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The Retro Man

John Boehner is tan, rested, and ready—well, tan.

About 20 minutes into my sit-down with House Minority Leader John Boehner, I am overcome by the desire for a drink. Scotch, maybe. Or a bone-dry martini, extra olives. It’s not that the Ohio congressman is shaping up to be confrontational or unresponsive or in any way unpleasant. Quite the opposite: Tucked into a corner of the comfy sofa in Boehner’s office, watching the dapper, deeply tanned pol pull languidly on a Camel 99 and talk shop in that low, rumbling voice, I feel more like I’ve wandered into the Shadow bar at Caesars Palace than a formal interview with one of the nation’s most powerful Republicans.

Jacketless, kicked back in one of those starchy, wood-and-leather armchairs that populate the Capitol, the 60-year-old Boehner radiates retro cool. His charcoal pin-striped trousers, crisp white shirt, and black tassel loafers are worthy of his inclusion on Esquire’s 2007 list of “The Best Dressed Men in the World.” A lime-green tie supplies just a dash of flash. Earlier in our talk, the congressman had risen to retrieve a behemoth crystal ashtray from his large, tidy desk, depositing it on the side table between us; now, right arm propped upright on his chair, cigarette burning down toward his neatly manicured fingers, Boehner ponders politics with the wry manner of someone who has seen it all, lived to tell about it, and can’t be bothered to get worked up about much these days. His rocky relationship with movement conservatives? Just a matter of style. “It’s really interesting,” he chuckles. (“Interesting” is a word that tends to pop up when Boehner ventures into ticklish territory.) “Because I’m not harsh, because I’m not a bomb-thrower, people think that I’m not really a conservative.” Rumors of competitive friction with his whip, the aggressive, hyper-ambitious Eric Cantor? Stories about their supposed rivalry are “interesting,” he says, but there is “no daylight” between them. The campaign drama then unfolding in New York’s twenty-third district, where the moderate candidate tapped by local GOP leaders was being pilloried by the base? “It’s a mess!” he laughs. “There’s no other way to say it.”

The longer I luxuriate in the minority leader’s soothing aura of smoke and sangfroid, the tougher it becomes to envision the affable, low-key Boehner riding herd on the pack of snarling, hard-right crusaders who increasingly dominate his conference. I am not alone. Despite his conservative voting record and small-government, pro-life sympathies, Boehner has long been viewed with suspicion by the Republican base. This stems in part from his occasional heresies (for instance, his opposition to the tough border-security bill in 2005) but even more so from his basic affability. Boehner comes across as ill-suited for today’s brand of abrasive, full-frontal political warfare; he is, many Republicans agree, an anachronism.

And yet, since the early days of the Obama administration, this anachronism and his leadership team have helped a shrunken, depressed minority regain its sass, achieve unity in opposition, exploit Democratic missteps, post wins at the polls in November, and, generally, make trouble for the president. Incongruously, a non-rabid non-crusader brilliantly described by a former GOP leadership aide as “the Dean Martin of Congress” is somehow managing to steer a party overrun by ideologues with pitchforks. Which raises two questions: How exactly has he done it? And--perhaps more interestingly--how long before the pitchfork wielders come for him?

To some degree, Boehner’s success stems from the fundamental nature of being minority leader. Even he admits that maintaining unity when your party is buckled snugly in the backseat is vastly easier than driving the car. “One of the great shocks of 1994 was--we had won the majority, and no one in our caucus had ever been in the majority--no one realized how much more work it is,” he stresses, grasping for the appropriate sports metaphor: “You hand the football off to a fullback, and he’s gotta run with it.” By contrast, being in the minority may stink, but it dramatically simplifies the leadership’s mission. With Dems in charge, Republicans’ primary business is to thwart the will of the majority. And it is far simpler to rally members around “no” than to line them up in support of even the most basic measure.

Still, imposing a modicum of order on Congress’s raging egos and ambitions is never easy. And Boehner, by most accounts, has done an admirable job. How? The key to his leadership style, say members of “Boehnerland” (as the congressman has dubbed past and current staffers), lies in his Midwestern, Catholic roots. “The important thing to remember about John is how heavily influenced he was by the large family upbringing,” says former spokesman Kevin Madden. One of twelve kids raised in a small house (one bathroom!) on the outskirts of Cincinnati, young John learned early the merits of compromise, conflict management, and everyone pulling their weight. At age ten, he went to work mopping the floors of the family bar, where he honed his listening and people skills. (Is there any better prep for congressional leadership than dealing with ugly drunks?)

