John Boehner: The GOP's Friendly New Face

Rep. John Boehner, the newly-elected House majority leader, is tanned, rested and ready, and determined to make voters forget about Tom DeLay.

The movie star-handsome eight-term Republican from Cincinnati held his first sit-down session with congressional reporters this week, and came off as the antidote to his predecessor, who masterminded the gerrymandered Texas delegation now being challenged before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Unlike the smarmy Texan, who zapped his political enemies like the bugs he used to exterminate while calling the Environmental Protection Agency "the Gestapo of government," or his hand-picked successor, the Dr. Spock-like Roy Blunt of Missouri, Boehner is user-friendly, which is good news for Republicans and bad news for Democrats.

Boehner (proinouced BAY-NER, not BON-ER), is no political virgin. He exploited the system as well as anyone, even famously passing out checks from the tobacco industry to colleagues on the floor of the House. But his saving grace is that he's no DeLay, which is why he scored a surprising upset of Blunt when Republicans decided they needed a new face for their party.

"If this goes well," he joked as he confronted more than 40 reporters in the conference room of his office on the first floor of the Capitol, "maybe we'll do it again." Boehner set a tone of civility, unlike that of the confrontational DeLay or the robot-like Blunt, or even the incandescent Gingrich or his hard-edged number two man, Dick Armey of Texas, that bodes well for Republicans.

As Jack Torrey of the Columbus Dispatch, one of the best reporters covering the Ohio delegation -- and the author of a very good book about the Cleveland Indians -- said afterwards, "Democrats should be careful of what they wish for." He was referring, of course, to Democrats' hopes of deposing DeLay

Boehner, who once registered his objection to a critical story in The Hill by asking me, "How's your horse-bleep newspaper doing?," is a favorite of reporters because he's usually accessible, regularly holding court among fellow smokers in the Speaker's lobby.

Sans suit coat and wearing a white shirt and golden tie, the 56-year-old Boehner used humor to disarm reporters while taking more than 40 questions during a half-hour Q&A session for which his spokesman, Kevin Madden, who was DeLay's spokesman as well, had prepped him on some 40 questions he expected reporters to ask.

But Boehner didn't need much help. He handled softballs and hardballs with equal apomb, evading tough questions with humor, as when he was asked about the Republican furor over the Dubai Ports World deal. "If 'and's and 'buts' were candy and nuts,' every day would be Christmas," he said.

As The Hill's Patrick O'Connor reported, "Boehner's eyes lit up when a reporter asked about the pension bill, his area of expertise at the former chairman of the Education and Workforce Committee. He would not reveal his hand on the contentious issue of an airline bailout of the airline bailout but criticized Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) for slowing the legislation in the upper chamber, and joked that he would like to be included in a conference with the Senate 'if the Speaker names me.'"

Boehner was admirably restrained when asked if he enjoyed his new position as the second most important GOP House leader.

"Well, life has not changed a lot," he said. "There are still only seven days in a week and still only 24 hours in a day. But the days and weeks are filled up a little different than what they were." He humbly added, "It's a very big responsibility."

I asked him at the end of the session of he was surprised that he hadn't been asked one question about one of the most important issue facing Congress and the country, the war in Iraq. It was a question he hadn't been prepared for, but he staunchly defended the war effort.

John Boehner's maiden appearance before the Capitol Hill press corps has to be judged as a success. If nothing else, he proved that he ain't Tom DeLay. That may be enough to help his party maintain the slim margin of control it has enjoyed since 1995, and pave the way for him to become Speaker when Hastert realizes his dream of becoming U.S. ambassador to Japan.