Is the Speaker of the House Bottoming Out?

By Kevin Gray 01/13/13

Serious drinker, heavy smoker and backroom dealer, the Speaker is the last of the GOP's old breed. Now that he's cornered by teetotaling Tea Partiers, Boehner may be close to admitting powerlessness.

Pelosi and Boehner photo via

Five days before Christmas, House Speaker John Boehner stood before the Republican-controlled Congress—his Plan B alternative for avoiding the fiscal cliff defeated by lack of votes from his own party, a public humiliation and repudiation of the Speaker’s authority, rare in House history. Choking back tears, Boehner faced his colleagues and surrendered himself to a Higher Authority: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference,” Boehner intoned.

The Serenity Prayer was an odd choice for a guy whose drinking had drawn years of public and private scrutiny (there’s even a blog called DrunkBoehner dedicated to chronicling his meltdowns).

For Boehner watchers—and sympathizers—it was a hushed “Amen Brother” moment. The Ohio kid who had grown up in his father’s bar, an admitted chain smoker (Camel Ultra Lights), a suspected tanning-bed addict (he insists his orange countenance, the butt of media jokes, is from golfing and mowing the lawn), a guy who tips back the merlot and is a frequent crier, seemed to have come full circle in his personal narrative of struggle, redemption and self-awareness. To any 12-step member, Boehner’s Serenity Prayer moment suggested more than a passing familiarity with the program. (The media didn’t dwell on this inference.)

The fiscal cliff negotiations were never going to go Boehner's way and neither were the Republican newcomers who put up the most resistance. An old-school party leader, he had performed in the time-honored manner, offering compromises and cutting deals behind closed doors. But even the whiff of raising taxes was too much for the Tea Party-backed ideologues, those meddlesome freshmen from the class of 2010, whom Boehner had done his best to appease, cajole and discipline. A week after his desperate prayer, the 63-year-old Speaker was forced to stand by as a final budget deal was dictated not by the House, but by Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell. Boehner dutifully voted in favor, while most other Republicans, including Boehner’s no. 2, Eric Cantor of Virginia, widely viewed as scheming for Boehner’s job, and Whip Kevin McCarthy, a leader of the conservative Young Guns, voted no. Following the Plan B embarrassment, this was surely a bitter chaser for the veteran lawmaker to swallow. Somewhere in between, Politico reported that Boehner had turned on the old barroom charm, jabbing a finger at Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, and said, “Go fuck yourself.” 

"After 5 or 6 at night, he is disengaged at best. You can see him at bars."

These tackles by his own team were even more bruising because they took place in the days immediately before he stood for re-election as House Speaker. Would he be ignominiously routed? was a breathless media story. In the end, Boehner got to keep his job—not in a show of party unity, but in one of the most contentious votes in modern House history. A record 12 Republicans refused to support him. Boehner had the title but not the loyalty. And with it he inherits a world of trouble.

Almost since he became House Speaker two years ago Boehner has had a tough time wielding his gavel. It doesn’t help that he gets weepy on big occasions. “I wear my emotions on my sleeve,” he once told Fox News, defending himself against critics who said it made him look “weak” or “strange.” It also doesn’t help, particularly for a leader caught up
 in the nation’s healthcare debate, that at the age of 63 he hasn’t kicked the smokes. When CBS’ Bob Schieffer, a former smoker and cancer survivor, confronted him on the topic in 2010 (noting that the tobacco industry had given Boehner $340,000 in campaign contributions), Boehner turned evangelical. “Bob, tobacco is a legal product in America,” he said. “And the American people have the right to decide for themselves whether they want to partake or not.” He then turned morose, saying, “Well, listen, I wish I didn’t have this bad habit and it is a bad habit...But it’s something that I choose to do. And, you know, at some point, maybe I’ll decide I’ve had enough of it.”

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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 US. His work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, New York, Details, People, Men’s Journal and the Washington Post. You can find him on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.