Football, too, is a big part of the picture, with Boehner absorbing the go-team gridiron ethos during his days playing center and linebacker at Archbishop Moeller High School. “He always talks about how one of the bigger influences on him was Gerry Faust,” recalls Madden, referring to the Notre Dame coach from the early 1980s who launched his career at Moeller. “John always put a priority on teamwork.” But Madden’s Faust comparison works on another, messier level. Though a legend at Moeller, Faust’s tenure at Notre Dame was a flop. In his five seasons, Faust recorded more losses than any of the 23 coaches who came before him. He eventually became a motivational speaker. “People listen to me because I’m not all about success,” he once told Sports Illustrated. “They’ll listen to someone who failed because most people fail at something in life.”

Boehner, too, has been shaped by failure. Elected to the House in 1990, the former plastics salesman came in with some of the same break-the-china tendencies now attributed to up-and-comers like Cantor and Mike Pence. He made an early mark as part of the Gang of Seven, the freshman crusaders who helped expose the House banking and post-office scandals. Catching the eye of Newt Gingrich, Boehner was tapped to head the then–minority whip’s Conservative Opportunity Society and, later, to help draw up the Contract with America. Gingrich also asked Boehner to run his campaign for speaker. Boehner, in turn, made a run for conference chairman (deftly eliminating the competition, Louisiana’s Bob Livingston, by pledging to back him for chairman of the Appropriations Committee). At the start of his third term, Boehner found himself part of a leadership team--along with Gingrich, Majority Leader Dick Armey, and Whip Tom DeLay--overseeing the first Republican majority in four decades.

But, four years later, Gingrich’s self-immolation and the party’s electoral losses had the conference demanding a sacrifice. Boehner wound up the goat, losing his post to Oklahoma’s J.C. Watts. (His ouster was seen as a victory for DeLay, with whom Boehner often clashed.) It was the sort of repudiation from which few members recover, asserts Minnesota congressman turned lobbyist Vin Weber: “Once someone is viewed as having been knocked off the leadership ladder, they very rarely get back on it.”

Boehner, however, immediately began plotting a comeback, directing his then–chief of staff to outline a route back onto the ladder. “I decided I was gonna earn my way back,” he tells me. “I wasn’t gonna talk my way back. I was just gonna go back to my committees … and I was just gonna let my work speak for itself.” He also vowed not to let the bastards see him sweat. “I was never gonna let anyone see one ounce of disappointment on my face--not one ounce of regret,” he stresses. “I was never gonna drop my head.” He lets out a rueful chuckle. “Now, there were some times when on the inside there was”--he pauses--“more disappointment and turmoil than you could ever imagine. But I was never gonna let anybody see it on my face.”

In 2001, Boehner became chairman of the House education committee, just in time to take charge of President George W. Bush’s signature education initiative. Along the way, he evolved into a savvy legislator and developed a good rapport with Democrats such as George Miller (the committee’s ranking Dem) and Senator Ted Kennedy. (For years, Kennedy and Boehner co-hosted an annual charity dinner to aid Catholic schools in some of Washington’s poorest neighborhoods.) By early 2006, Boehner had rebuilt his reputation, and the ladder was once again in his sights. As scandals began picking off colleagues, he made his move, entering the race to succeed the embattled DeLay as majority leader. Brandishing his Gang of Seven credentials and his status as the rare member never to have requested an earmark, Boehner ran as a reformer. This elicited jeers from Dems and other critics, who pointed to Boehner’s enduring love affair with lobbyists. Over the years, Boehner has been criticized for holding a weekly schmooze session with his favored lobbyists, known as the “Thursday Group”; for his love of corporate-jet travel (often to sunny golf destinations); for renting an apartment from a lobbyist whose clients had business before his committee; and, most notoriously, for (literally) handing out checks from Big Tobacco on the House floor as members were preparing to vote on tobacco legislation in 1995. No matter. Republicans were desperate for even the faintest promise of redemption. With his reassuring manner and detailed PowerPoint presentations, Boehner seemed as good a bet as any.

