The Consummate D.C. Insider, John Boehner, Isn't Holding Back Anymore: 'I Was Living in Crazytown'
"Don't you ever do that again," Rep. Don Young of Alaska told John Boehner in the early '90s while Young held a 10-inch knife to the throat of the freshman representative from Ohio. They were on the House floor, just out of sight of the C-SPAN cameras.
According to Boehner's new memoir, the elder lawmaker was furious because Boehner had given a speech deriding other representatives for making earmarks, which steered taxpayer money to their states.
"F--- you," Boehner responded, looking Young straight in the eye. (Years later, Young largely confirmed Boehner's account but noted: "The blade was not open, so it wasn't a direct threat.")
The altercation is just one of the many eyebrow-raising anecdotes Boehner — who first entered Congress in 1991 and served as House speaker from 2011 to 2015, then the country's most powerful Republican — recalls in his book, On the House: A Washington Memoir.
A lawmaker for decades and, for a time, head of the country's conservatives, Boehner has worked — and golfed — with the biggest names in politics, including former Presidents Gerald Ford, George W. Bush and Donald Trump.
That means Boehner has plenty of stories to tell ... with a cigarette burning in an ashtray and a glass of wine in hand.
For Boehner, being held at knifepoint in the House chamber was just one vivid example that showed "that there was something very wrong with a system that made good, upstanding U.S. representatives fight like wild dogs over leftover scraps of taxpayer money," he writes.
Ironically, he and Young became good friends. Boehner even served as Young's best man.
While Boehner always had respect for Young, it's his damning insights on some other conservatives he worked with during his time as speaker of the House that have received national attention.
Of presiding over the Obama-era GOP, he writes, "I was living in Crazytown."
Boehner — who casts himself as a principled member of old-school Washington — says there was a deep divide between him and some far-right Republicans elected in the so-called "Tea Party" wave of 2010.
"I saw the early stages of self-promotion, if you will. I saw it on the right. I saw it on the left. And I see it today," Boehner tells PEOPLE. "The more noise you make, the more attention you get and the more money that you raise ... And so it's become more about making noise than about governing."
"I still laugh at this whole concept of 'power,' because power is about the most misleading thing that there is," Boehner says. "And, frighteningly, I watched the people get an ounce of power and turned into completely different people than they used to be. And it used to really just kind of amaze me how different some members were once I got a little bit of power."
In his memoir, Boehner reflects on the many people who influenced his life and leadership style. One of those men was Ford, who used to tell him, "a bit sadly, that all he'd ever wanted to be was Speaker," he writes. Boehner explains that the former president gave him important insights into how the House of Representatives works. When Boehner himself became Speaker, he says, he tried to look over the institution the way Ford would have wanted.
But there was one lesson Ford couldn't teach Boehner: how to play a good game of golf. (Ford infamously sent a man to the hospital after accidentally hitting him in the head with a golf ball.)
Boehner remembers playing with Ford, who kept hitting balls over and into the water. After Ford sent his third one splashing off the green, "the 86-year-old former leader of the free world began to jump up and down, screaming 'F---' as loud as he could scream. Over and over again," Boehner writes. "I'd never seen anything like it on a golf course, and haven't since. I'll never forget it as long as a I live."
In more serious moments in the book, Boehner opens up about his triumphs and regrets while in office.
Perhaps the biggest example of the latter is participating in former President Bill Clinton's impeachment. Rather than charging Clinton with lying under oath, as it was argued at the time, Boehner says that Republicans were guided by Rep. Tom DeLay, who thought that an impeachment trial would result in winning House seats, according to On the House. (Clinton was acquitted on both articles of impeachment.)
"I was on board at the time. I won't hide from that. I won't pretend otherwise," Boehner writes in his memoir. "But I regret it now. I regret that I didn't fight against it."
Boehner also recalls his friendship with President Bush.
"We were like two peas out of the same pod," Boehner tells PEOPLE. "I had a lot of respect for George Bush because I watched him do what he thought was best for the country in spite of what it meant for him politically. I always thought he did a marvelous job under very difficult circumstances with 9/11 ... I loved the guy. Still do."
After working with Bush, Boehner says, it was a difficult shift when Barack Obama was elected in 2008.
While the new president presided over a unified government for his first two years, the 2010 midterms brought Republicans back to power in the House — though they showed little appetite for working with the Obama administration. And, Boehner says, vice-versa.
In 2009, Boehner remembers proposing changes to the tax code in a stimulus bill that Obama was interested in.
"Long story short, our ideas were dismissed right out of hand," says Boehner. "Before that, the president kept talking about working together. I said, 'Well listen, how's this going to work? I mean we've got ideas, you've got ideas and you know, we're not always going to agree. So what happens then?' He says, 'Well, you have to remember, I won.' "
Boehner didn't need the reminder. He says the encounter made it clear that negotiating with the president "would be more difficult than I had hoped."
Boehner's hardline new colleagues — and the rise of racist conspiracy theories about Obama among the GOP base — didn't help matters.
"All of this crap swirling around was going to make it tough for me to cut any deals with Obama as the new House Speaker. ... [H]ow do you find common cause with people who think you are a secret Kenyan Muslim traitor to America?" Boehner writes.
