A Station for Everyone
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Former Speaker John Boehner's Memoir Serves As A Reflection On Life In 'Crazytown'

<em>On the House: A Washington Memoir,</em> John Boehner
St. Martin's Press
On the House: A Washington Memoir, John Boehner

"Crazy." "Moron." "Lunatic."

In his memoir On the House, Former Speaker John Boehner dishes on his past colleagues in Congress — with most of the harshest criticism directed at fellow Republicans. This becomes less surprising as he chronicles his slow burning disillusionment over the past decade with a GOP ultimately transformed and now defined by the ethos of former President Trump.

"I don't even think I could get elected in today's Republican Party anyway, just like I don't think Ronald Reagan could either," he concludes.

No one is more surprised by this than Boehner, a former Ohio congressman from working-class roots who was first elected to Congress in 1990 as a firebrand conservative reformer. He helped expose internal corruption in the U.S. House, championed fiscal restraint, passed a lot of laws, and ultimately led a successful 20-year campaign to ban earmark spending once he became speaker. (Congress is now planning to reinstate earmark spending under Democratic control.)

Boehner resigned from Congress in 2015 on his own accord, but his decision came while under growing pressure from the right flank, led by then Rep. Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican, who viewed him as insufficiently conservative and was considering forcing a formal vote to oust him. Boehner delights in recalling how Meadows publicly voted against him for speaker, and then requested a private meeting, he writes, during which he got down on his knees and begged for forgiveness. "For a moment, I wondered what his elite and uncompromising band of Freedom Caucus warriors would have made of their star organizer on the verge of tears, but that wasn't my problem," Boehner writes. Meadows went on to become President Trump's last White House chief of staff.

A life-long and unapologetic smoker and drinker, the cover features Boehner sitting in what appears to be a dark bar, signature red wine in hand (merlot, preferably), with a lit cigarette in an ashtray. It sets the tone for a memoir that often reads like he's simply here to share some of his favorite tales over a couple of drinks. There's that time Moammar Gadhafi gave him a pair of sunglasses in the middle of the Libyan Desert. And the one about how he thought he had convinced Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia to be Bob Dole's running mate back during the 1996 presidential campaign. And how he'll never forget the look on former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's face when he told him "You can go f--k yourself" outside the Oval Office.

Boehner is candid but never cruel in his recollections, with the exception perhaps of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, ("a reckless a--hole who thinks he is smarter than everyone else," he writes) who he loathes for his role in the 2013 government shutdown. Yet he prides himself on being a nice guy guided by a set of maxims, or "Boehnerisms" on how to treat people in life and in politics. "It doesn't cost anything to be nice," is one of them. It's the rising cruelty of modern politics that increasingly leaves him feeling out of touch with the angry and uncompromising pulse of the GOP. This is, after all, a lawmaker who loved working with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, a Democrat from Massachusetts, "a great man and a great legislator" in his estimation.

The GOP's rabid hatred of former President Barack Obama, the 2010 Tea Party wave that swept in a class of uncompromising, anti-government novice lawmakers, and the rise of Donald Trump are all events Boehner recounts more as a helpless bystander despite being one of the most seemingly powerful Republicans in Washington. Time and time again, he recalls being powerless against the rising revolt inside the party towards any sign of legislative compromise, and towards the establishment he had come to represent. It's refreshing to read a memoir with a politician's honest accountings of repeated failures rather than self-inflated successes.

He takes issue with the certain ideas that Trump has unleashed — there is no such thing as the "Deep State," and the press are not "the enemy of the people." By the end of the book, it's not hard to understand why he's no longer a party leader. It also includes some stark assessments from someone who served nearly three decades in government, climbing to the highest levels of power. "There are people we are electing who will destroy this country if we aren't careful," he warns. But Boehner offers no solutions or 10-point plans to get the country back on track. He's not the guy to ask anymore.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR. She covered Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, on and off from 2003 until his retirement in 2015.

Steve Inskeep is set to interview John Boehner about his memoir, airing on Morning Edition Monday, April 12.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.