A drunken ex-House Speaker John Boehner unloaded on House conservatives from the House Freedom Caucus and let slip private conversations with former President George W. Bush about his successor, Paul Ryan’s, ineffectiveness as Speaker of the House in a lengthy Politico profile published on Sunday.
Boehner, over the course of multiple interviews with Politico’s Tim Alberta, allegedly got drunk for one interview — and told the magazine writer about a private text message exchange he had with Bush about Ryan.
In the profile that spanned thousands of words, Alberta noted that Boehner generally lived by the words “Nothing good happens after 10 p.m.” Alberta had been spending time with Boehner in his old congressional district in Ohio at a golf tournament, raising money for a local Boys & Girls Club chapter, and one night, Boehner stood by his rule of going to bed early.
“In a capital city where booze flows freely and parties run late and lawmakers live away from spouses, he decided long ago it would behoove him to be in bed by 10 o’clock,” Alberta wrote:
This also allowed him to rise early, take his long walk for coffee, wolf down some eggs at his favorite greasy spoon and read the newspapers before work. Retirement has meant adjustments—Boehner makes his own breakfast and spends his days dialing into conference calls, giving paid speeches or doing housework—but one constant remains: asleep by 10. On my first night in Ohio, just as the conversations were getting loose and the cocktails were getting stiff, Boehner informed the patio crowd he was turning in. It was 9:45.
The next night, however, Boehner stayed up long past 10 p.m. — and drunkenly opened up to Alberta about private conversations with Bush, the former president, about Ryan, his successor as speaker.
“After the golf outing, and a reception in the clubhouse, Boehner hopped in his customized golf cart—a retirement gift from his congressional colleagues—and zipped across three moonlit fairways and into his driveway,” Alberta wrote. “I figured it was time to say goodnight. But Boehner invited me in for a nightcap. What followed, over bottomless glasses of wine, can only be described as Boehner unshackled.”
Over the objections of his wife, Debbie, who at times tried to block Alberta’s recorder with a pillow, Boehner told Alberta a lot of information he probably should not have, including that Bush had reservations about Ryan’s ability to effectively lead as speaker of the House.
Here is Alberta writing about what happened next, intermixed with quotes from Boehner, his wife, and one of Boehner’s friends:
On several occasions, Debbie warned him to stop telling me things; when he ignored her, she would put a couch cushion over my recording device. The highlight was Boehner telling me a story about George W. Bush—and prefacing it by saying, “I shouldn’t tell you this.” Debbie, opening a bottle of red in the kitchen, barked: “Then don’t!”
Boehner leans back in his favorite recliner, retrieving a glowing cigarette from its ashtray. “So I get a text from 43 about a month ago, maybe six weeks ago.” Boehner’s close friend Ed, who joined our nightcap, interjects: “Off the record?” Boehner waves him off: “It doesn’t matter.” He lets out a thick cough, smoke escaping his mouth, and continues. “So 43 says, ‘Hey, are you talking to Ryan? Are you giving him advice?’ I said, ‘Yeah, if he calls I give him advice.’” Boehner takes a long, satisfied drag. “And he texts me back: ‘He needs to call you more.’”
Boehner erupts into a long, uncontrollable cough-laugh. It is 10:40 p.m.
The remarkable piece from Alberta details how Boehner has concern for “the well-being of his successor.”
“Ryan never wanted the job; it took Boehner more than a year to convince him, and there were drastic measures involved,” Alberta wrote:
When McCarthy abruptly decided he would not run for speaker, everyone knew Ryan was the only unifying choice. And Boehner knew which buttons to push: The speaker called Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York and president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, asking him to pressure Ryan. Dolan obliged, phoning the congressman and piling on more of the “Catholic guilt” Boehner had employed. It worked, of course. But it’s clear Boehner feels a little guilt himself. Ryan now holds the thankless job he was desperate to escape, and finds himself buffeted by the same internal forces.
The piece, for which Alberta also interviewed both Ryan and fellow former House Speaker and current House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, foreshadows looming peril for Ryan’s grip on the job that puts him third in the presidential line of succession. Ryan even confirmed in his own interviews with Alberta that he is not happy as speaker.
Even before Trump was elected, Boehner was back in the Capitol one day and visited the speaker’s office. Ryan, he says, looked at him wearily: “This job is a lot harder than I thought.” When I ask Ryan about this, he confirms the story and laughs. “And I wanted to say, ‘You ass, you stuck me with this sh—’” He stops himself. But it’s been a tough day, and the speaker needs to vent. “Just getting people to agree on how to do things that are in their own interest is hard to do. Getting people to agree, getting to consensus, on things that are basic and axiomatic, is really hard to do,” Ryan tells me. “You need more of a degree in psychology than you need in economics.” (Ryan has, however, found comfort in torturing Boehner: The speaker inherited his predecessor’s security detail, and whereas Boehner demanded they be freshly shaven every day, Ryan let them grow unruly beards—pictures of which are often texted to their former boss, code name “Tan Man.”)
