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Plaintive lawmakers lament bygone era at Boehner, Isakson tributes

Two ceremonies at the Capitol on Tuesday felt more wistful than celebratory

Former Speaker  John Boehner, R-Ohio, stands next to his portrait after its unveiling in Statuary Hall in the Capitol on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Former Speaker  John Boehner, R-Ohio, stands next to his portrait after its unveiling in Statuary Hall in the Capitol on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

They were ostensibly celebrations, but listening to the lamenting politicians addressing the audiences at each one, they felt more like funerals. Speaker after speaker delivering elegies for a bygone era when bipartisanship and cooperation held sway.

One honored a man who became Speaker of the House before his own unruly caucus drove him into retirement. The other celebrated a man who overcame early political losses, but went on to serve with a quiet cooperative style before health problems limited his ability.

Former Speaker John A. Boehner returned to the House Tuesday to receive his official portrait since retiring in October 2015.

But amid all the paeans to bipartisanship, America’s political reality seemed to be rebuking Boehner’s approach to politics in real time, a political style that may not have been as fashionable as the crew gathered in Statuary Hall seemed to remember in the first place.

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That same night, Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, who announced he would retire at the end of the year, received a goodbye ceremony in the Kennedy Caucus Room in the Russell Senate Office Building.

Both Isakson and Boehner personify a style of politics currently out of vogue, one that stresses compromises in which both sides are a little unhappy with the outcome. Today’s politics, embodied by President Donald Trump, espouses total warfare. It brooks no dissent and demands absolute loyalty.

It seemed odd to hear so many current lawmakers praising Boehner’s and Isakson’s style as if they were powerless to practice it.

That they don’t points to larger forces that have shaped politics over the years. With earmarks off the table, political incentives have changed. Meanwhile, social media makes message discipline harder and gives individual politicians more power.

“It doesn’t cost a thing to be nice,” said Boehner while accepting his dedication. The sentiment couldn’t be more out of step with what’s happening in the Capitol, as the second week of impeachment hearings kicked off. (He also made a plea to get spending and debt under control, another sentiment that’s fallen out of favor in Washington.)

That Boehner-style niceness stands in sharp contrast with the leadership tendencies of Trump, the bull in the China shop that is the Republican Party.

Indeed, while inside Statuary Hall politicians spewed platitudes of bonhomie and bipartisanship, the Army had Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a witness testifying in Trump’s impeachment inquiry, and his family placed on 24-hour security monitoring after Trump targeted him in a series of tweets.

So much for niceness.

But it’s not just the executive branch that’s clashed with Boehner’s personal style. While former and current lawmakers were lamenting a mythical bygone era of cooperation, Rep. Jim Jordan, a fellow Republican Boehner once referred to as a “legislative terrorist,” was grilling witnesses during the impeachment hearing. Jordan was not originally on the House Intelligence Committee, but was added because he’s such a bulldog when it comes to defending the president.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi kicked off the Boehner proceedings in a jovial mood, gently mocking former Speaker Paul Ryan’s beard by pointing at him and stroking her chin before delivering her opening remarks.

Next up was Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, the man set to replace Boehner as speaker in 2015 before a right-wing caucus revolt scuttled his bid. McCarthy ticked off a list of Boehner’s career accomplishments, including spending reduction and education reform. He listed the lawmakers Boehner worked with across the aisle, such as the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

McCarthy also got in a few jabs about Boehner’s proclivity for lighting up in his office. “I’ve spent a lot of time in Boehner’s office and sometimes it was a smoke-filled room.”

One by one, each of Tuesday’s speakers (or roastmasters) ticked off Boehner’s idiosyncrasies for the 90 people seated and those standing along the edges of Statuary Hall. Pelosi, McCarthy, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, played all the hits. The red wine, the cigarettes, the golfing.

But what the speakers really wanted you to know is that John Boehner cries. A lot. And at the slightest provocation. Less than 10 minutes into Tuesday’s ceremony and Boehner was already wiping his eyes, proving their point. Pelosi even left a box of Kleenex on the podium for him when it was his turn to speak. And yes, he would need them, especially when he began naming all the people who’d helped him get to such commanding heights in American politics.

Does the fact that Donald Trump runs the Republican Party and the country mean that John Boehner was wrong to preach niceness as a way of Getting Things Done in politics? Not necessarily, but his side is certainly losing at the moment.

So how did we get here?

Among the crowd was former Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, a man credited (blamed?) for popularizing slash and burn politics when he held the gavel during the mid-90s. Boehner would be kicked out of Republican leadership under suspicion that he led a coup attempt against Gingrich.

However, Gingrich would later be run out of his speakership by a caucus who blamed him for losses suffered in the 1998 midterms. And of course there was Paul Ryan, who Boehner had to cajole into taking his place in 2015, and who was overwhelmed by a party who pledged fealty to Trump and not Ryan.

Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott blames it on the fact that lawmakers no longer hang out together in Washington.

“When I was a majority leader, I did a lot to try to get camaraderie, you know,” Lott told me. “I had the singing senators. We had Tartan Day I wore a kilt. [Sen.] Kit Bond said ‘those are the ugliest legs I’ve ever seen,’ but we did things to get to know each other. And we communicated. Democrats don’t talk to Republicans. The House doesn’t talk to the Senate. Nobody wants to talk to the president and the president tweets.”

Lott, recalling the days of the Clinton impeachment trial, seemed wistful for the days of bipartisanship.

“You know who my partner was on the Democratic side?” Lott asked. “It was Tom Daschle, one of my best friends. We talk all the time. He knew I wouldn’t surprise him or mistreat him. I knew I could count on his word if he gave it to me. And that’s how we got through the Clinton trial. It was totally bipartisan. It was totally fair. And we got through it. Came out the other side went right back to work.”

Lott would later resign as leader after praising South Carolina Republican Strom Thurmond on the senator’s 100th birthday. Lott said the country would be better off if Thurmond, who ran for president in 1948 as a racial segregationist, had been elected as commander in chief. He apologized, but many, including fellow Republicans, called on him to step down.

“I’d like to think we were able to disagree without being disagreeable,” said Boehner. “And I like to think that we tried to do the right things for the right reasons. Sometimes we fall short on things but we always try.”

‘I’ll come to you, brother’

Sen. Johnny Isakson announced in August that he would retire at the end of the year. Following a series of accidents related to his Parkinson’s disease, the 74-year-old decided to step away and return to private life in his home state of Georgia.

During his time in the Senate, Isakson straddled two ideas that on the surface seem contradictory: He was a team player who relished making deals with those who opposed him. He was enough of a loyal Republican to serve on the Senate Ethics Committee (which senators loathe) but would often brag about his friendships across the aisle with people like Sen. Barbara Boxer.

That’s why it was no surprise when members and staff from both parties showed up Tuesday night to honor him. The ceremony featured video tributes and speeches from Democrats and Republicans about their time serving with Isakson.

Sen. Johnny Isakson address the Georgia State Society during a farewell ceremony
Sen. Johnny Isakson addresses the Georgia State Society during a farewell ceremony on Tuesday. (Courtesy of the Office of Senate Photography)

Secretary of Agriculture (and former Georgia Gov.) Sonny Perdue, his cousin Sen. David Perdue, Rep. Sanford Bishop, Rep. Doug Collins (who has made it known he wants Isakson’s job), all showed their faces.

Lucy McBath, D-Ga., who now holds the seat once occupied by Isakson and Newt Gingrich also spoke at the reception, delivering a plea for bipartisanship straight out of the Guide on How to Survive Congress as a Moderate.

McBath personifies the political realignment the country is going through. That 6th district, which encompasses the Atlanta suburbs was once reliably conservative. But as educated suburban women flee the party in droves, accelerated by Trump’s abrasiveness, it’s now a swing district represented by a Democrat.

Earlier that day, Rep. John Lewis, the dean of the Georgia delegation, honored Isakson with a moving speech on the House floor. “You, senator, led a team that could cross the aisle without compromising your values,” he said.

“I’ll come to you brother,” Lewis said when he finished. Lewis walked over to Isakson, who’d been listening on the floor, and the two embraced.

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Isakson came to Washington in 1999 after winning a special election to fill Gingrich’s seat in Georgia’s 6th District. A former real estate executive, Isakson had served in the Georgia State House from 1976-1990, including the last four terms as minority leader at a time when the Georgia Republican Party was virtually nonexistent. He left his seat to launch an unsuccessful gubernatorial bid in 1990 against Democrat Zell Miller, the very man Isakson would later replace in the Senate, when Miller retired in 2004.

I first met Johnny Isakson in January 2007 on my first day as one of his interns. I don’t remember much from that day, other than it was cold, I was late and I’d never seen a man’s tie so perfectly dimpled as Isakson’s. I later spent several months as his driver, in which my car broke down repeatedly and I learned that just because someone is a politician, it doesn’t mean they want to talk about politics all the time.

“You had any fried shrimp lately?” Isakson asked me when I greeted him Tuesday night, an inside joke from my time as an intern. “You put on weight?” Though illness has slowed him physically, Isakson still recalls details about those he’s come across in his more than 40 years of public service. The best politicians understand human narcissism and the natural desire to feel special. Johnny knows how to make people feel special, even the lowliest intern.

I will admit it was difficult to watch the man who gave me my start in Washington fidget during his speech, visual evidence that the ravages of disease are taking hold of his body.

Perhaps, hearing the sniffles in the audience, he tried to ease the tension with his trademark humor. “I’ll miss you all very much for a very short time,” he told us.

But before he sat down, he left us all with a warning.

“There ain’t gonna be another America,” he said. “We have to save the one we’ve got.”

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