“You can call me boner, beaner, jackass, happy to answer to almost anything,” said former Speaker of the House John Boehner as he took the stage at CEMEX Auditorium on Wednesday evening. Boehner joined David M. Kennedy, faculty director and history professor emeritus, in a talk hosted by Stanford in Government (SIG) and the Stanford Speakers Bureau.
This joking yet blunt attitude set the tone for the night as Kennedy and the former Speaker discussed topics ranging from Boehner’s upbringing in Ohio to the future of the Republican Party. For the second half of the program, Kennedy opened up the floor to student questions.
2016 presidential election
Much of the discussion — and laughs — focused on Boehner’s views on the current presidential candidates. Segueing into the topic, Kennedy asked Boehner to be frank given that the event was not being broadcasted, and the former Speaker responded in kind. When specifically asked his opinions on Ted Cruz, Boehner made a face, drawing laughter from the crowd.
“Lucifer in the flesh,” the former Speaker said. “I have Democrat friends and Republican friends. I get along with almost everyone, but I have never worked with a more miserable son of a bitch in my life.”
Boehner described other Republican candidates as friends. In particular, he said he has played golf with Donald Trump for years and that they were “texting buddies.”
His friendship with Ohio Governor John Kasich, however, was a little more ambiguous.
“[Kasich] requires more effort on my behalf than all my other friends … but he’s still my friend, and I love him,” Boehner said.
Boehner for the most part accepted Trump as the presumptive Republican nominee, though he did express his surprise at the candidate’s success. While he did not praise Trump’s policies, the former Speaker did say he would vote for Trump in the general election if he becomes the Republican nominee. He said he would not, however, vote for Cruz.
When it came to the Democrat primaries, Boehner asserted his belief that although Bernie Sanders has put up a significant fight, Hillary Clinton will win the nomination. While stating that he disagreed with Sanders on all the issues, he also called Sanders a nice guy and the most honest politician in the race.
On Clinton, Boehner’s reviews were more mixed. Early in the talk, he impersonated Clinton, saying “Oh, I’m a woman, vote for me,” to a negative crowd reaction. Later, he added that he had known Clinton for 25 years and finds her to be very accomplished and smart.
Boehner also speculated about surprises that could come closer to the Democratic National Convention if Hillary Clinton’s emails became a larger scandal.
“Don’t be shocked … if two weeks before the convention, here comes Joe Biden parachuting in and Barack Obama fanning the flames to make it all happen,” Boehner said.
Time in office
Kennedy also spent a large portion of the talk asking the former Speaker about his time in office and his relationship with President Obama. Having been elected to office 13 times — a number which he was quick to clarify with Kennedy — Boehner said he had learned a lot from previous Speakers, including Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi.
Throughout the talk, Boehner frequently referenced the Freedom Caucus as the “knuckleheads” and “goofballs” in Congress. When Kennedy asked about the Democrats in Congress, Boehner asserted that both parties have their own inner divisions.
“The thing that’s different about Republicans and Democrats is that [Democrats] do their fights behind closed doors,” he said. “Republicans are way too independent for that.”
Although he talked about the challenges of working with a partisan, gridlocked Congress, Boehner reflected positively on his relationship with Obama. Although he acknowledged that the two disagree, Boehner said the two get along well.
Boehner described his days in office as fairly repetitive and very busy. He would wake up around 5:30 a.m., walk to Starbucks for coffee, then return home to do some morning reading. He would go into the office around 8 a.m., and “then it was like a sprint all day long.” According to Boehner, however, he always made sure to go home by 10 p.m.
“I think my proudest accomplishment is walking out of there the same jackass I was 25 years before,” Boehner said.
In speaking of his retirement, the former Speaker said he didn’t regret a thing. As a Catholic, Boehner said it was particularly moving to meet Pope Francis when he spoke to Congress. Boehner resigned the following day.
When the floor was opened for student questions, questions ranged from asking Boehner to push for the censure of former Speaker Dennis Hastert to his opinions on the future of the Republican Party.
Brandon Camhi ’16 asked Boehner about how he would prevent more socially progressive conservatives from becoming disillusioned with the Republican Party.
“If I were running for president, I’d be running on things that unite Republicans,” Boehner said. “These other issues are just going to keep coming up, and the Democrats know where our soft spots are.”
According to Camhi, this was as much as he expected the former Speaker to be able to answer his question.
“He said as much as he’s going to say, and what he said is true,” Camhi said. “The Republican Party has to move away from divisive social issues.”
More generally, Camhi was surprised by how candidly Boehner spoke. According to Alex Lee ’18, who attended the smaller reception with Boehner after the event as a member of the Stanford Speakers Bureau, this same candor was present in his personal conversations as well.
According to Lee, it was also interesting to have a minority political opinion being represented on Stanford’s predominantly liberal campus.
“I could [feel] the tension in the room when Boehner said certain things, namely claiming that Clinton was leveraging her gender or discussing South Carolina bathrooms,” Lee said.
At the end of the discussion, Kennedy re-focused the talk by asking Boehner who his political heroes were. In his answer, Boehner re-emphasized his own relatively moderate stances within the Republican Party.
“Well you know I’m a big fan of Ronald Reagan,” Boehner said. “But I love all these knuckleheads talking about the party of Reagan. He would be the most moderate Republican elected today.”
Contact Ada Statler-Throckmorton at adastat ‘at’ stanford.edu.