Lessons for Boehner from Pelosi, Gingrich and Rayburn

Boehner showed himself less ideological than Nancy Pelosi and Newt Gingrich

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What history may know as the “Boehner Era” began yesterday. In what must have been the most anticipated and widely covered House transition in recent memory, John Boehner mounted the rostrum for the first time as the 61st Speaker of the House of Representatives. He got off to a good start.

Boehner will not be remembered for his oratorical flourishes. The contrast between Boehner’s brief address and the one to which outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi referred in her farewell remarks, John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, delivered a half century ago this month, could not have been starker. That may be all to the good.

One thing Boehner is not is flashy. Indeed, the flashiest thing about him may be his choice of neckties (he favors bright pastels). He is also a serious person who knows his place. And that place is in the House of Representatives.

Boehner does not want to be president. Sixteen years ago, Newt Gingrich, who does, gave an address that was the equivalent of a State of the Union Address. Nor does Boehner see himself as the face of the Republican Party. No Michael Steele is he. In the nation’s first full glimpse of him as speaker, Boehner, a principled conservative, showed himself less ideological and more willing to work with the other side than have his four predecessors.

In his few moments on the Congressional stage today, Boehner showed himself a man more interested in assuring that the House gets down to business, addresses the nation’s problems, functions effectively as an institution, than in scoring points. That is why Boehner has been deflecting spotlight away from himself and toward the House’s membership, be they the “old bears” who chair House committees or the 80 boisterous freshmen, many of whom sense a keen allegiance to the Tea Partiers who fueled their campaigns. [See editorial cartoons about the Tea Party.]

That is also why Boehner focused less on policy than on procedure. He clearly intended all that talk about allowing more “open rules” than had for internal, rather than external consumption. Most who observed Boehner on television do not know what an “open rule” is and could not care less. Those who do, mostly on the inside, see in such “shop talk” a sense of empowerment and of ownership of what the House produces. Boehner’s entire talk can be seen as a challenge to those who comprise the institution he currently leads to demonstrate to the public and to the world that the American idea of self-government still has meaning. [See a roundup of political cartoons on Democrats and on Republicans.]

He began by saying how “honored and humbled” he was to be selected by his peers as their Speaker. Minutes before, he demonstrated just that when he declined to vote in the election for House Speaker. (The other “non-voter was Oregon Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio.)

Boehner is said to take inspiration from the last Ohioan to serve as Speaker, Nicholas Longworth, whose picture hangs in the new Speaker’s office. The similarities between the two are obvious. Both men were Republicans, Cincinnatians, and known for their affable, even “clubbable” dispositions. But Longworth was also an aristocrat, son-in-law of a president (Theodore Roosevelt), and an accomplished violinist. A more appropriate parallel between the self-made, earnest, hard-working Boehner might be a Democrat, who had also put himself through school, who carved out a legacy based on the affections of his peers, and was deficient in flash and flare, Sam Rayburn. [See who donates to Boehner.]

Both men had to work with presidents of the opposite political party. Rayburn did so late in his tenure as speaker; Boehner will need to do it considerably earlier. Both knew that in order for the president to take them seriously and meet them half way, they had to hold their troops behind them. (That should explain the early vote on repealing Obamacare.) Through their coming together, Ike and Rayburn built the interstate highway system and the Saint Lawrence Seaway (our last major investment in infrastructure), established NASA, DARPA, and all the national security and educational hardware and software that kept the United States strong, secure, and competitive (during its first ‘Sputnik” moment), and kept the peace.[Check out our editorial cartoons on healthcare.]

Ike went to great lengths to preserve the relationship he had built with Rayburn and to keep his trust to the point of antagonizing his own partisan base. To spare “Mr. Sam’s” feelings, the president even altered language of his most famous speech, also delivered a half century ago.

As most school children probably know (or should), in his farewell address to the nation, Eisenhower warned against allowing an emerging “military-industrial complex” to exercise an unhealthy and disproportionate influence over the making of policy. As president, he complained of “iron triangles” that drew together powerful Congressional committees, Pentagon brass who answered to them, and munitions makers who lobbied for development of weapons systems and contributed to political campaigns. Early drafts of the now famous farewell contained the word “Congressional” before the words “military” and “industrial.” Ike struck it out. [Read more about national security, terrorism and the military.]

Rayburn was not well. He would pass away within months after Ike left office. Cognizant of all the two had achieved together, the Republican president did not want the Democratic speaker, who considered himself the personification of Congress, to think the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was ungrateful. What Obama says and thinks about Boehner when the time comes for this president to move on will say much about the two men. For the next two years, at least, whether they or their supporters like it or not, fate has joined the two at the hip. How they respond will be interesting to watch.

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