INTRO: John Boehner is about to replace Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House, and become the most powerful Republican in the country – and third in line to the presidency. He was swept in with the biggest Republican landslide in the house since 1938.
As “60 Minutes” and correspondent Lesley Stahl set off to meet him, we had two questions: Which John Boehner will show up as speaker? The compromiser that he’s been in the past, or the more hard-line conservative of late, who’s aligned himself with the Tea Party that helped bring him and his party back into power.
And what kind of a relationship will he develop with Mr. Obama?
We met at the Capitol the day after the president announced the new tax deal. When Stahl asked him about the president, he dwelt on their differences.
Lesley Stahl: What do you think of him?
Rep. John Boehner: I think he’s engaging. Certainly smart. Brilliant. But, you know, we come from different backgrounds. And I think our view of the economy is also very different.
That’s for sure: Stahl asked him about the president saying that the Republicans are holding the American people hostage to get tax cuts for the wealthy.
Stahl: He basically called you a hostage-taker.
Boehner: Excuse me, Mr. President. I thought the election was over. You know, you get a lot of that heated rhetoric during an election. But now it’s time to govern.
Stahl: Do you think that his tone will make it more difficult for you to come together as we move forward on issues? Or are you just flicking it off?
Boehner: I listen. I’ve got thick skin. And a lot of words get said here in Washington. You just have to let ‘em run off your back. The president was having a tough day.
Stahl: You’re so understanding.
Boehner: I have a tough day from time to time myself.
But later in the interview, it became clear that the president’s jab about hostage takers had bothered him.
Stahl: There have been moments of disrespect shown to President Obama.
Boehner: Well, there was some disrespect, I would suggest, that was shown to me yesterday by the president.
The most powerful Democrat and the now most powerful Republican are sizing each other up. They may have exchanged more words via television than in person. And most of them have been, shall we say, unfriendly.
Mr. Boehner was the one who urged Republicans in the house to vote as a block against all of Obama’s initiatives: health care, the stimulus and on and on. And he escalated the attacks during the campaign.
His strategy of defiance worked.
And on election night, in his victory speech, the public saw something they probably never expected from Boehner: it was called “the sob heard round the world.”
“I’ve spent my whole life chasing the American Dream,” Boehner said, choking up.
We learned two things that night: that the speaker-elect is one emotional guy, and that if ever there was an American Dream story, up from nothing, it’s Boehner’s.
He spent his childhood working at Andy’s, his father’s bar in Reading, Ohio, a factory town outside Cincinnati.
Stahl: You worked here from the age of…
Boehner: I was about 10 years old. We got to be about nine or ten and we came in on Saturday mornings with Dad. And mopped the floor. Helped cook breakfast. Clean up the dishes. Wash the windows.
His brothers and sisters all worked at the bar, all 11 of them, most of whom we met that day.
“Is this the first time since the election?” Stahl asked his siblings.
“Since the election. Yes. Yes,” several of them replied.
“So, now are you have to gonna call him Mr. Speaker?” Stahl asked.
“No,” several of them replied, laughing.
John Boehner is the second oldest, bossy with his three sisters and eight brothers. They lived in a small house, with only one bathroom.
“You had to get along?” Stahl asked.
“Yeah,” Boehner’s brother Bob replied.
“There wasn’t enough room to not get along!” John Boehner said.
“You couldn’t fight,” Stahl remarked.
“It wasn’t like you could hide in another room somewhere,” Boehner explained.
“We didn’t think it was unusual that we had 12,” his brother Bob added.
“Well, the only different between six or seven or 12, is that the chaos lasts longer!” Boehner said.
The congressman told Stahl he goes to church every morning growing up.
The Boehners were John Kennedy Democrats.
But in the 1970s, when he bought a small business and made millions, in plastics, he was shocked at how taxes ate up so much of it and converted to his new political religion: Reagan Republicanism.
In Congress, he was part of the Republican leadership until then-Speaker Newt Gingrich was forced out. Then, as he put it, he clawed and plotted his way back to becoming speaker.
Stahl: On election night, what made you sad, what got to you that night?
Boehner: I was talking, trying to talk about the fact that I’ve been chasing the American Dream my whole career. There’s some things that are very difficult to talk about. Family. Kids. I can’t go to a school anymore. I used to go to a lot of schools. And you see all these little kids running around. Can’t talk about it.
Boehner: Making sure that these kids have a shot at the American Dream, like I did. It’s important.
Turns out his colleagues in Congress are familiar with his waterworks. He even chokes up over legislation.
Stahl: Remember when Ed Muskie cried?
Boehner: Oh yeah.
Stahl: That wasn’t good.
Boehner: Wasn’t good. That’s alright. Listen…
Stahl: Are you trying not to?
Boehner: No. What you see is what you get. I’m, I know who I am. I’m comfortable in my own skin. And everybody who knows me knows that I get emotional about certain things.
So what kind of speaker will he be?
Stahl: Newt Gingrich was quoted in the paper saying that you should look at the mistakes he made and learn lessons from that.
Boehner: I have.
Stahl: You have?
Boehner: I have.
Stahl: Give us a hint of the mistakes that you’re gonna avoid.
Boehner: Well, first and foremost, this is not going to be about me.
Gingrich was flamboyant, Boehner is restrained. Gingrich was an ideologue; as a former businessman, Boehner’s more of an establishment Republican. During the campaign he was lampooned in ads for playing too much golf with lobbyists. But he also has a record of reaching across the aisle to work on legislation with the Democrats.
