MARCO ISLAND, Florida – He was one of a dozen brothers and sisters growing up in a two-bedroom house in southwest Ohio, working weekends at his father’s bar and holding no aspirations for public office.
So John Boehner, now 71, still sounds a little surprised that Joe Biden is the 10th president he has met through a career that began in the Ohio state legislature and concluded with a stint as speaker of the House. That job made him second in the line of succession to the White House.
One of those presidents, Ronald Reagan, inspired him to switch parties to become a Republican. George W. Bush became as close as a brother; Boehner says they were like “two peas of the same pod.” He holds Barack Obama responsible for the biggest disappointment of his public life when they failed to seal a landmark budget deal. And Donald Trump has left him alarmed by the direction of the GOP and the state of the country’s democracy.
Now retired from office, Boehner gave USA TODAY his candid assessments of the presidents with whom he has negotiated legislation, waged political battles, offered advice and – with most of them – played golf. The interview at his condo in this exclusive Florida resort town came just before publication of “On the House: A Washington Memoir.” The autobiography is being released Tuesday by St. Martin’s Press.
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When Boehner is asked why he never ran for president himself, he dismissed the notion with a laugh. “I was never bitten by that bug,” he said. “Thank goodness.”
Here’s what he said and wrote about those who were, including some he met casually after they had left office and others with whom he worked closely at Washington’s highest levels.
Boehner’s family were Democrats, but the first time he was old enough to cast a ballot for president, in 1972, he voted for Republican Richard Nixon. Boehner’s income as a salesman for a small plastics company was rising, and he was watching his taxes increase to levels he thought were “just outrageous.” Low tax rates would remain a defining issue for him for decades.
“We would never have a relationship with China without him,” Boehner said of Nixon, “but he went through a rather sordid affair.”
That would be the Watergate scandal, the first of four presidential impeachment debates Boehner would end up watching, some at a distance and one close up.
In 1976, Boehner again voted for a Republican for president, for Gerald Ford. They two men met years later, after Ford had left the White House. In 1992, House Republican leader Bob Michel invited Boehner to play in the Jerry Ford Invitational golf tournament. They instantly hit it off.
Boehner gained respect for Ford’s character, if not for his prowess in golf. “He loved the sport, mostly as a reason to hang around with his friends and have a good time, but he was not a natural golfer,” Boehner said.
When they were playing a round in California in 1999, on a par 5 hole, Ford hit his fourth shot into a water hazard. And his fifth shot. And his sixth shot. Then the 86-year-old former president began to jump up and down, screaming an expletive that can’t be printed here.
By then, they had became friends. “He was a warm, easygoing guy – from the Midwest, like me, and a man of the House, like I was too,” Boehner said. Ford had been House Republican leader when he replaced the disgraced Spiro Agnew as vice president. He succeeded to the presidency when Nixon was forced to resign.
“He hadn’t looked for advancement like that, he was just doing his job – and we needed him to help bring much needed stability to the country after all the Watergate mess,” Boehner said. He called Ford “the most decent president I’ve ever met.”
But the job Ford really wanted was the one Boehner eventually got.
“It was pretty clear to me that Ford felt his jump to the Executive Branch was a wrong turn,” Boehner said. Ford told him, “a bit sadly,” that all he ever wanted to be was speaker.
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Boehner still considered himself a Democrat in 1976, but he didn’t vote for Jimmy Carter. As he watched Carter’s tenure, Boehner became increasingly interested in politics – in 1980, he ran for president of the local homeowners’ association – and drawn to the GOP.
“A rather controversial presidency,” he said of Carter, without elaboration. “And frankly I think he became more famous after.”
Ronald Reagan was the reason Boehner became a Republican.
“He was talking about economics in a way that really made small-business folks like me sit up and pay attention,” Boehner recalled, noting Reagan’s commitment to lower tax rates, supply-side economics and the power of the free market. “So I finally looked around and said to myself, I’m not a Democrat anymore. I’m a Republican. And I’m a Reagan Republican, too.”
But he also said Reagan wouldn’t recognize today’s GOP, defined by Donald Trump and the Freedom Caucus, “and he sure as hell couldn’t get elected in it.”
George H.W. Bush
“What a wonderful man, a wonderful man,” Boehner said.
As Bush was serving as vice president, Boehner was launching his own political career in the Republican Party. In 1984, he was elected to the Ohio House of Representatives, starting an unbroken string of electoral victories and a political rise that eventually would make him close friends with Bush’s son.
