Like Richard Nixon’s resignation speech 41 years earlier, John Boehner’s sudden valedictory from Congress may be said to be the old politician’s finest moment.
Unlike Nixon’s, that is not saying very much.
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While Sen. Barry Goldwater, the father of modern conservatism, had to drift over from the Hill to deliver the news to President Nixon that his last friend in Congress had deserted him, Boehner arrived all by himself at the conclusion that the last vestige of leadership had escaped him and that he had to go for his own good if not the country’s.
Even Nixon’s worst critics admitted that nothing he had done had become him so much as the way he took leave of public office, in disgrace only 19 months after winning one of the greatest landslides in history. He resigned with humility, grace and even slight if grudging contrition for the shame he had earned for the government in Watergate.
It was easier for most people to feel more sympathy for Boehner than almost anyone had for Nixon because Boehner’s dismal failings in four-and-a-half years as speaker of the House of Representatives were not altogether of his own making and none of them owing to base motives. Many will make the case that Boehner’s one notable achievement — avoiding a collapse of the republic over his party’s maniacal effort to destroy the presidency of Barack Obama — might not have been possible under the leadership of anyone else in the upper ranks of House Republicans.
I may make too much of John Boehner’s resignation by comparing the old bar sweeper’s quitting to Nixon’s resignation, which was one of the pivotal events in U.S. history. But the circumstances of Nixon’s resignation had much in common with Boehner’s: a country deeply divided, an engulfing suspicion, even hatred, in Washington, and despair over the government’s inability to get anything done — in Nixon’s case despite near unanimity by the president and opposition leaders on a national health insurance plan much like what would become Obamacare in 2010. Nixon said he was resigning to end the nation’s nightmare and begin its healing, and Boehner said he quit to save the House of Representatives, the institution he loved.
Watergate and Nixon’s resignation obscured the breathtaking accomplishments of the most devious occupant of the White House ever: the groundbreaking SALT treaty for nuclear-arms reduction with the hated and untrustworthy Russians, the opening to communist China, the massive airlift that saved Israel in the Yom Kippur War, undertaken by Nixon over the objections of all his advisers, including Henry Kissinger, and in spite of Nixon’s own virulent anti-Semitism.
Boehner’s one chance for historic achievement, immigration reform, a giant goal of the business and Bush wing of the Republican Party, he blew by joining the blackmail branch of his party and blocking the bipartisan immigration bill negotiated by his counterpart in the Senate, Mitch McConnell. By Dec. 11, the next doomsday date, McConnell will have replaced Boehner as Public Enemy No. 2. You know who No. 1 is.
What was most compelling about Boehner’s leavetaking — besides the timing, hours after he shed tears of joy during Pope Francis’ homily to Congress, an event the speaker had arranged — was his laying much of the blame for his own and the nation’s troubles at the feet of his tormentors in the House, the group of 30 or 40 congressmen sometimes called the tea party caucus. They wanted to take the nation to the precipice, even to default on the nation’s bills for the first time in history, to bring the president of the United States and the other party to their knees.
Boehner always joined them, calling for scores and scores of votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act, although every one of them was missing any substitute for the law that now insures close to 8 million Americans, some 300,000 in Arkansas. Boehner saw to it that the House got to vote on budgets that would begin to unravel Medicare, sharply curtail food assistance to the poor and that would stop payments to Planned Parenthood, one of the medical groups that provide gynecological health services to poor women.
But Boehner would never step over the cliff with them and test whether shutting down the government for a long period and defaulting on public debts would bring the cataclysm for the currency and the economy that economists have always predicted. So they planned a vote on vacating the speakership, and too many others in what passes for the moderate faction were fed up with Boehner’s irresolution and his occasional hamhandedness, as with the effort to force congressional staffs to abandon their traditional government health plans for the Obamacare version while finagling secretly to do the opposite.
When Nixon resigned in August 1974, cheers resounded across the land — from Democrats. When Sen. Marco Rubio announced at the right-wing Republican caucus of religious “values” voters that Boehner had just resigned, the crowd went wild with jubilation. They were his own people.
Here is the factor that may have decided it for Boehner: All the Republican candidates for president except Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Rand Paul on his good days, all chasing those “values” voters, have joined the blackmail faction and support the doomsday option — never compromise, shutter the government, trigger default if it comes to it, and bully or go to war with every potential adversary or malingering ally abroad.
Can Boehner’s successor manage the party’s competing interests any better or even as well? He might adopt the pope’s now-famous plea to Americans: Pray for me.