No Comment — January 11, 2011, 5:26 pm

Boehner’s Challenge

In the current Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi offers an incendiary portrait of the new Speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner. It opens with a blast that is typical of Taibbi’s halfway-to-gonzo style:

John Boehner is the ultimate Beltway hack, a man whose unmatched and self-serving skill at political survival has made him, after two decades in Washington, the hairy blue mold on the American congressional sandwich. The biographer who somewhere down the line tackles the question of Boehner’s legacy will do well to simply throw out any references to party affiliation, because the thing that has made Boehner who he is — the thing that has finally lifted him to the apex of legislative power in America — has almost nothing to do with his being a Republican.

The balance of the article, written with a similar lack of mercy, is filled with a good deal of detail from the dark side of Washington politics, but it falls short of justifying the conclusions that Taibbi presents in his opening lines. We’re treated to a rehashing of the most embarrassing moments of his career, but not much about his path to Congress or the circumstances of his early life. Watching the tears well up in Boehner’s eyes every time he remembers working in his father’s bar, it’s clear that these experiences shaped him and continue to influence his thinking in ways I find difficult to understand. This man is obviously more complex than Taibbi would make him out to be, and those complexities may affect the process of lawmaking in Washington in the coming years.

Given the alarming events in Tucson on Saturday, this passage struck me:

Another Ohio Democrat, Steve Driehaus, clashed repeatedly with Boehner before losing his seat in the midterm elections. After Boehner suggested that by voting for Obamacare, Driehaus “may be a dead man” and “can’t go home to the west side of Cincinnati” because “the Catholics will run him out of town,” Driehaus began receiving death threats, and a right-wing website published directions to his house. Driehaus says he approached Boehner on the floor and confronted him.

“I didn’t think it was funny at all,” Driehaus says. “I’ve got three little kids and a wife. I said to him, ‘John, this is bullshit, and way out of bounds. For you to say something like that is wildly irresponsible.’” Driehaus is quick to point out that he doesn’t think Boehner meant to urge anyone to violence. “But it’s not about what he intended—it’s about how the least rational person in my district takes it. We run into some crazy people in this line of work.” Driehaus says Boehner was “taken aback” when confronted on the floor, but never actually said he was sorry: “He said something along the lines of, ‘You know that’s not what I meant.’ But he didn’t apologize.”

Suggesting that a political adversary “may be a dead man” because of the way he voted on a bill is “way out of bounds.” The attempted assassination of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is justifiably focusing attention on the use of violent language in political discourse for the reasons Congressman Driehaus suggests—it may be properly understood by a stable listener as mere hyperbole, but to the more disturbed characters who populate the fringe of our society, it could be understood as an invitation to act. Boehner’s initial words following these events have shown an appropriate mix of solemnity and concern. But as the nation’s highest-ranking Republican, Boehner should be doing more to reduce the temperature of political discourse—it is a normal step in the weeks following an election in any event. Boehner offered a maiden speech as speaker that won praise even from Democratic critics and struck notes of civility appropriate to the moment. This was an important opening. If Boehner faces a test of character at this moment, this is it: will he use his office to shift the tone of political discourse away from the violent hyperbole and hysteria that have so deeply poisoned it?

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

From the June 2014 issue

The Guantánamo “Suicides,” Revisited

A missing document suggests a possible CIA cover-up

No Comment March 28, 2014, 12:32 pm

Scott Horton Debates John Rizzo on Democracy Now!

On CIA secrecy, torture, and war-making powers

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2014

The End of Retirement

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Octopus and Its Grandchildren

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Francis and the Nuns

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Return of the Strongman

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
“From the nerd squabbles of Internet discussion threads rose an urban legend that culminated in a film that hinges on digging through my town’s trash.”
Illustration (detail) by Timothy Taranto
Article
Return of the Strongman·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“If Tunisia is where the Arab Spring began, Egypt seems poised to become its burial ground.”
Photograph (detail) © Ahmed Ismail / Getty Images
Article
The Seductive Catastrophe·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The world’s leaders were moved by a populace fused into a forward phalanx, were shaken by a tidal wave of militancy jubilantly united.”
Photograph courtesy Mary Evans Picture Library
Article
Me, Myself, and Id·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The one defining trait of the narcissist is that it’s always someone else.
Painting (detail) by Gianni Dagli Orti
Post
The Many Faces of Boko·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“People want education. Open a school and they will rush.”
Photograph © The author

Average number of sitcom laughs an American hears during a prime-time season:

12,000

Czech and German deer still do not cross the Iron Curtain.

British economists correlated the happiness of a country’s population with its genetic resemblance to Danes.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

In Praise of Idleness

By

I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today