Is the Speaker of the House Bottoming Out?
(page 2)Sounds like magical thinking, as familiar to anyone in recovery as denial and rationalization: I choose to do it. But I’ll quit some day. When I want to. A lot has been made of Boehner’s nicotine addiction as well as his impulsive public weeping. Is it depression? Stress? An undiagnosed infection? Is he merely a man in touch with his own feelings? Or is it something else? Alcohol of course does reduce inhibitions and you’re more likely to weep when you’ve had a few or when the full misery of the hangover hits. He’s made no secret of his taste for merlot (reportedly Markham from Napa Valley). He frequents the Capitol Hill Club and is a regular at a DC Italian restaurant where he is often seen drinking wine. When Obama quipped at a holiday party that he had seen Boehner drinking eggnog, Boehner shot back, "I was drinking wine." Ed Schultz, the liberal MSNBC host, once jokingly called Boehner a “cheap drunk.” The speculation is not confined to lefties. Schultz’s colleague, Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman, has noted that “so many Republicans tell me this is a guy that is not the hardest worker in the world. After 5 o’clock, 6 o’clock at night, he is disengaged at best. You can see him around town...you can see him at bars.”
No one with any credibility has come out and said that Boehner is an alcoholic. The Fix contacted a large number of politicians, former colleagues and opponents for input, including former Speaker Dennis Hastert, outspoken freshman Republican Representatives Steve Sutherland of Florida and Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, even well-known Republican pollster and message strategist Frank Luntz, but none wanted to speak on the subject. But all these jokes and allusions are dancing around the topic. And there are plenty of people who admire Boehner for having the courage of his transgressions. Unlike President Obama, who never wanted to be photographed smoking before he finally quit in August, Boehner has smoked and sipped his wine in public. He also doesn’t hide his crying, which in other realms of public and private life is reason for enlightened praise. Feminists have come to his defense, asking why the double standard over crying?
Boehner has consistently swatted away the worst speculation and criticism about his appetites. But in contrast to his party’s Young Guns—as the three conservatives nipping at his heels, Cantor, McCarthy and Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee Chairman, dubbed themselves in a 2010 book-cum-manifesto of the same name—he is sorely behind these sobered up times. The book alludes to the weakness of the old guard, of which Boehner is a major figure, noting, “We lost our way when we were in the majority.” The authors distance themselves from that generation, by explaining, “We had a majority of people who came here to do something, and we atrophied into a majority of people who came here to be something.” Indeed, Ryan and his hardline followers favor P90X workouts and ripped abs over flabby sentimentality, some pledging to live like monks in their offices rather than waste taxpayer money on housing (the most coveted being the closest to the House gym.)
"I need this job like I need a hole in the head."
By contrast, Boehner's bad habits belong less to the current generation of legislators than to previous ones, when Senators got drunk in the bar above the Senate before casting votes on legislation and everyone knew who was the alcoholic and who the adulterer, but kept it secret until the DUI, car crash, diddling of congressional pages, swimming naked in the Sea of Galilee or in the Tidal Basin with a stripper. The new generation seems to be abstemious to a fault. (On the other hand, their private behavior may be driven by all the usual addictions and compulsions. Only time and the media will tell.) This generational difference, not only in lifestyle habits but in hardline political philosophy, is expected to be a growing source of conflict between Boehner and the feisty upstarts. "I need this job like I need a hole in the head," Boehner told the Wall Street Journal last week.
As Congress lurches toward its next crisis—whether or not to raise the debt ceiling—Boehner will again be at the helm clutching his smokes like a cutlass. But with Obama saying he won’t negotiate on the need to raise it, the House Speaker will be in for another rough ride with his Republican bedfellows. And the pressure he is under from his own party, let alone the larger responsibilities of being Majority Leader, are likely only to increase his craving for the opiates, endorphins and other sedatives delivered by booze, cigs, UV rays and a good, old cry. Frequent resorting to the Serenity Prayer is probably also on, uh, tap.
Just last week, Boehner claimed he had Republican defense hawks in his “back pocket,” to use as leverage against Obama to avoid the automatic defense cuts that are set to go into effect if the two sides can’t agree to lower other spending. At least one, Representative Duncan Hunter, a Republican from California—a member of the Armed Services Committee whose district is home to one of the nation’s biggest military installations—shot back that Boehner was getting into “dangerous territory when you talk about using national security as a bargaining chip with the president.”
In his personal narrative, Boehner is fond of sharing the worldview he earned sweeping out his father’s Cincinnati bar as a kid (all 12 Boehner kids did the job at one time or another) and that seems to have shaped his entire life. “You have to learn to deal with every character that walks in the door,” Boehner said in 2010, explaining how he was prepared to handle the incoming freshmen.
But maybe it’s time to step out of the bar and get (back?) into the rooms.
Kevin Gray is a New York-based journalist. He writes about business, crime, politics and celebrity. He has reported from the Congo, Libya, Lebanon, Colombia, China and throughout the U.S. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, New York, Details, People, Men’s Journal and the Washington Post.