Stahl: Ted Kennedy. People are gonna be surprised to find out that you and Ted Kennedy were good friends.
Boehner: We were really good friends.
Stahl: Tell us about that.
Boehner: He may have been this big liberal lion publicly, privately he was a regular guy. You could work with him. Work things out.
The question now is whether he can work things out with the president. At his news conference on Tuesday, Obama threw out a challenge: “Once John Boehner’s sworn in as speaker, he’ll have a responsibility to govern. You can’t just stand on the sidelines and be a bomb thrower,” the president said.
Boehner: We have to govern. That’s what we were elected to do.
Stahl: But governing means compromising.
Boehner: It means working together.
Stahl: It also means compromising.
Boehner: It means finding common ground.
Stahl: Okay, is that compromising?
Boehner: I made it clear I am not gonna compromise on my principles, nor am I gonna compromise…
Stahl: What are you saying?
Boehner: …the will of the American people.
Stahl: You’re saying, “I want common ground, but I’m not gonna compromise.” I don’t understand that. I really don’t.
Boehner: When you say the word “compromise”…a lot of Americans look up and go, “Uh-oh, they’re gonna sell me out.” And so finding common ground, I think, makes more sense.
Stahl reminded him that his goal had been to get all the Bush tax cuts made permanent.
Stahl: So you did compromise.
Boehner: I’ve, we found common ground.
Stahl: Why won’t you say you’re afraid of the word.
Boehner: I reject the word.
One reason is because half of his new members are Tea Partiers who think compromise is a dirty word – even when it comes to raising the national debt limit, which Boehner has said the new Congress will have to deal with as adults to keep the federal government from defaulting.
Stahl: Are you gonna play the adult card with your caucus if they disagree with you?
Stahl: Sounds like…
Boehner: I’ll have my moments, I’m sure.
Stahl: But it’s sounds like a put down. Sounds like they’re children. And you’re going to have to…
Boehner: No, no.
Stahl: …treat them as children.
Boehner: No! And I think we’re on a pretty short leash. If we don’t deliver what the American people are demanding, they’ll throw us out of here in a heartbeat.
Stahl: You think the deficit is a major problem, don’t you?
Boehner: I do.
Stahl: Was the tax deal, in your opinion, worth the $900 billion added to the deficit, in your opinion?
Boehner: Washington does not have a revenue problem. Washington has a spending problem.
Stahl: I know. But I’m asking you a simple question. Was it worth what you got, was it worth it in light of the $900 billion?
Boehner: I think it’s worth it. I think it will create jobs. And help our economy.
Stahl: You’ve said you’re going to bring up a spending cutting measure
Boehner: Every week.
Stahl: Every week?
Boehner: Every week.
Stahl: What’s your first one gonna be?
Boehner: Well, how about we start with cutting Congress? I’m going to cut my budget, my leadership budget five percent. I’m going to cut all the leadership budgets by five percent. I’m gonna cut every committee’s budget by five percent. And every member is gonna see a five percent reduction in their allowance. All together that’s $25-$30 million and it likely would be one of the first votes we cast.
Stahl: Okay, but you admit that’s not very much money.
Boehner: You’ve got to start somewhere. And we’re going to start there.
And what about building a relationship with the president? They do have several things in common.
Stahl: You play golf. President plays golf. You’ve never played together, right?
Stahl: How come?
Boehner: I don’t know. Usually what happens is the president invites you.
Stahl: And you’re a much better golfer than he is. Right?
Boehner: He understands that.
Stahl: Which, (LAUGHTER) and that’s why he hasn’t invited you?
Boehner: No, I don’t know. But listen, playing golf with someone is a great way to get to know someone. You start trying to hit that little white ball, you can’t be somebody that you’re not, because all of you shows up.
Stahl: So is this a hint? Are you saying, “Come on, Mr. President. Let’s go get to know each other.”
Boehner: We’ve talked about it. We’ve talked about it a number of times. It just hasn’t happened yet.
The president teased Boehner about something else they share: “After all we have a lot in common. He is a person of color, although not a color that appears in the natural world,” Obama said.
Debbie Boehner, his wife of 37 years, says he’s had dark skin as long as she’s known him.
Boehner: Listen, I’ve never been in a tanning salon in my life. I’ve never used a tanning product in my life.
Mrs. Boehner stayed home in Ohio with their two daughters, Tricia and Lindsay, through his 20 years in congress. Stahl asked them how they met.
Boehner: Oh that was really romantic.
Stahl: Was it? Was it?
Boehner: I was emptying her garbage can one morning. When I was a janitor.
He was working nights to pay for college, which took him seven years to finish.
Stahl: So what do you think about him being speaker of the House? Has it hit you?
Debbie Boehner: No. It sure hasn’t. Real proud of him. He’ll do a good job. I’m real proud of him.
Stahl: You know what’s happening over here.
John Boehner: No, no. My nose is running.
Stahl: No it’s not. What set you off that time? ‘Cause she’s proud of you? He cries all the time?
Debbie Boehner: No, but he’s going through an emotional period, too. I mean, this isn’t you know, as you say this is not an ordinary job. Whoever would have thought that he’d be in this position. He was a janitor on the night shift when I met him. (LAUGHTER) He’s come a long way.
Stahl: Somebody who’s gone from mopping this floor to being speaker of the House.
Debbie Boehner: Yeah. Doesn’t happen every day.
John Boehner: Welcome to America.