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In New Role, Boehner Plays It Close to the Emotional Vest In New Role, Boehner Plays It Close to the Emotional Vest

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Congress / SPEAKER BOEHNER REACTS

In New Role, Boehner Plays It Close to the Emotional Vest

The new face of the GOP, known for his tearful eruptions, reacts to the Arizona tragedy with a quiet stoicism.

The new House speaker spoke from from the place he began his political career in 1981 as a trustee of West Chester Township.(Mark Lyons/Getty Images)

photo of Major Garrett
January 9, 2011

Nobody would have blamed Speaker John Boehner for crying this morning.

All of the Capitol is dazed and hamstrung with a kind of piercing grief because the abstract -- countless non-specific threats to members of both parties -- has now become hideously specific.

This has been and will be cause for tears.

 

And no one would have blamed Boehner, the new leader of the GOP, who spoke this morning from the place he began his political career in 1981 as a trustee of West Chester Township. Speaking from the Township hall and administrative offices, Boehner announced an exceedingly rare move: the lowering flags on the House side of the Capitol to half staff in honor of a staff member, Gabe Zimmerman, who was Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' district director of community outreach. 

Boehner spoke not to America, but more narrowly, to House members and staff, asking that "on this Sabbath Day," they keep Giffords and her staff in their prayers. He said public service "to our fellow citizens ... comes with a risk."

His coda: "This inhuman act should not and will not deter us from our calling to represent our constituents and to fulfill our oaths of office. No act, no matter how heinous, must be allowed to stop us from our duty."

The remarks lasted just over two minutes. There was no audience. The Speaker took no questions. He delivered the statement in a steady, straight-forward voice, shorn of any emotion -- unaware, perhaps, that is precisely what many Americans watching probably expected.

Boehner's demeanor could have been described as mechanical, but that would suggest an indifference that is utterly impossible for a House member known since he arrived in 1990 for good-natured and warm relations with members on both sides of the aisle.

Yes, Boehner was dry, but his bearing and the brief mark it made the dreadful morning after is consistent with what aides have always described as the speaker's steel in moments of crisis. The irony of the "Boehner water works" theme, aides say, is that Boehner's emotionalism surfaces when the stakes are low and the subject general: the long arc of life, the American Dream, aspirations of underprivileged children. But Boehner's serious, uncommonly blunt, and unruffled when the pressure, political or otherwise, is on.

In other words, Boehner's  emotional bandwidth is narrow at moments just like this, one where another kind of politician, Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan, would have reached for the Bible, poetry or the resonant language of leaders past to contextualize or give guiding reassurance to the nation or his more intimate Capitol family.

That's not Boehner's style, and it's not his approach to rhetoric, or to leadership. He was plain-spoken and relatively brief when he became Speaker and he was ever more so in this moment of testing. Lastly, Boehner, aides say, is concerned at such times with what is doable. He sees his role as limited: a constitutional figure with responsibilities to the House on matters of schedule, security, duty and condolences. It's a tidy, compact portfolio; one that Boehner dispatched with a directness and dispassion consistent with his short list of available remedies.

National consoling is the obligation of presidents and religious leaders, Boehner believes. Not speakers. The attempt on Giffords life is a real and proximate threat to the entire inner and outer working of the House, and Boehner knows it.

That is serious business, the kind that chills everyone in and around the Capitol to the core and kept Boehner in an emotional bottle -- even though no one would have blamed him for dabbing his eyes as he looked into the cold reality of the day after.

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