From the mirror over the bar to the yellow neon Windsor Canadian sign on the opposite wall, Andy's Café in Carthage is about as wide as a two-car garage. The red vinyl bar stools and wood-laminate tables seat only 30 people "” usually neighborhood regulars. There's not much floor space. But it probably looked like acres to John Boehner, now 61, when he was in third grade.
The Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives started working when he was 8, mopping the floor and sorting bottles at the family bar. It was Andy's then, too "” opened by his grandfather Andy Boehner in 1938 at the corner of 72nd and Vine, close enough to the Jim Beam distillery to smell the cooking mash as you sip the final product. The bare wood floor is scuffed and worn to a dusty gray like a tarnished lead penny "” always thirsty for a mop.
All the Lessons
"All the lessons I learned growing up and working in a bar are what I need to do my job now," Boehner says, sitting in his West Chester home, gazing out at the snow-draped 10th fairway at Wetheringon Country Club. It's a long way from Andy's.
"I learned to get along," he says. "And I learned to deal with every jackass that walked in the door. I learned that from watching my dad. It didn't matter who you were, if you walked in wearing a suit and tie or overalls, everybody got treated the same."
As Boehner likes to say: "Welcome to America." That little buzz-cut kid, the one who swept up the cigarette butts, cigar stubs and bottle caps back in the '50s? Well, he's now one of top three leaders of the most powerful nation in the world. If that wasn't already a script for the American Dream, someone would have to write it.
He grew up the second oldest of 12 children in a small, two-bedroom, one-bathroom house in Reading. His parents slept on a pull-out sofa. While the girls had dibs on the bathroom, the boys found a tree outside. "And then my grandmother moved in with us," Boehner chuckles. "Geez. We didn't know any better."
He worked his way through college, becoming the first in his family to graduate. He threw newspapers, sold them, detailed cars, pumped gas and worked for two different roofing companies. He drove a truck, ran heavy equipment, shoveled blacktop, worked for a stonemason and filled in as a bartender at Andy's.
"I was a janitor when I met my wife (Debbie)," he says. She was a secretary, and he was emptying wastebaskets at a local chemical company. That's how he put himself through Xavier University. After graduation, he was hired as a salesman at Nucite, a plastics and packaging company in West Chester "” which he eventually took over as CEO before getting elected as a Union Township trustee, Ohio state representative, then congressman in 1990.
"I still insist I'm not a politician," he says, "just a small businessman who out of frustration with government decided to take a more active role in politics."
Being conservative comes naturally to him. "Growing up, we learned early that if you didn't work, you didn't eat," he says. "If you wanted something beyond the basics "” meaning a shirt and a pair of shoes, you had to go out and work for it."
As a student at Moeller High School, he met kids from Indian Hill and Kenwood. "I went home for dinner with them and went "¢Oh "” I had no idea.'"
"I became a neat freak. I just took control. I would organize everybody for one-and-a-half hours and all together we'd have the whole house perfect, cleaned, the grass cut, everything. Then an hour later you wouldn't know anything was done. It would be chaos again. I don't deal well with chaos."
Organizing 11 brothers and sisters may be slightly easier than training 434 incontinent egos in the U.S. House. But Boehner's not worried. His approach will be the same one he took to Congress in 1990 "” reform. More open, more participatory, and still no earmarks, no way.
One of the biggest untold stories of the Republican sweep in November is how the nation's power center has made a seismic shift to the heartland "” politically and geographically. L.A., New York and D.C. can step off. Boehner leads the House from Ohio; Sen. Mitch McConnell leads Republicans from Kentucky; and electorally critical Ohio is led by conservative Republican Gov. John Kasich. Expect more sweaters and plain talk, less spending and fewer designer slogans.
"The plain old Midwestern values we bring are really different from the West Coast and East Coast," Boehner says. "They are practical, common sense, right of center."
He has honed his craft by watching over the shoulders of former Republican House leaders Newt Gingrich, Denny Hastert and Tom DeLay and current Democrat Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi "” learning from their sometimes spectacular mistakes.
"The biggest lesson is that you can't force the legislative process to follow your own will," Boehner says. "That blows up in your face every time. It's not about me. That's where I think people have made mistakes in the past."
People still make mistakes about Boehner, too. Some think he's weak because he gets choked up over his American-dream biography. "I'm an emotional guy," he says. "I'm not going to apologize for feeling strongly." The tears "” on the floor of the House, in his acceptance speech, in interviews "” are genuine, and he is unabashed.
But this is the same roofer and black-topper who spent 12 years and a fortune to hound Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), for leaking an illegal recording of a 1996 phone conversation between Boehner and other Republican leaders. "It was a very simple principle," Boehner says. "Going after your political opponent is one thing. Breaking the law is something else." He won an apology and $1.2 million in legal fees.
Tee It Up
Opponents have tried to caricature Boehner as a wealthy elitist who plays golf when he's not on a tanning bed.
Golf? Tee it up. He loves the game. His annual Boehner Birdie Hunt is one of the most popular outings in Butler County. But what of the tan that President Obama mocked by calling Boehner "a person of color, though not a color you find in the natural world?" Well, everyone at Andy's knows that's fried baloney on white bread (on the menu for $3.50).
"His brothers come in here. His whole family used to come in for Christmas parties," says Bob Snelling, who owns the building. "His youngest brother is darker than John. His mother was very dark. That stuff about tanning beds is b------t."
That's the way people talk in a working man's bar "” as blunt as the wrong end of a pool cue. And that's how Boehner talks.
When Democrats pushed through national healthcare reform, Boehner answered, "Hell no, you can't." That impassioned declaration was met with a rap of the House gavel and the admonition: "Both sides would do well to remember the dignity of House." It has since gone viral on YouTube.
Boehner called Pelosi's pork-filled Stimulus Bill a "s--t sandwich." And when ousted Democrats tried to raise taxes in the lame duck Congress, Boehner called it "a chicken crap move."
"That comes from speaking English," he says. "I wasn't planning on saying it, but my colleagues on the other side of the aisle were lying, and it just irritated me. It was a chicken s---t move, and I said so."
People appreciate plain talk, he says. Well, most people. "I was waiting for my plane the other night and this woman came up and asked "¢Are you John Boehner?' I said I was, and she said, "¢I think you're lying to the American people, and I think you should be ashamed of it.' I said, "¢OK, thank you.'"
That response is typical Ohio and typical Boehner "” one of the reasons many former staffers call him "Don Draper" for the way he dresses sharp and keeps his cool, like the Mad Men character. For a brief moment though, he jokes about how the rude woman in the airport made him think twice about scrapping Pelosi's policy of using military jets for personal use.
"But 99 percent of the time, people are nice," he says. Now that he's a national figure, he can't stop in at Skyline without people applauding. "One person takes a picture, and that opens a whole flood," says his wife. "He gets an earful when he comes home."
At Andy's, they are still getting calls from out-of-towners. "We had a woman call from Tennessee," says owner Vicky Bauer. "She said, 'I just want to tell you how proud I am of John Boehner.' I didn't know what to say so I just said, 'Thank you.'"
Boehner shakes his head over the hoopla and lights another Camel cigarette. "It sounds odd, but for the last 10 weeks I have been calm and confident, exactly like this," says Boehner, making a straight line in the air with a flat palm "” not unlike wiping the top of a bar. "Because whatever is going on today, there's a pile of work to do tomorrow. There's no time to get down or celebrate."
So he's rolling up his sleeves for another job. The spending binge is over. There are a lot of empty bottles to sort and a very big floor to mop in the U.S. House.