By David Hill - 02/08/06 12:00 AM EST
John Boehner’s improbable restoration to a top GOP leadership post is the stuff of movie plots.
My first reaction was to view his comeback as something like “Rocky” or “Cinderella Man,” but Boehner seems too refined to be a bloodied boxer in the ring. No, the longer I looked at the circumstances, the more I became convinced that “Revenge of the Nerds” is the archetype that best tells Boehner’s story.
I arrived at this conclusion after reading the official biographies of Boehner and his major opponent, Missouri’s Roy Blunt, in an effort to find clues to the new majority leader’s upset victory.
But before I ever got to the biographies, I was stopped in my tracks by something on Boehner’s campaign website. The Ohio congressman welcomes his site’s visitors with a signed “Dear Friend” letter. The content of this letter is mind-boggling and clearly separates Boehner from other politicians of this age. After some initial typical pitter-patter about the future, destiny, dreams and bloated budgets, Boehner drops an RN-bomb, and I don’t mean Richard Nixon. No, I mean Reinhold Niebuhr.
Right there in black and white, he launches into a cerebral Niebuhr nugget: “The temper of and integrity with which the political fight is waged is more important for the health of our society than the outcome of any issue or campaign.” Not since a fellow professor once advised me in my academic days that “the nectar is in the journey” have I had such a start.
On so many levels, the invocation of Niebuhr on Boehner’s home page is fascinating. The only other real politician I ever recall mentioning Niebuhr was Jimmy Carter. But the more I reminded myself about Niebuhr’s life, the craftier Boehner’s move seemed.
First, theologian Niebuhr became more conservative himself as his life unfolded, moving from being a socialist to an anti-communist and critic of the social gospel. Is Boehner giving us a subliminal cue about himself? Then, to top it off, I noted that Niebuhr was a native of Missouri. Was Boehner making a bold, in-your-face statement by rustling his intellectual horsepower from Blunt’s home state?
Boehner’s biographies highlight his education, telling us that he prepped at a respected parochial high school, Archbishop Moeller in Cincinnati, and that he earned a bachelor’s degree in business from Xavier, a Jesuit university in Cincinnati. This is the educational track we’d expect from a budding Catholic intellectual. Blunt speaks only obliquely of his college alma mater, a modest Baptist school.
Boehner’s biographies are also longer and meatier than Blunt’s. Boehner’s official biography is 856 words long. Separately, Boehner’s campaign website has a 1,739-word treatise on his issue positions. This is clearly a man of substance with lots to tell you. By comparison, Blunt’s official biography is fewer than 500 words long and his issue discussion contains only 696 words.
Blunt had a separate majority-leader website on which his official biography was only 26 words long. Neither of Blunt’s official sites quotes intellectuals (unless you count Robert Novak as such), and the defeated Blunt’s academic credentials are couched as those of an administrator rather than a scholar.
In all seriousness, I’m thoroughly convinced that Boehner’s deeper probing of profound thoughts was a factor in his victory. It’s another case study of brains over brawn, nerds over frat boys (although this nerd has a frat-boy tan). Let’s just hope that smart survives this time.
Brains didn’t save Newt Gingrich, and his ugly departure hurt Boehner’s career. But now Boehner’s a survivor of that era, and as Niebuhr once said, “If we survive danger it steels our courage more than anything else.” Be steely, Mr. Boehner.
Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.