It didn’t hurt, of course, that Boehner had been around the House long enough to learn the pressure points of the institution. “A lot of outside observers assume that leadership campaigns are exposed to the same elements that an electoral campaign has,” explains Madden. “But it’s really done inside a vacuum” with a relatively small number of votes to court. “It’s a chit-counting game within that group,” he adds. “John always understood that.” Boehner’s focus on the fundamentals--working his friendships and keeping close tabs on the vote count--enabled him to beat out interim leader Roy Blunt. On February 2, 2006, Boehner’s vindication became official.

Alas, nine months later, Republicans were bounced back into the minority and Boehner out of his hard-won title. Unbowed, he made a play for minority leader. He faced feistier combatants (chiefly Indiana’s Mike Pence) more in tune with the zeitgeist. But, in a conference scarred by years of scandal and leadership turmoil, Boehner’s laid-back steadiness again carried the day. He also benefitted from being something of a Goldilocks choice: “He’s conservative enough to please the conservatives,” explains John Feehery, a onetime aide to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert. “But he’s got a presentation that is not in your face.” Similarly, Boehner was new enough to leadership not to be tarred by its failures, but he was also one of the few members with leadership experience--as well as firsthand knowledge of how to win the majority. “In one sense, he was the last real link to the [Gingrich] revolution,” says Feehery. “They needed someone who actually knows where the bodies are buried.” And, of course, Boehner tended his inside game. “He arranged the steering committee that selects chairmanships and committees to his liking. He was very good at stacking that,” says the somewhat-critical ex-leadership aide. “He put his ally [Pete Sessions] over at the NRCC. … He put up a number of firewalls around him to protect himself with loyal allies.”

Even so, it was a bumpy adjustment. Movement conservatives have long questioned whether Boehner shares all of their priorities. Among other sins, he opposed a 2002 bill aimed at allowing churches to engage in politicking without losing their tax-exempt status and (less successfully) fought against 2005 legislation imposing sanctions on anyone selling weapons to China. During the ’06 leadership race, the right-wing publication Human Events compiled a list of “John Boehner’s Top 10 Worst Votes.”

The strain was exacerbated by Boehner’s need to work with the Democratic majority and a politically toxic President Bush to address the imploding economy. “It was the Texas two-step every day. It really was!” laughs Boehner. Navigating the conflicting demands of his conference and of his party’s president became an exercise in frustration, especially on the bank bailout. During the initial floor vote, Boehner was hung out to dry when his conference torpedoed the tarp bill despite his pleadings. Recalls one Democratic aide, “He would say things, and we’d agree to do something, but his people didn’t back him up.” These days, Boehner is clearly delighted to have traded in that complicated, ulcer-inducing dynamic for a Democratic regime he can freely knock around. “Aw, no, this is very different, very different,” he says, deep oceans of relief filling his voice.

Despite the GOP’s slide further into the minority in 2008, Boehner held onto the leadership, for many of the same comforting reasons he won it originally. It also helped that he lacked a serious challenger--a situation that the savvy organization man did not leave to chance. Pence, deemed one of the most dangerous threats to the throne, was rendered harmless when Boehner backed him to unseat the incumbent conference chair. This ensured that Pence stayed out of the running for Boehner’s job and also, says Feehery, “took care of the bloodletting the conference needed” (an impulse with which Boehner is excruciatingly familiar). Meanwhile, Deputy Whip Cantor opted to bide his time, settling for a promotion to chief whip. Observes Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution, “Basically, Boehner just maneuvered as quickly as he could to accommodate those who were his likely successors.”

The same solid, old-fashioned traits that aided Boehner’s rise have their advantages now that he’s at the top. Hill veterans note that, in his role as party ambassador, Boehner can campaign even in moderate strongholds and go on television to criticize the president without sounding scary. “I think conservatives realize that Boehner has his uses,” says Feehery. Internally, the Mr. Congeniality rep has managerial value. “Congress is a high school,” says the ex-leadership aide. “To be popular among colleagues can help you out in tough situations.” It can also help you play the heavy without looking like one. “When you crack down on somebody, everybody realizes they deserve it.”

