Hastert, to limit or ban privately funded travel, arguing that it was necessary for congressmen to be able to educate themselves on issues. His argument was undermined by the public disclosure that he had traveled mostly to sunny golfing destinations and Europe, a number of times accompanied by his wife.

Democrats and congressional watchdogs have regularly excoriated Boehner over this. “He clearly lost his reform momentum once he became majority leader,” says Craig Holman, a legislative representative for consumer advocacy group Public Citizen. Since then, he says, Boehner has become the group’s “main opponent” for lobbying and ethics reform.

The Democrats’ success in 2006 brought Boehner’s tenure as majority leader to a quick halt. But with DeLay gone and Hastert retiring, the consolation prize of minority leader was now up for grabs, and Boehner, who had once been the scapegoat for his party’s downfall, was now running as the man who could save it. His résumé and temperament matched the moment. He had the distinction of having served in both the minority and majority, and his soothing style was seen as a much-needed ameliorant. Despite a certain targeted uneasiness about his tenacity, Boehner decisively won the minority leader race over Indiana Congressman Mike Pence, the culmination of a most improbable political comeback.

“The thing I found out about John Boehner is, there is no guile in the man,” Pence says. “I think his greatest strength, even in the wake of the Republican collapse, was that members of Congress see him as someone who is a conservative leader who listens to every member of the conference and keeps no records of wrongs.”

Fine praise, but it’s hard to get around that phrase “Republican collapse.” Boehner finds himself a long way from the Speaker’s office, and his patience is not limitless. Friends and colleagues see an expiration date on his time in Congress, likely accelerated by each day he spends in the minority.

Back in 1990, when he first arrived on Capitol Hill, a close confidant advised Boehner to maintain a list of things he’d want to do after politics. To that end, he keeps a yellow pad stashed in his desk for when that time comes. Of the options he has scribbled on that list, he would only reveal one to me: tour commissioner of the Professional Golfers’ Association.

Whether that ever comes to pass, there is still this year to live through. The weekend before we sat down for the second time in January, Boehner attended the annual GOP retreat at the luxurious Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia, where he hoped to jumpstart the party’s re-branding effort and hash out differences over earmarks. He recalled for me the gist of what he had told members there: “A lot of you see me as someone who doesn’t have a care in the world, somebody who is easygoing, really nice, never yells, never screams. Just always understand that while that may be what you see, don’t ever think I don’t want to win and that I’m not going to do everything I can within the rules to win.”

His second year as minority leader got underway with a grand act of conciliation, as he and Speaker Nancy Pelosi crafted an economic stimulus package. But as soon as the legislation passed, Boehner followed it with an impish act of political theater. On Feb. 14, as the Democrats stalled on dealing with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and instead tried to pass a resolution condemning White House aides who had refused to cooperate with an oversight request, Boehner took to the House floor.

“Ladies and gentleman,” he boomed, “we will not stand here and watch this floor be abused for pure political grandstanding at the expense of our national security.” Democrats grumbled. He went on: “We will not stand for this and we will not stay for this.” And then he called on his fellow Republicans to follow him out of the chamber and onto the freezing steps of the Capitol, which they all did, one by one. Boehner has learned that sometimes it’s beneficial to stir up a little chaos—even if you have to stir it from out in the cold.

Illustration by Steve Brodner
Originally publlished in the May 2008 issue.

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