Throughout the piece, Alberta captures Boehner’s disdain for conservatives — particularly the Freedom Caucus. Boehner has a special hatred for Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), the founding chairman of the Freedom Caucus, but also attacks current chairman Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) — whose actions in 2015 paved the way for Boehner’s demise.
Boehner, when it was noted that Jordan and Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) may seek the chairmanship of the House Oversight Committee when now-former Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) announced he was leaving, praised Gowdy as his “guy” and said, “Fuck Jordan.” He also called Jordan a “legislative terrorist.”
Breaking the ice, I mention some news of the day—that Trey Gowdy appears likely to become chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The previous chairman, Jason Chaffetz, had abruptly announced his resignation from Congress; House conservatives had hoped that Jim Jordan, a senior member on the committee, might pursue the chairmanship. Boehner grins. “Gowdy—that’s my guy, even though he doesn’t know how to dress,” he says. Then Boehner leans back in his chair. “Fuck Jordan. Fuck Chaffetz. They’re both assholes.”
And away we go.
Boehner’s beef with Chaffetz, who would later join Fox News as a paid contributor, is not personal—just that he’s a “total phony” who possessed legislative talent but focused mostly on self-promotion. “With Chaffetz,” Boehner says, “it’s always about Chaffetz.”
His problems with Jordan, the founding chairman of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus, run much deeper. To Boehner and his allies, Jordan was the antagonist in the story of his speakership—an embodiment of the brinkmanship and betrayal that roiled the House Republican majority and made Boehner’s life miserable. Although he would tell me in later conversations that he holds no grudges against anyone, today Boehner unloads on his fellow Ohioan. “Jordan was a terrorist as a legislator going back to his days in the Ohio House and Senate,” Boehner says. “A terrorist. A legislative terrorist.”
The piece walks through a deep history of hatred Boehner has for Jordan, given Jordan’s leading role in pushing members of the House GOP conference to back conservative legislation when Boehner did not want to, and then it gets to his hatred for Meadows.
Jordan, in his own interview with Politico, fired back mocking the ex-speaker — and fired a warning shot at the current speaker, Ryan, who is quickly losing GOP support in much the same way as Boehner.
“Oh, my goodness,” Jordan said. “I feel sorry for the guy if he’s that bitter about a guy coming here and doing what he told the voters he was gonna do. Wow. I feel bad for him.” He added, “But in the end, we were not doing what the voters elected us to do and what we told them we were going to do. We just weren’t. And I would argue the same thing is happening now.”
The hatred Boehner holds for Meadows seems to be less significant than what he holds for Jordan. After explaining that Meadows put forward a measure that eventually forced Boehner to resign, Alberta notes that Boehner still hates Meadows: “Boehner is still angry with Meadows, who canceled an interview for this article, for putting him in that position: ‘He’s an idiot. I can’t tell you what makes him tick.’”
Meadows’ Deputy Chief of Staff Wayne King fired back in a tweet after the article was posted:
— Wayne King (@TheWayneKing) October 29, 2017
But even though Boehner is angry with Meadows and Jordan, this piece — years later — seems to confirm one of the underlying reasons Meadows first went forward with the motion to vacate the chair that eventually forced Boehner to resign: Boehner was secretly working with Democrats, led by Pelosi, to keep his grip on power. In fact, Alberta uncovered time-stamped documents that prove—by Boehner’s team’s own admission—that Pelosi would have given him Democrat votes to keep the speakership had it come down to another vote before Boehner resigned in disgrace to avoid embarrassment.
Alberta obtained the document titled “Save the Institution” and time-stamped September 16, 2015—just a few days before Boehner eventually cracked—and in it was a detailed plan from Boehner’s chief of staff Mike Sommers’ outlining the secret deal with Pelosi.
Sommers, in the memo, explained to Boehner—per Alberta—“that his survival would be ensured if Pelosi had Democratic members vote ‘present’ when the motion came up. If they did, Boehner could win with a simple majority of Republican votes cast—which was never in doubt, as the number of GOP defectors was between 20 and 40.”
Pelosi, in a meeting with Boehner, agreed to the terms. “In a subsequent meeting, Boehner broached the idea with Pelosi and she agreed,” Alberta wrote.
Pelosi confirmed the secret Boehner deal in an interview with Alberta. “You can’t have 30 people in your caucus decide they’re going to vacate the chair,” Pelosi said. “He knew I had—not his back, but the institution’s back.”
Boehner, per Alberta, looks back on it and does not think it was the right thing to do.
“It would be awful for the institution,” Boehner said. “We hadn’t gone through this in 100 years. All these Republicans were going to get crap at home for supporting me, only to have me leave soon after that.”
Another theme of this remarkable Boehner profile is that it captures the story of someone who came to Congress by running against the establishment and fighting against the grain—Boehner was not always part of the institution—only to become one of the establishment’s biggest defenders.
“He came to Congress wanting to burn it to the ground,” Sommers, Boehner’s former chief of staff, told Alberta. “And by the time he left, he was the ultimate institutionalist.”