And make no mistake, one of the leader’s less-recognized talents is his ability to play hardball without looking nasty. Boehner has always had a touch of the enforcer to him. As Gingrich’s conference chairman during the Hillarycare skirmishes, he played the role of bad cop, seeing to it that members and outside groups alike toed the line. As leader, Boehner is equally willing to use the stick on his own people when they turn obdurate. “Look what he did to Flake,” notes the ex-leadership aide, referring to how Arizona’s Jeff Flake, mouthing off once too often about his Republican colleagues’ taste for pork, found himself stripped of his seat on the Judiciary Committee. Flake isn’t an isolated case. Just three months after becoming majority leader in 2006, Boehner warned members in a closed-door meeting that those who opposed his budget resolution could kiss their prime committee assignments goodbye; he even singled out Democrat-turned-Republican Walter B. Jones as someone who needed to be “talked to” by colleagues. In 2008, after several Republicans opposed a resolution aimed at embarrassing New York Democrat Charlie Rangel over his ethics troubles, Boehner threatened to monkey with the committee assignments of anyone who bucked him in the next go-around. The leader knows how to twist arms, say Hill vets, he just manages not to look like he enjoys it too much.

Meanwhile, Boehner’s empower-the-team philosophy allows him to channel all that twitchy energy among his deputies. The leadership has developed its own good-cop, bad-cop routine that has proved effective during tricky votes, such as the January stimulus debate. Boehner’s push for unanimous conference opposition promised problems back home for some members, including freshman moderate Joseph Cao, who scored an upset last year in Louisiana’s overwhelmingly Democratic second district by ousting William “busted with bribe money in his freezer” Jefferson. Cao’s district contains most of New Orleans, whose Katrina-bruised residents had their eye on the Recovery Act’s infrastructure money, and the congressman had made it clear that he was inclined to support the bill. But, as the vote neared, Cantor and Pence ratcheted up the pressure, ultimately standing near Cao on the floor throughout the voting. In the end, Cao voted no. Two days later, Boehner’s leadership PAC swept in with a $5,000 injection to the freshman’s meager campaign coffers.

But, for all his unlikely success, Boehner lives with constant chatter about which of his more strident rivals will eventually stick a knife in his back. Increasingly, the prime suspect is Cantor. Just this month, GQ ranked the hard-charging whip twenty-third on its 2009 list of the “50 Most Powerful People in D.C.” Boehner did not make the cut. (Asked about the list by Politico, Boehner made a joke about his own best-dressed credentials.) Boehner’s number two is clearly more in step with the current preference for sharp partisan jabs delivered in Web-friendly nuggets. “Boehner is a go-along-to-get-along leader,” says the ex-leadership aide. “He’s very chummy. He has to really push himself to really become adversarial. Eric Cantor, by nature, is much more aggressive.” Madden puts it this way: “One’s old school, and one’s new school.”

Under constant pressure from his right flank, Boehner has been working to turn up the volume. He seized on Speaker Pelosi’s impolitic accusation that the CIA lied to Congress in the run-up to the Iraq war, and he has kept up a steady stream of public condemnations of Rangel. Response from the right has been positive. Of the Pelosi dust-up, one usually critical member told Roll Call it was nice to “see a leader lead.”

Still, talking with Republicans about Boehner, you often detect a note of sadness--perhaps even pity--for a man no longer of the times. Gone are the days when Boehner would hang out in the Speaker’s Lobby smoking and schmoozing with reporters, who enjoyed his chattiness and wry asides. Today’s press is made for those like Cantor, whose operation, as one former GOP staffer puts it, “is built for speed and precision.” “John looks at ways to advance things methodically. I think that it’s probably an unappreciated attribute,” says Madden. “Often times, in the cable-news culture and online new-media culture that reward volume, he may not gain as much admiration on that level as he should.”

Ultimately, Boehner’s future rests on the party’s performance in the midterm elections. As judgment day draws closer, his team will be under pressure to shed the GOP’s “Party of No” label and put forth a cohesive vision of government. That, say Hill watchers, will pose a much tougher test of Boehner’s leadership skills. “Do we need one firebrand ideologue spokesman--a visionary like Gingrich in ’94--with the personality and the profile to lead the entire rebellion? Or is this going to be done by having a salesman and engineer work on the infrastructure and foundation to methodically build a winning coalition of voters to help us try and at least get back the House in 2010 or 2012?” asks Madden. “That’s the debate right now.” It’s no secret which of these paths leaves room for John Boehner.

Michelle Cottle is a senior editor of The New Republic.