There is little in public affairs as entertaining as a politician who has set himself free.
It usually happens after a political career is over, or at least winding down.
It helps if he or she has a sense of humor.
Harry Truman only became the unvarnished Harry Truman after he beat Tom Dewey. He was even more outspoken after he left office and in his dotage.
Barry Goldwater was always pretty blunt, but in his later years, he just didn’t care about the niceties anymore. He was going to say what he thought and put it in the way he wanted to. “I don’t give a damn,” he would say.
And now we have John Boehner, a chain-smoking former longtime southern Ohio congressman who rose to be the floor leader of the Republican Party in the U.S. House, and then to be speaker of the House. He has written a memoir of his time in politics called “On the House,” and it is getting a lot of attention.
Boehner does have a sense of humor, and a good memory. He is settling some scores and having some fun, and the media is eating it up.
Indeed, the same press corps that had no use for him when he was in power loves him now. Then he was simply a throwback, a dope, an obstructionist. Now he is a truth teller.
It helps that his foils are Ted Cruz and the Republican far right. He calls Cruz “Lucifer in the flesh” and Donald Trump an “unemployed” troublemaker. (He also voted for him in 2020 based on policy and Supreme Court appointments.)
Watching him have fun really is entertaining.
For five years John Boehner presided over a fractured House and a fractured GOP caucus. He felt stuck between the new breed of Republican — tea partyers and freedom caucusers — and the Obama White House, which viewed all Republicans as knuckle-dragging cave dwellers. Boehner came from a world of compromises and deal-making and Democrats and lobbyists who were “good guys” (his highest form of praise).
This new world, of politics as performance art, was one Boehner did not understand or like. He now had colleagues who had no real interest in legislating. They simply wanted to feed, and be aggrandized by, right-wing and social media. They were not seriously interested in government, except to dismantle it. He says in the book that he found himself “mayor of Crazy Town.”
The former speaker, in the book and in interviews to promote the book, drops a lot of f-bombs and labels a few politicians with scatological names unrepeatable here. Of Cruz, he also wrote: “There is nothing more dangerous than a reckless (expletive) who thinks he is smarter than everyone else.”
John Boehner was known as an emotional but fair-minded professional politician. He was respected by Nancy Pelosi and he respected her, though they fought hard against each other. He liked and worked well with Ted Kennedy and Joe Biden. He had the classic problem of a Republican in Washington for decades: If government is the problem, what are we doing here?
If Joe Biden’s mantra is “build back better,” the establishment Republican’s slogan is: “How about we do half of your plan?” That will kind of fix things and we can afford it.
This is not terribly inspiring.
And “let the grown-ups handle government” isn’t either.
Well, John Boehner went over the wall of Crazy Town. He resigned as speaker and left politics before he was ejected. He says he could not get elected as a Republican today, though he is still a Republican and believes in limited government, a strong national defense and controlled government spending. He says Ronald Reagan would not fit today’s GOP either. He says he is happy out of politics.
Is he right in his basic premise — that politics should be left to the pros? Is he right that the zealots are ruining both parties and Congress?
No, politics is too important to leave to the professionals.
But, yes, the ideologues are a cure worse than the disease.
However, what he fails to take into account when he says, with amazement and a little disgust, that the American people sent these “nuts” to Washington, is that the people had a reason. They were fed up. Compromise and the Washington buddy system weren’t getting it done for a lot of folks.
Those in charge in Washington over the past 40 years have given us one endless, unwinnable war after another; a shrinking middle class; the hollowing out of small-town middle America; and ongoing, divisive culture wars.
Yes, politicians who know and understand government and respect each other are a good idea.
And, no, yahoos and crazies who go to Washington just to posture and rage are not the answer.
But things were not working for a lot of us in the good old days and you cannot really blame the American voter for saying, “Let’s try something else.”
We need a better something else. But we need better elites and a better status quo, as well.