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John Boehner: The next speaker
Republicans have chosen Boehner to lead the House of Representatives. Who is he, and how will will he exert his influence?
 
John Boehner was entrepreneurial from the start, reportedly rising before the sun to deliver weekend papers when he was a boy in Ohio.
John Boehner was entrepreneurial from the start, reportedly rising before the sun to deliver weekend papers when he was a boy in Ohio.
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Where is Boehner from?
He grew up in Reading, Ohio, the second of 12 children in a working-class Catholic family. His father ran a tavern where Boehner (pronounced BAY-ner) did chores. The family had little money—the whole brood shared a single bathroom—but Boehner was industrious at an early age, waking up in darkness to deliver Sunday papers and still make it to early morning Mass. “I went to high school and met a bunch of guys from other parts of town who were clearly a lot more affluent than what I grew up in,” he recalled, “and it just opened my eyes that there was just more out there.”

How did he rise?
Through a combination of hard work, strong ambition, and some good fortune. Neither a particularly good student nor a standout athlete, Boehner was relentless in pursuing goals. After high school, Boehner worked as a janitor at a pharmaceutical company, and began dating a woman who worked in the accounting department; they later married. He enrolled in night classes at Xavier University, and in 1977 became his family’s first college graduate. After he took a sales job at a small plastics business, his career took off. As his salary climbed, Boehner was shocked to see how much he paid in taxes—more than he used to earn in a week. When the company’s owner died, Boehner, by then living in an affluent Cincinnati suburb, took over. Running a business gave him a visceral dislike for government regulation and taxes—he has called regulators the “Gestapo”—which in turn led him to Republican politics. After a stint in local politics, he ran for a seat in the state legislature and won. “As someone who was succeeding in the free-enterprise system,” he said, “I believed that the government was choking the goose that was laying the golden egg.”

When did he arrive in Washington?
In 1990, Boehner beat a scandal-plagued GOP incumbent in a congressional primary and won the general election. He quickly worked his way into GOP firebrand Newt Gingrich’s inner circle, and rose to No. 4 in the GOP House leadership after the party’s 1994 victory. Boehner’s smooth, low-key style (see below) was in marked contrast to Speaker Gingrich’s bombast and the bullying of GOP Majority Leader Tom DeLay. “He’s a member’s member,” said Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole. “You can do business with John.” But when Gingrich resigned in 1998, amid ethics turmoil and political failure, Boehner was swept out of leadership with him.

How did he recover?
Once again, through dogged persistence. “I decided I was going to earn my way back,” Boehner said. As chairman of the House education committee, he worked on President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law, digging into the complex legislation and proving he could work with liberals like Democratic Rep. George Miller. He also demonstrated real fundraising prowess. By the time he won the majority leader post in 2006, his PAC had contributed nearly $300,000 to Republican incumbents running that year. But Boehner’s prodigious fundraising has also raised eyebrows, particularly because of his ties to lobbyists. A lobbyist for an Ohio steel company helped launch Boehner’s career, and in Washington Boehner is surrounded by business lobbyist friends, advisors, and campaign contributors.

How influential are these lobbyists?
They are the innermost circle of “Boehner­Land.” A tobacco lobbyist is the single largest contributor to Boehner’s campaigns, which over the years have reaped at least $340,000 from tobacco interests. In 1995, Boehner shocked ethics watchdogs by handing out campaign-contribution checks from the tobacco industry on the House floor before a vote on tobacco legislation. Unabashedly pro-business, Boehner rents his Washington apartment from a lobbyist friend, routinely flies on private jets owned by business interests, and meets regularly with business lobbyists and conservative activists.

What kind of speaker will he be?
A conservative one; beyond that, he’s provided little in the way of clues. Boehner has kept pace with his party’s move rightward, achieving YouTube fame in March for his “Hell, No” incantation during the health-care-reform vote. When he has strayed from the conservative hard line—supporting President Bush’s TARP bailout or suggesting he’s open to letting tax cuts for high earners expire—he has been quickly rebuffed by his caucus.

Will he work with the White House?
Probably not. Boehner insists that “this is not a time for compromise,” suggesting he’ll continue the strategy that Democratic Rep. Miller calls “obstruct, delay, oppose, then repeat same.” Former GOP Rep. Mickey Edwards says Boehner wants more than that. “He will want to go down in history as a serious-minded speaker who helped govern the country,” Edwards said. But balancing the demands of Tea Partiers, presidential aspirants, and other GOP constituencies won’t make it easy. After being elected minority leader in 2006, Boehner said, “I feel like the dog who caught the car.” He’s got even more to chew on now.

About that tan
Boehner’s preternatural tan has been described as “tangerine,” which suits his 1950s country-club demeanor to a tee. He has played as many as 100 rounds of golf in a single year while gaining a reputation as a man with a taste for Camel cigarettes, steak, fine wine, and cocktail parties. “He is what he looks like: a casual, chatty country-club Republican,” says Jim VandeHei in Politico.com. (Boehner has seemed less orange since his year-round glow became a topic for comedians.) But as with his tanning secrets, Boehner usually keeps his thoughts and emotions hidden. In times of turmoil, he said, “I wasn’t gonna let anybody see it on my face.” When the mask does fall, it reveals a face washed in tears. He has wept publicly while speaking about topics as diverse as the Iraq war, Ronald Reagan, and his own conservative principles. “I hold these values dear because I’ve lived them,” he said amid sobs on Election Night 2010. Friends say it’s just Boehner being Boehner. As a Democratic colleague from the Ohio legislature said, “He’s been conservative, he’s been consistent, and he’s been tan.”

 

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