The Crying Shame of John Boehner

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Kaptur and her staff were mystified as to why Boehner would back a nutjob in an SS costume, especially when Kaptur was so far ahead in the polls. They could come up with only two explanations, both humorously nauseating. One was that it was a personal thing to tweak Kaptur, who had recently held a press conference criticizing a Boehner proposal to raise the Social Security retirement age to 70. The other was that Boehner was milking the moronic Iott, the wealthy heir to a supermarket chain, for future campaign contributions.

"The fact that my opponent is among the wealthiest individuals not just in our region but in the nation leads me to believe Mr. Boehner, sadly, has his eye on the money that can be wrung out of him in the future," says Kaptur.

Another Ohio Democrat, Steve Driehaus, clashed repeatedly with Boehner before losing his seat in the midterm elections. After Boehner suggested that by voting for Obamacare, Driehaus "may be a dead man" and "can't go home to the west side of Cincinnati" because "the Catholics will run him out of town," Driehaus began receiving death threats, and a right-wing website published directions to his house. Driehaus says he approached Boehner on the floor and confronted him.

"I didn't think it was funny at all," Driehaus says. "I've got three little kids and a wife. I said to him, 'John, this is bullshit, and way out of bounds. For you to say something like that is wildly irresponsible.'"

Driehaus is quick to point out that he doesn't think Boehner meant to urge anyone to violence. "But it's not about what he intended — it's about how the least rational person in my district takes it. We run into some crazy people in this line of work."

Driehaus says Boehner was "taken aback" when confronted on the floor, but never actually said he was sorry: "He said something along the lines of, 'You know that's not what I meant.' But he didn't apologize."

Others in Washington see Boehner not so much as a bloodless partisan but as a clueless yutz, one who rose to power through a combination of accidents and bureaucratic inertia. "He's just sort of like, 'Oh, how did I get here?'" says one Democratic aide. "I think of him sort of as a big Saint Bernard to [new Republican Majority Leader] Eric Cantor's yapping Chihuahua." Boehner is the butt of a lot of jokes around the Hill, with his wino eyes, perennial Crayola-orange tan and phallic surname providing even members of his own party with endless comic material. (George Bush, famous for giving colleagues nicknames, called Boehner "Boner.") His pseudo-acceptance speech on the night in November when Republicans retook the House was brilliant clown theater, a Wayne's World version of a right-wing political rally. At the very moment when millions of GOP voters were celebrating their ouster of the great socialist enemy Obama in the name of patriotism and liberty, Boehner was tearing up over what an awesome job he had finally scored for himself.

"I've spent my whole life...[chokes up]...chasing...[chokes up]...the American dream," he sniffed. Becoming verklempt, Boehner waved his hands in a "No, I can't go on" gesture, then went on anyway, as the crowd nonsensically chanted "U-S-A! U-S-A!"

"I put myself through school, working..." — he choked up again — "every rotten job there was, and I poured my heart and soul into running a small business." The words "small business" were too much for Boehner to take (remember, this is a man who went on 180 corporate junkets in six years, who took 45 flights on private jets), and so he cried again, putting a fist over his mouth and squeaking "Uha!" before pronouncing himself "ready to lead." Boehner later repeated his election-night performance in a 60 Minutes interview with Lesley Stahl, not just crying but weeping — he looked like a Girl Scout watching a puppy get pushed through a meat grinder — as he flogged his "I've been chasing the American dream my whole life" act.

The cryfests have left Democrats rolling their eyes. "He cries sometimes when we're having a debate on bills," grumbled Nancy Pelosi. "If I cry, it's about the personal loss of a friend or something like that. But when it comes to politics — no, I don't cry."

And while all prominent politicians live half their lives in front of the cameras and have more than a few verbal hiccups to live down, Boehner seems to have an almost Yogi Berra-ish talent for grammatical violence and logic-defying goofball platitudes. This past summer, in a sage observation that Jon Stewart was moved to call "the most profoundly retarded statement I've ever heard," Boehner remarked that "the only way we're going to get our economy going again and solve our budget problems is to get the economy moving."

Adding to the perception of Boehner as more clown than tyrant is the widespread belief on the Hill that he doesn't really have much, if any, control over his Republican members. More than one Democratic aide describes Boehner as a man who in private negotiations is more than willing to work with the other side, and will make promises of Republican cooperation — only to have his even crazier right-wing members, especially the hyperambitious Eric Cantor, go off the reservation with lunatic amendments and resolutions within hours after Boehner has promised that everyone would be cool. "He's all talk," says one Democratic aide with long experience working with Boehner. "He has no ability to control his base. Look at the TARP vote in '08."

The Troubled Asset Relief Program — the $700 billion bailout of the absurdly irresponsible megabanks that got us into the financial crisis — is a classic example of what Boehner is all about, expressing perfectly his tenuous position vis-à-vis the hard-line anti-spending Tea Party base that thrust him into power. Boehner, who over the course of his political career has collected nearly $4 million from the finance and insurance sectors, backed TARP from the start, summoning his full rhetorical arsenal to argue for the bill.

"None of us came here to have to vote for this mud sandwich!" he declared during the infamous vote on September 29th. "I didn't come here to vote for bills like this!" Then he paused, took a $4 million gulp of air into his lungs, and pulled out all the stops to move his caucus — hilariously whipping out his Coffee Talk crying act on behalf of JP Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs.

"So I ask all of you, both sides of the aisle," he said, tearing up. "What's in the best interest of our country? Not what's in the best interest of our party! Not what's in the best interest of our own re-election! What's in the best interest of our country!" He choked back tears again. "Vote yes!"

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Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. He’s the author of five books and a winner of the National Magazine Award for commentary. Please direct all media requests to taibbimedia@yahoo.com.