John Boehner’s tenure as Speaker of the House will be debated endlessly. Was he a hard working, consensus builder beset by circumstances out of his control? Or a weak, too-willing-to-negotiate leader who was unable to bend circumstances to his will? Regardless of where you stand on that question it’s hard not to stand in awe of Speaker Boehner’s remarkable life as a public servant.
Boehner was raised in a cramped house in the blue collar town of Reading, Ohio. He was the second oldest among twelve children–nine boys and three girls–all of whom lived in a modest two bedroom house, where the boys huddled up in one room, the girls in another, and the parents making due on a fold-out couch. From a very young age, he helped out at Andy’s Cafe, the small bar and grill that his grandfather opened in the 1930s. There he mopped the floor, did the dishes, and listened to the locals talk politics. As a teen, Boehner injured his back, possibly by hoisting a crate of pickles at the bar.
The back injury didn’t stop him from becoming a football player, learning the ropes from Gerry Faust, who later went on to coach at Notre Dame. But it did prevent him from serving in the Navy during the Vietnam War. He enlisted, but was discharged eight weeks later because his back kept getting worse.
From there he kicked around a series of low-paying jobs before meeting a professor at Xavier University who convinced him to go to college. It took a while–six years–of juggling jobs and classes to pay his own way, but he eventually graduated with a degree in business administration.
“I was determined, I was miserable and I didn’t have anything,” Boehner said in an interview not long after becoming Speaker. “I was trying to make something out of nothing.”
After graduating he took an unglamorous job at Nucite Sales, a small plastics distribution company, where he learned how to be a salesman, a skill that translates well into politics.
“I was good, yeah,” Boehner said in an interview with POLITICO. “Everybody thinks you have to be a big talker, which is absolutely 100 percent wrong. The best salesman are good listeners, because you can’t sell until you know what buttons to push. And you don’t know which buttons to push unless you are asking questions and listening.”
In fact, Boehner proved to be so good that he was able to buy the company after the owner passed away. Owning a multimillion-dollar company made him finely attuned to the regulatory and tax burdens facing small businesses and made him question his Democrat upbringing.
“Growing up, we were probably Kennedy Catholics because we were a strong devout Catholic family,” Bob Boehner, John’s older brother told the New York Times. “But the first time you get a real job and get your paycheck, you look down and you wonder, where’s the rest of your money, and they explain to you that that’s the tax you have to pay to the government, you start thinking more and more about becoming a Republican.”
As his political philosophy was crystallizing his interest in politics was forming. His career began modestly with a run for the homeowners’ association, which led to a run to become a Union Township trustee, which led to a run for the Ohio legislature, and then, the U.S. Congress. Once in Washington, Boehner’s quickly ascended to leadership. He, along with six other freshman, formed what became known as The Gang of Seven, which uncovered scandals involving Democrats laundering money through the Congressional Post Office and overdrafting accounts through the House bank.
The ethics victories gave him enough clout that Newt Gingrich tapped him to draft the Congressional Accountability Act, which became a key piece of the Contract for America, the blueprint that led to huge Republican victories in 1994. Gingrich rewarded Boehner with chairmanship of the Republican Conference Committee, making him the fourth ranking Republican in Congress.
Boehner’s political fortunes then took a remarkable turn for the worse. After Republicans lost seats in the 1998 election the caucus mutinied, tossing out existing leadership in order to start fresh. Rather than retire, or even sit comfortably as a back bencher, Boehner immediately began to plot his improbably comeback.
“He could have walked away,” Republican Congressman David Hobson said in 2011. “He did something most people didn’t think he had the capability of doing: He became a very good legislator. Some people are destroyed by defeat. But he didn’t allow that defeat to destroy him as a legislator.”
Instead, he and his top aide Barry Jackson, immediately began looking for a high profile legislative initiative to reinstate his stature in the national press.
“We are going to smile, we are going to work hard, and earn our way back,” Boehner told Jackson.
He grabbed the opportunity by turning his chairmanship of the education committee (given to him as a consolation prize for being deposed) into landmark legislation known as No Child Left Behind. Using his newfound clout in the House, his close relationship with President Bush, his prodigious fundraising and his ability to befriend everyone, he was able to scrape together the votes necessary to become majority leader.
That post eventually put him in line for the Speaker’s gavel, which he tearfully accepted in 2010. His tenure was marked by difficulty, in no small part because he was an old school politician skilled in the art of horse trading and deal making at a time when an emotion-fueled insurgency was demanding a hardline, take no prisoners stance. Nevertheless, his list of achievements is long.
He successfully fought off cap-and-trade, gun control, pro-amnesty immigration reform, union legislation, and additional stimulus money. He also won key victories like negotiating the sequester, making many of the Bush-era tax cuts permanently, eliminating porkbarrel legislation, and reams of pro-business legislation. But the “big deal” that would define his legacy and fundamentally reshape the policy environment constantly eluded him.
Perhaps ironically, it was a debate over abortion that brought down the ardent Catholic. Despite being vehemently pro-life, Boehner simply couldn’t be convinced that Republicans could either cut funding for Planned Parenthood or come out as political victors if the government shut down. So on Thursday he announced that he would be stepping down at the end of October, a decision that prompted applause from many conservative members who believed that Boehner left too many opportunities on the table, and sadness for others who believed his positive, consensus-building approach was a key reason Republicans won and kept the majority.
“My first job as speaker is to protect the institution,” Boehner said of his decision to step down. “It had become clear to me that this prolonged leadership turmoil would do irreparable harm to the institution.
“I would not describe it has having had enough,” he said. “I feel good about what I’ve done. Every day, I’ve tried to do the right thing for the right reasons. And tried to do the right thing for the country.”
Although some may disagree over his effectiveness in achieving the right thing, no one should doubt that he devoted much of his life to trying.