During his last State of the Union address, Obama talked about his regrets that partisanship had grown during his presidency.
"There's no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide," he said, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Obama later told the paper that he believed in bipartisanship, but it couldn't be his main goal.
"Bipartisanship is not a virtue if we don't do anything, and we just leave problems unsolved," he said, per the Times. "Bipartisanship is a virtue if we, both sides, [say,] 'Look, we have a problem. We may differ on how we solve it, but let's sit down and negotiate.' And there's never been an issue in Washington that I haven't been willing to take a half-loaf or a quarter-loaf."
Despite their differences, Boehner did enjoy a day of golf with the president and then-Vice President Joe Biden — though it didn't go as planned.
In May 2011, Boehner was invited to play a round of golf with the president and was asked to bring a partner. Determined not to lose (as both Obama and Biden are good golfers), Boehner decided to invite John Kasich, then the governor of Ohio.
But Kasich was "a little nervous," Boehner says.
"I was trying to explain to them that they were probably far more nervous than we were," Boehner says. "And I just happened to mention to Kasich that Biden's probably been out there hitting balls for an hour, as we were on the way out there. And sure enough, we got there and Biden's shirt was sopping wet. God knows how long he had been there pounding balls."
He continues: "When we got into our carts, I was riding with President Obama and President Obama said, 'All right, Boehner, now you and I are going to take these two guys on.' And I really thought John Kasich was going to cry because Joe Biden put us down as partners."
Obama and Boehner won the match. It was a "good time," Boehner remembers.
Not long after, the two men went into negotiations that lasted months.
The game didn't change their fundamental differences. But in his memoir, Boehner acknowledges there was another big reason he had trouble negotiating with Obama: the false conspiracy peddled by conservatives that the president was not born in the United States, which Boehner publicly refuted. He was immediately attacked for his response, he writes.
By the time of the 2010 midterm elections, "the outrage against the Democrats and Obama was significant," Boehner says. Some of the new Republicans who had been elected to the House were "a little crazier than anything I've seen," he continues. They were also against him from the start.
"The Freedom Caucus wanted to be anything that I wasn't. What united them was whatever I was for," Boehner says of his time as House speaker. "Their whole beginnings basically were in opposition to whatever it was I wanted to do because I was 'the establishment.' "
This divide made Boehner's role as speaker "virtually impossible," he says. The culmination was the government shutdown in October 2013. Though Boehner knew it would never work, he and other House Republicans, who were egged on by newly elected Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, tried to kill the Affordable Care Act with one swift chop.
The resulting shutdown lasted for 16 days and caused public outrage, until Boehner told the House it was over (for which he received a standing ovation).
Years later and it's clear there is no love lost between Boehner and Cruz.
In his book, Boehner writes of the senator: "There is nothing more dangerous than a reckless a------ who thinks he is smarter than everyone else." In the audiobook, Boehner tells him to "go f--- himself."
When his attack on Cruz went public in early April, the senator responded during an interview with The Daily Caller.
"I think he was probably recording at nine or ten in the morning so obviously he had too much wine that day already," Cruz quipped, referring to Boehner's well-known love of wine. "I don't get it, but this guy is a little unhinged."
It was amidst these deep divides in the Republican House caucus that Boehner retired in 2015. But nothing could have prepared Boehner for the chaos of the Capitol riots of Jan. 6.
"The legislative terrorism that I'd witnessed as Speaker had now encouraged actual terrorism," Boehner writes in On the House.
He places much of the blame for that event on President Trump. He's also critical of the virtual platforms that have allowed conspiracy theories to be disseminated.
"A lot of Americans love to believe in conspiracy theories and the President was only too willing to promote a lot of this," says Boehner, who looked for evidence of a stolen election but didn't find it. (Numerous judges and election officials, from both parties, also dismissed claims that the election was rigged.)
"It was pretty clear that Joe Biden had been elected," he continues. "But the president went on for several months claiming that the election was being stolen without providing any evidence. In my view, he abused the loyalty of trust that his voters had placed in him."
In February, Trump — the first president ever to be impeached twice — was acquitted in his second trial for inciting the riots.
Seven Republicans joined Senate Democrats in voting for his conviction, however. After the vote, Mitt Romney of Utah gave a fiery statement.
"President Trump incited the insurrection against Congress by using the power of his office to summon his supporters to Washington on Jan. 6 and urging them to march on the Capitol during the counting of electoral votes," Romney said. "He did this despite the obvious and well known threats of violence that day. President Trump also violated his oath of office by failing to protect the Capitol, the vice president and others in the Capitol. Each and every one of these conclusions compels me to support conviction."
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Boehner has known Trump for years, because they played golf together. But during Trump's administration, the president stopped calling Boehner for counsel.
"I didn't think he liked the advice I gave him," Boehner says.
Despite the rioting and his second impeachment, Trump is still a dominating force in the Republican party, which remains divided. Boehner hopes the GOP can once again center around similar principles as the 2022 midterms approach — and find ways to work effectively with Democrats.
"I'm a big believer in America," he says. "We've got the greatest country in the world and we need to continue to have the greatest country in the world. And if we do, one of my favorite Boehnerisms is, if you do the right things every day for the right reasons, the right things will likely happen. Don't worry about it."
On the House is on sale now.