FORT WAYNE – Former U.S. House Speaker John Boehner has written a book titled “On the House: A Washington Memoir.”
 
Here is a simple review of the book: He still doesn’t like Donald Trump. Based upon my 16 years of interaction with him it accurately reflects Boehner’s political career, and – whether written solely by him or with lots of help from a professional writer – it sounds like John Boehner did in personal, small group, or public discourse.

I stress those points because as someone who loves to read political history and memoirs, finding a book by someone inside of politics that is both accurate and not full of fake posturing for history is rare. John Boehner has decided to be remembered as John Boehner.

Political best-sellers are usually of two types: 1.) Books by famous people that sell well because of the author’s name but are a slog to read. Few people even get to the mid-point. 2.) Books by commentators who get people excited but have never been inside of a room where the decisions are made, and probably couldn’t even get elected to a dogcatcher position by their neighbors. Even political history books these days are dominated by “wokeness,” not history.

That doesn’t mean these books aren’t worth reading: Just read them skeptically. Read competing visions. Polemics about a “deep state” (the current trend of right and left conspiracy thinking) are actually the products of a different mythical state; they are like science fiction. They have some element of truth, promote interesting theories, and can be entertaining. They just shouldn’t be confused with the more boring facts about how government works.

Because Boehner is fundamentally transparent about the process, it provides some good insight into how leadership works at all levels of government, not unlike private business, educational institutions, and all social organizations.

In denouncing the more extremely conservative members of the Republican Caucus, as well as a few on the left, Boehner repeatedly stresses that the country is roughly evenly divided and that government essentially tilts one way and then tilts the other. Elections are about tilt, not destroying your enemy.

He also points out that when one side tries to enforce more radical change, the blowback is severe unless it was publicly accepted. The Democrats, for example, have done this twice on health care and social issues. The Republicans won the House in 1994 to a large degree against the backlash on HillaryCare and social issues, and then again in 2010 on ObamaCare and social issues.

Democrats win, and Republicans win control of Congress, when the middle turns against the other side in a few pivotal districts. Similarly, presidential elections turn on a few pivotal states, not the dark red or bright blue ones. It is even more complicated because even within the swing states, the red and blue areas are more intense colors these days which influence but seldom control the results. The middle, the swing vote, controls elections.

John Boehner is an institutionalist, at core a conservative in the core sense: More pro-business, more free market, focus on opportunity rather than equality of results, more socially conservative than liberal on issues like abortion and gun control, pro-police, doesn’t like taxes, favors less public spending than the Democrats do, and is supportive of a strong national defense.

John Boehner was not an intellectual leader and didn’t propose or even act as an advocate for creative ideas. He was pretty much the opposite of Newt Gingrich.

In the 1950s and 60s, when the John Birch Society was calling Eisenhower a communist, conservative writer Russell Kirk famously said that “no, Eisenhower wasn’t a communist, he was a golfer.”

Boehner was a golfer, not an idea leader. One of his “Boehnerisms” at the end of the book is a philosophical statement of sorts about politics: “It’s just golf – hit the ball, find the ball, hit it again.”

While that seems superficial, it actually isn’t. It is philosophy of governance that basically says that wasting time with innovation is not the goal of leadership. You deal with the challenge you have, hit it, see what happens and then try to move it your direction again.

To generalize, an executive in any branch of government is often more like this. Mitch Daniels was “exceptional” governor because Mitch was an exception to this rule. Eric Holcomb is more a traditional governor, within a basic conservative governing style. This was especially true during the pandemic, but it is also his basic approach: Listen, develop a workable strategy, govern, adjust.

The legislative branch, especially the more populist branch as conceived by the Founding Fathers of this nation, is less anchored in the governing part and more likely to push more radical change reflective of populist tendencies; once again, as designed in our amazingly resilient constitutional documents.

The House at the federal and state levels runs for office more frequently (thus is more likely wind-blown) and represents smaller districts (thus is more homogenous and less understanding of opposing views, or at least less conflicted about how to respond). Simply put, the less responsive the Executive Branch is to the concerns of the Legislative Branch, the more feisty and intrusive the legislators become. Welcome to the current political state of Indiana.  

While John Boehner’s book is ostensibly about the life of a blue-collar Catholic kid who likes to golf and drink wine but who made it to the third most powerful position in America, it is actually a book about how many, or most, people in power actually govern. John Boehner, like most House speakers, were not the dynamic idea leaders. Nor are the best Senate leaders like Mitch McConnell or LBJ. They keep the trains on the track. They find the ball, hit the ball and find it again.

The challenge in America today is that the most politically active parts of the general public, especially agitated by the isolation and negative consequences of COVID, are looking for more than just trains running. They want more decisive action, unfortunately, in opposite directions.

Another thing about John Boehner’s leadership is also in his memoir. When he saw the conference was determined to do something, even if he hated it, he followed his party. Led it. He repeats multiple times in the book that a leader without followers is just taking a walk.

Reading his memoir was like sitting in the room with him. He listened, his answers were pithy if not profound, his language was often uncomfortable for me, and his personal habits not mine (e.g. I don’t smoke, prefer beer to wine and reading a book to golfing). But I came to respect how he governed, even when I disagreed.

There are different ways to govern. But as opposed to books intended to manipulate and deceive you, John Boehner’s book is a straightforward, unvarnished, somewhat irritating, occasionally vacuous, honest, and accurate reflection of how he chose to lead in turbulent times.

For those interested in how actually governing generally works, it is a good primer.  

Souder is a former Republican congressman from Indiana.