House Minority Leader John Boehner’s Bid for Speaker

The House Republican leader’s infamous tan is fading, as the prospect of becoming speaker grows. Margaret Carlson on his new (skin) tone—and the rumblings of a coup in his ranks.

John Boehner. Credit: AP Photo

To those looking for another barometer of the GOP’s chances on November 2, look no further than the face of Minority Leader John Boehner. It's fading into the woodwork these days, if the woodwork is a pale mahogany, and that bodes well for Republicans retaking the House. Boehner is preparing for leadership by ditching the tan that’s defined him over two decades in Washington. Last month on Good Morning America when George Stephanopoulos asked about it, he mentioned all the yard work he’d been doing back in his Cincinnati district and then said “Thank you,” with a comic pause—meant to signal that that was going to be all the discussion about his face he would engage in that, or any other, day.

Looks are superficial, granted, but unfortunately for Boehner, more people know him for his amber color than anything else. In a Public Policy Poll (PPP) taken in September of this year, 42 percent of Ohio voters say they didn't know enough about Boehner to rate him one way or the other as a congressman. As for his tan, 8 percent of voters in the state have a favorable opinion, 27 percent view it unfavorably, 30 percent of voters in the state think Boehner spends too much time on his tan, while 4 percent—the most interesting group—say he doesn’t spend enough time.

President Barack Obama joked that Boehner was not a color seen in nature at the 2009 White House Correspondents Dinner. With the color line broken, a deluge of humor at Boehner’s expense broke out among late-night comedians. Jon Stewart got off one of the better descriptions of Boehner observing “either he's getting ready to play an Indian in a 1950s Western, or John Boehner is not human but actually made entirely of cured meats."

Boehner’s competition for speaker, should Republicans win a majority, is Minority Whip Eric Cantor, whom no one has ever accused of having color of any kind. As white as the driven snow, Cantor, 47, is young and bland where Boehner, 60, is old and colorful, a throwback to Dean Martin with a cigarette dangling from his lips, insouciance dripping from his hooded eyes, and an inner clock that tells him it’s time for a drink. He works, but not so he’d break a sweat. No one could possibly squeeze in more rounds of golf. His fundraising schedule follows the rotation of the Earth around the sun.

Cantor is a wonk who is hard to know and a little prickly. When he’s up late, it’s not because he’s out on the town but in search of a marketable ideas to thwart Democrats. In the meantime, Boehner hopes to get by with the Pledge to America, warmed over trickle-down economics brewed with some strong Tea Party anger. Recently, Boehner alarmed purists when he committed heresy by saying he might consider giving up the Bush tax cuts if it meant keeping cuts for the middle class.

If Boehner didn’t know the super ambitious Cantor was nipping at his heels, Cantor just published a book with two colleagues, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Kevin McCarthy of California, titled Young Guns, which suggests they can see playing themselves in a made-for-TV movie of the same name (it’s subtitled A New Generation of Conservative Leaders.) In the foreword, Weekly Standard Editor Fred Barnes pushes Cantor as the next speaker. At a book party at Johnny's Half Shell on the Hill, Boehner acknowledged the elephant(s) in the room. “The three of them know that my job is to makes sure that they're well-qualified and ready to take my place..." pregnant pause... "at the appropriate moment."

If the blogs and the New York Post are on to something, a lobbyist Boehner’s more than friends with could be another reason for his newly scrubbed face. There’s often a new woman behind any change in a man’s previously ignored body part. Rudy Giuliani’s affair was confirmed not by Donna Hanover’s driveway press conference but when he began moving away from the east-to-west combover to slicking his hair straight back under the influence of Judith Nathan.

Cantor may well wait his turn—Republicans like the order that seniority provides—but this incoming class of newbies is going to contain a lot of anarchists and Tea Partiers unwilling to follow the “esteemed colleague” niceties of Congresses past. As for Speaker-in-Waiting Boehner, he’ll do a partial Nixon—and be untanned, ready, and rested for the job.

Margaret Carlson is a columnist for Bloomberg News. She was a columnist and deputy Washington bureau chief for Time magazine.