More than anything else, though, it's Boehner's skill at raising cash that gives him his power base in the House. In his most recent re-election effort, political action committees donated $2.4 million to Boehner's campaign fund, a staggering number for a House member. Boehner also raised some $44 million for other candidates.
Boehner's fundraising prowess is so legendary that his own office uses it as a defense against character attacks. When MSNBC's Scarborough caused a stir by accusing Boehner of being a light worker who's at bars every night by 5 or 6 p.m., Boehner's own spokesman Michael Steel shot back that "the only time [Boehner] is 'around town' these days is to raise money for our House Republican team. Thus far this year, he's headlined more than 230 events and raised about $27 million." At the time, the year was only half over — meaning, as one pundit pointed out, that Boehner was attending 1.25 fundraisers a day.
Look back over almost every controversial episode in the recent history of the U.S. Congress and you will find Boehner's face appearing, Zelig-like, somewhere in the foreground. He was a key figure in the historic waste of time that was his and Newt Gingrich's witch-hunting effort to get Bill Clinton impeached for lying about a blow job. He crossed the aisle to co-author the No Child Left Behind Act, a grotesque and grotesquely expensive expansion of federal power that helped jack up the federal education budget by an astounding 80 percent in the first five years of Bush's presidency, then voted for the obscene Medicare Part D, a staggering $550 billion handout to the pharmaceutical industry — two portentous initiatives that helped turn the Republicans into the new party of big government.
Then, in the middle of the Bush years, the man who got into office thanks to Buz Lukens' child-groping was enmeshed in his own sex scandal involving minors. When the news broke in September 2006 that Rep. Mark Foley, a Republican from Florida, had been sending sexually suggestive e-mails to a 16-year-old male page, it turned out that Boehner had been sitting on the information for months. Nancy Pelosi called for an immediate investigation into the Foley scandal, but Boehner blocked the resolution. Boehner later claimed that he had told then-Speaker Dennis Hastert about the Foley incident as soon as he found out — and promptly retracted his own alibi. The ensuing scandal nearly toppled Hastert, but Boehner survived mostly unscathed.
When he wasn't busy protecting sex offenders, Boehner was gracing the hallowed grounds of the Capitol building with all the dignity and class of a boxing promoter, calling one legislative deal a "crap sandwich" and blasting an Obama tax compromise as "chicken crap" (an unfortunate choice of words, given that massive amounts of poultry waste have created an ecological disaster in his own district). Boehner is also an innovator in the loathsome new political phenomenon of men crying in public, co-owning mastery of the habit with screeching media dillweed Glenn Beck.
But beyond all of that, Boehner just represents a certain type of hollowly driven, two-faced personality unique to the Beltway. It's not so much that he's likely at any moment to start pounding his fist in favor of something that only yesterday he was denouncing as a threat to the American way of life (when benchmarks in Iraq were a Democratic idea, Boehner said they would ensure failure; when George Bush came out for them, he said they were "very important"). Nor is it so much that he's prone to descending into hysterical hyperbole when the well-being of his campaign donors is threatened in even the vaguest way (he called the watered-down Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill "killing an ant with a nuclear weapon," with the ant in question being a financial crisis that wiped out over 40 percent of the world's wealth). It's more that . . . well, you have to spend a lot of time in Washington to know the type, but he's the kind of guy who would step over his mother to score a political point.
This is true almost in a literal sense. One congressional aide tells a story that goes back many years. Boehner's mother, Mary Ann, had just died. The aide, who at the time worked for a prominent Democratic congressman, suggested that his boss offer Boehner condolences. The Democrat, who had just heard that he was going to face an unexpected challenge from a state senator in his own re-election campaign, went along with the aide's advice, despite the fact that he didn't have a good relationship with Boehner.
The story goes like this: The Democrat approached Boehner, and said, "Hey, John, I'm sorry to hear about your mother."
Boehner, not missing a beat, shot back: "And I'm sorry to hear you have an opponent."
"That's John Boehner in a nutshell," the aide says now. "I mean, this is right after his mother died, and that's where his head was at."
Although there's a bit of an omaertà effect going on now that Boehner has risen to the speaker's chair, there are certainly members, particularly on the Democratic side and particularly in the Ohio delegation, who aren't shy about voicing opinions about Boehner's Machiavellian bluntness. Marcy Kaptur, the Ohio congresswoman who garnered nationwide attention back in 2008 when she urged people facing foreclosure to stay in their homes, crossed paths with Boehner last year when he publicly campaigned for Kaptur's opponent, Rich Iott, a lunatic whose weekend hobbies included dressing up in Nazi costumes in military re-enactments.
Iott denied that dressing up in the uniforms of the 5th SS Panzer Division meant that he sympathized with Nazi politics — but that didn't mean there weren't aspects of the Nazi regime that he could admire. "I've always been fascinated by the fact that here was a relatively small country that from a strictly military point of view accomplished incredible things," Iott said. Yet Boehner quietly continued to campaign for Iott even after his beaming Nazi photos were blasted over the national airwaves. "Boehner came to the district to campaign for him through the back door," says a Kaptur aide, "and left just as stealthily."
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