If Boehner’s assessment of the elder Bush is short and sweet, his view of Bill Clinton is more complicated, and more mixed.
“One of the best politicians in my lifetime,” he said, and a “fantastic talker.”
But he also said Clinton reminded him of Eddie Haskell, the obsequious kid from “Leave it to Beaver,” a TV sitcom from the 1950s and 1960s. “He could steal your watch right in front of you and you’d be grateful when he told you the time,” Boehner said. The president also played “a slightly shady” game of golf, including a fondness for taking mulligans, or do-over shots. Boehner called them “Billigans.”
In his book, Boehner wrote that he admired Clinton’s “skillful” campaign in 1992, “where he managed to survive accusations of adultery, draft dodging, being a communist, drug running and even mass murder.” He added: “Some of those allegations were more credible than others, but I’ll let you decide which was which.”
It was blowback by voters to Clinton’s first two years in office that gave Republicans control of the House in 1994, he said.
Boehner voted to impeach Clinton on charges of lying under oath and obstruction of justice when he tried to cover up an affair with a White House intern. He said the move was motivated by Republican whip Tom DeLay’s calculation that impeachment would be “a big win politically.”
It wasn’t, and Boehner no longer argues that Clinton’s misdeeds rose to the “high crimes and misdemeanor” required in the Constitution for impeachment.
“I regret it now,” he said. “I regret that I didn’t fight against it.”
George W. Bush
They are close in age and personality, both outgoing men with a fondness for sports and frat-boy humor. “My brother,” Boehner said of George W. Bush. “We’re like two peas of the same pod.”
They got to know one another in the 1990s, when House Republicans were trying to build closer relationships with GOP governors, including Bush. But Bush didn’t excel in the poker games they sometimes joined. The Texas governor would fold unless he had a packed hand – a “tell” to everybody else in the game. “He seemed incapable of bluffing,” Boehner said.
When Bush was elected president in 2000, Boehner was part of the House Republican leadership. He would be the House Republican leader during Bush’s second term.
They worked together to pass Bush’s signature education bill early in the administration, but struggled to respond to the financial meltdown in 2008. By then, Boehner said, “my friend George Bush had pretty much lost all credibility with conservatives, who hated his view on immigration, and the rest of the country, who were tired of the war in Iraq.”
Barack Obama was “a good man but not a great president,” Boehner said.
When the two shared a round of golf in 2011 – in a foursome that also included vice president Joe Biden and Ohio governor John Kasich – Boehner proposed they work on a major budget deal. After closely-held negotiations, Boehner said they reached an agreement that would have begun to bring the federal deficit under control. But he said Obama, under pressure from Democrats, then demanded a last-minute change that nixed it.
In his memoir, “A Promised Land,” published last year, Obama didn’t portray a deal as settled, and he compared Boehner to the state legislators he had known in Springfield, “regular guys who didn’t stray from the party line or the lobbyists who kept them in power.” He depicted him as likeable but ineffective, and not in control of a rowdy Republican caucus.
Boehner called the failure to seal the sweeping budget accord the biggest regret of his political career.
“The deal was done and he walked away from it,” he said of Obama. “Sad, sad, sad, sad.”
As with several other presidents, Boehner first met Trump over a game of golf.
Boehner was then the House minority leader on a fundraising tour, scheduled to play golf at the Trump National Golf Club in Westchester, New York, with two insurance executives. “Out of nowhere” they were informed that Trump himself would be their fourth.
“He was very friendly, but in an in-your-face, this-is-how-they-talk-in-New-York-kind of way that I was not used to at all,” Boehner recalled. “Direct, loud, intense.” When a young aide to Boehner embarrassed Trump by giving him the wrong name for one of the insurance executives, Trump dressed him down in a way that Boehner said was “dark.” He called the aide an “idiot” in an expletive-laced tirade.
“This was more than New York bluster,” Boehner said. “This was real anger, over something very, very small. We had no idea then what that anger would do to our country.”
Boehner retired from elective politics in 2015, as Trump was considering a bid for the White House. Early in his presidency, Trump would call him for advice. Among other things, Boehner urged him to stop tweeting, counsel that the president famously declined to take.
How will history judge Trump?
“Well, I don’t think very well.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Boehner rates the presidents he has known, from Nixon to Trump