Speaker of the House John Boehner is third in the line of succession to the presidency, and he was second in the line of succession on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno (behind Matt LeBlanc).
But, in his first and last appearance on Jay’s couch Thursday night, Boehner was indisputably No. 1 in a succession of blunt, undiplomatic remarks that had the potential, by turns, of irritating House Republicans he putatively leads, prompting New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to plot diabolical payback, causing former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to send him a pricey bouquet, and provoking an international incident involving Russian President Vladimir Putin.
This was Boehner unplugged—possibly Boehner unhinged (unhinged from his talking points, at least). In any event, it was the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the constitutional leader of one of the three branches of government, as he is seldom seen or heard on those starchy Washington Sunday shows or during his regular Thursday morning press gaggles.
“Ever think of running for president?” Leno asked him at one point.
“No!” Boehner fairly shouted.
“Wanna show what you did when I asked you before?” Leno coaxed—apparently referring to a backstage hand gesture of the sort that the Ohio Republican might also have made a year ago when advising Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to perform the anatomically impossible.
“Listen,” Boehner said, ignoring Leno’s invitation, “I like to play golf, I like to cut my own grass, I do drink red wine, I smoke cigarettes—and I’m not giving that up to be president of the United States.”
It’s not implausible that red wine and cigarettes figured in the 64-year-old Boehner’s Tonight Show preparation; he was looking far too relaxed for his somber dark suit and crisp white shirt, though maybe that hot pink-patterned tie was a tipoff. Swinging eagerly at Leno’s curve balls and apparently hoping for the best, he was at once appealingly human and thrillingly dangerous.
“No!” he snapped when Jay asked if he’d ever met Putin, the czar of the Sochi Olympics and the leader of 144 million Russians. “And I don’t want to meet him. I think he’s a thug, and I think he’s treated his neighbors in a disrespectful way and, frankly, I think the president ought to stand up to him.”
That got applause from the Cold Warriors in the audience at NBC’s Burbank studios.
Leno—a lame-duck television host whose final Tonight Show is scheduled for Feb. 6, after which Jimmy Fallon will commandeer the desk—made some news himself, blurting “I agree with you,” when Boehner called indicted whistleblower Edward Snowden “a traitor to the country.” (As a side note, the Speaker explained that he had finally accepted Leno’s repeated invitations, with only two weeks to go, because “this show is about over, and I thought I ought to get here before it’s too late.” To which Jay parried, “I was gonna say the same thing for you!”—punctuating his little jab with his trademark squealing giggle.)
Boehner dismissed concerns—raised by Snowden, various elected U.S. officials, foreign leaders and others—about the National Security Agency’s massive spying on America’s allies, and vice versa. “Let’s just get over it,” he exhorted. “It’s been going on for thousands of years.”
As for Chris Christie, the Speaker’s initial stout defenses of the beleaguered governor—an early frontrunner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination—are no longer sounding all that stout.
Leno asked if the scandal-plagued Christie is now “damaged goods.”
“It doesn’t appear he knew anything about it,” Boehner parsed carefully, referring to last September’s politically vengeful traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge. “He took responsibility, fired the people who were involved. He apologized.” Then, as if suddenly remembering all the nasty insults Christie heaped on him and the House Republicans last year concerning legislative delays of Superstorm Sandy aid, Boehner added: “But this is not gonna go away any time soon.”
When Leno suggested that sometimes it takes “slapping [people] around… behind closed doors” to get important things accomplished, Boehner scoffed: “That may happen in New Jersey. It doesn’t happen in Ohio.”
When Leno asked Boehner if he likes any potential Republican candidates for 2016, the Speaker replied: “I’m not endorsing anybody. Jeb Bush is my friend. I think he’d make a great president.” In other words, he endorsed Jeb Bush.
Probably the most bracing part of Boehner’s time on the couch was when the discussion turned to the fractious behavior of the Tea Party wing of the House Republican conference, whose frantic attempts to defund President Obama’s Affordable Care Act led to last year’s politically damaging government shutdown from which the Republican brand has yet to recover.
“About the GOP infighting—is this the worst you’ve ever seen it?” Leno asked.
“Oh, well,” Boehner began, as if getting ready to disagree. But then he blurted: “Maybe it is. It’s bad.”
Boehner was careful to praise Tea Party members of Congress who bring “great energy to the political process”—a compliment that might strike some of them as patronizing—but griped about “some Washington organizations [a barely veiled reference to the Club for Growth, among others] who purport to represent the Tea Party, who I think mislead them. There’s nothing I could do that was conservative enough for them.”
Boehner supported Leno’s claim that the shutdown was disastrous for Republicans—“Yep! Yep! Yep!” he agreed—and was at pains to explain why he let it happen. “When you have my job, there’s something you have to learn when I looked up and saw my colleagues going this way,” the Speaker said. “And you learn that a leader without followers is simply a man taking a walk.”
So he went along with shutdown zealots, hoping that “the sooner we got it over with, the better,” Boehner said, even though it was “tactically not the right way to do it.”
In another part of his chat with Jay, Boehner likened being Speaker of the House to his formative years toiling with his 11 siblings in the family business, a saloon in Cincinnati—mopping the floor, waiting tables, and tending bar. “You have to learn to deal with every jackass that walks in the door,” he told Leno. “Trust me, I need all the skills I learned growing up to do my job.”
Boehner, meanwhile, explained his preternatural tan—which Leno, mining the obvious, mocked as “orange” in his monologue—as simply the consequence of spending time outdoors. Plus “my mother’s dark-complected so I’m a little dark," Boehner said. "No tanning beds. No spray or anything. Not ever! Not once ever!”