Illustration by John Ueland
Back In the summer of 2010, while reporting a story on capitol hill, I got a moment alone with House Minority Leader John Boehner in the confines of his office. In a matter of months, a backlash against the president who promised hope and change would bring a slew of new Republicans into congressional power, vaulting this tanned creature of West Chester to Speaker of the House—the third most powerful man in our Republic. Officially, at least.
Boehner would later confess to childhood friend Jerry Vanden Eyden that he didn’t know precisely how much work the job would take or how difficult it would be to make sure hot-button political matters didn’t spiral from his grasp. Boehner, Vanden Eyden says, didn’t initially recognize how the growing party divisions would change Congress, making it a place where Republican members would stand against any measure the Democratic president supported. He couldn’t possibly imagine that Washington, D.C., itself a city forged from the great compromise between Hamilton, Madison, and Jefferson, would evolve into an even more unavailing place to work.
But at least for that brief moment in 2010, Boehner was at ease. The once-handsome devil Republicans handpicked to run for congress in 1990 following Buz Lukens’s famous scandal—a man who grew up working in his father’s bar and watching Pete Rose at Crosley Field, who played linebacker on those early Gerry Faust teams at Moeller High School—had a little time to take stock and reflect.
“You grow up the way I did,” he told me, taking a drag off his cigarette and squinting, “you either learned a lot of common sense or you didn’t make it.”
Had Boehner only listened to his own words, he might have stubbed out that butt right there and headed to the Capital Grille for a cocktail, never to come back. Instead, he spent the next five years presiding over one of the more chaotic and fractious periods in our modern political history, trying in vain to corral a Republican House forever on the brink of insurrection—up until his surprise announcement on the morning of September 25, 2015, that he was resigning his position as majority speaker.
“I just think he’s frustrated,” says Vanden Eyden. “He never told me this, but I think he’s frustrated that nothing can get done in his party now because they can’t agree on anything. That’s just driving him crazy, and he doesn’t want to get blamed for not doing things when he knows it won’t work.”
What does post-Congressional life look like for John Boehner? He told Politico in November that he’s had plenty of time for laundry, ironing, and vacuuming, stating “My apartment looks like it’s brand new.”
No one expected he would quit both his speakership and his congressional seat, not like that. But there were hints. Several months prior, when Vanden Eyden suggested a reunion of grade school classmates in Washington, Boehner ominously told him “you gotta do it soon.” Still, his life-long friend—whom Boehner invited to sit in the chamber for Pope Francis’s joint congressional address on September 24—saw no indication from him the night before his decision. After the address, the Boehners and Vanden Eydens dined on Italian food together. Nothing seemed amiss. Even Boehner’s wife Debbie only learned of her husband’s plans the next morning, a few hours before the rest of the country. (Boehner declined to be interviewed for this story.)
In the hours and days to follow, much would be made of Boehner’s inability to stop the increasingly incoherent, often unreasonable demands from his colleagues and bring a semblance of internal order to the House. Yet between September 25 and October 30, his final day in office—as initial heir-apparent Kevin McCarthy removed himself from consideration and eventual replacement Paul Ryan dithered—the dysfunction Boehner was escaping became all too apparent. He’d left a party looking inward, asking itself, as his one-time press secretary Kevin Madden puts it: “Are we going to be a party that’s defined by what we’re against or one defined by what we’re for?”
Boehner, of course, wasn’t blameless. His most notable failure was the botched “Grand Bargain” he and Obama attempted in 2011. It was a bipartisan arrangement, one that included tax reform and changes to national spending, a measure that might have brought some peace to both the speaker and president. Its collapse, Boehner admitted following his resignation, remains his biggest regret.
Just three days after announcing he would step down, however, Boehner perhaps found some measure of redemption. This wasn’t the Grand Bargain, but it was a comprehensive budget bill, a compromise reached with Obama that ensured Republican insurgents wouldn’t drive a government shutdown. In many ways, it was Boehner’s best volley, one last act of defiance against men like Senator Ted Cruz—who Boehner dubbed “false prophets” of the conservative cause—while he “cleaned out the barn” for Ryan.
“He managed to pull one more get-out-of-jail-free card,” says Norman Ornstein, veteran political observer and American Enterprise Institute scholar. “[It] will give Paul Ryan, assuming we don’t get another full-fledged revolt with this deal from the right, a much easier opportunity as speaker than Boehner himself had.”
But even as Ryan strips down his new office, deodorizing the cigarette smoke that permeated the carpets and walls, the Tea Party’s favorite son cannot escape the stench his predecessor walked away from. Boehner, meanwhile—between rounds of 18—will spend the next few months looking back, from a distance, on what he left behind. Except now he will have the common sense to stay there, lighting another cigarette in the open air, knowing what’s already become readily apparent—that his own party chased away the most practical man in the room.