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Boehner’s Challenge

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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?

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