The speaker who speaks softly

Unlike other powerful Washington insiders, the soon-to-be-Speaker of the House doesn’t berate his staff or colleagues. The Ohio Republican has a management style that is unique, one that will be tested repeatedly in the next Congress. 

People who know Boehner well say the angrier he is, the quieter he gets.

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“His tone is inversely proportional to the amount of trouble you may be in,” says Chad Kolton, a former deputy press secretary for Boehner who now works at the public affairs firm HDMK.

Several of Boehner’s confidants, past and present, confirm that he has that cool-as-a-cucumber temperament. They now expect him to rely on the three pillars that have helped him rise to the top Republican post in Washington: keeping calm, listening well and stamping out drama.

Even Boehner, who turns 61 on Wednesday, recognizes in himself a steadiness that is rare in the fiery climate on Capitol Hill. In an interview earlier this year with The Hill, the GOP leader acknowledged that his personality doesn’t allow for angry outbursts.

“I don’t yell,” he said. “I don’t do anger. I’m not dictatorial. I’m not a screamer. I know where I want to go and try to build consensus and support to achieve the goals we set.” 

At times, however, Boehner does show emotion. He is prone to tears and has not shied away from raising his voice in public. 

In a display that cracked up members on both sides of the aisle, Boehner yelled throughout his floor speech before the House voted to overhaul the nation’s healthcare system in March, exclaiming, “Hell, no!” several times.

When it comes to leading his staff and colleagues, though, Boehner keeps his wits about him.

“He’s matter of fact,” says Rep.-elect Steve Chabot (R-Ohio). Chabot, who is returning to Congress after losing the seat he held for 14 years in 2008, was born and grew up in the same small Ohio town as Boehner — Reading — just a few years after the presumptive House Speaker. 

“He’s someone who doesn’t get real angry or throw things or get in people’s faces,” Chabot says. “He’s calm, and he’s not a bomb-thrower. He doesn’t like drama.”

Allies of Boehner say the 10-term lawmaker’s approach to interpersonal communication makes it clear exactly what is expected of them. What this amounts to is unsaid pressure they all feel: Don’t let John down.

“It’s analogous to, really, a father type of figure,” said Tyson Redpath. Redpath, now a lobbyist at the firm Russell & Barron, grew up in Boehner’s Ohio congressional district and served as his agriculture legislative aide. “My father never yelled, but he didn’t have to … You didn’t want to disappoint him, you hated disappointing him.”

“In some respects it would’ve been far better if he were a yeller,” Kolton said, explaining that the motivation in working for Boehner is a “deep and abiding fear of disappointing him.”

Boehner will tell you when something is wrong, Kolton added, “but he doesn’t do it by throwing a book at you or screaming at the top of his lungs or embarrassing you in front of other people.”

It’s a leadership style that works well, says Robert Bies, a management professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. Boehner is smart not to use too much emotion when managing his aides and colleagues, according to Bies.

“With the cool-calm thing, then selectively using anger can be very powerful,” he says. Constant use of strong-arm and emotionally charged tactics, like those that made former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) infamous, may work for a while, Bies says, “but a lot of people don’t look fondly on that era.” 

“Once you use anger all the time,” Bies said, “it becomes a decreasing currency.”

One person in Washington who is close to Boehner says his coming perch atop the House will showcase the Ohioan’s humble beginnings.

Boehner will be a much different House Speaker from Dennis Hastert (Ill.) and Newt Gingrich (Ga.), the two most recent Republican Speakers, says former Rep. Jim Nussle (R-Iowa). Like Boehner, Nussle was elected to the House in 1990 and served as a committee chairman during George W. Bush’s administration. 

Part of his calm demeanor comes from the fact that Boehner “does not wear his passion on his sleeve the way some members do,” says Nussle, who also served as Bush’s Office of Management and Budget director.

“That sometimes can be mistaken for being too dispassionate, and that’s not the case,” he says. “He cares deeply about what he’s working on, but he doesn’t always show it the way Gingrich did, certainly.”

Nevertheless, Boehner is an assertive leader who has no problem “calling balls and strikes,” Nussle said. But above all, he claims, Boehner brings to the job a humility that will inspire loyalty among his colleagues and staffers.

“He’s a very good listener,” said Nussle, explaining that, contrary to the post’s name, you have to be a better listener than speaker for the House’s top job.

“John fits that to a T,” Nussle said.