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Boehner Shows Humility as He Rises to the Top

Bill Clark/Roll Call
Speaker John Boehner walks down the aisle of the House floor on his way to take the gavel from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi as the 112th Congress convenes Wednesday.

An emotional John Boehner’s first move after taking the Speaker’s gavel Wednesday was to hush the whoops and hollers of his elated GOP colleagues by saying, “It’s still just me.”

The Ohio Republican assumed the Speakership without the pomp and circumstance that characterized Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s “marble-ceiling-shattering” ascendance to the job just four years ago.

Also in stark contrast was Boehner’s tone and demeanor. While Boehner spoke soberly about being a temporary occupant of the chair in the “people’s House,” Pelosi accepted her gavel energetically and enthusiastically, hailing the history that she was making by becoming the first female Speaker.

“The American people have humbled us,” Boehner said. “They have refreshed our memories as to just how temporary the privilege to serve is. They have reminded us that everything here is on loan from them. That includes this gavel, which I accept cheerfully and gratefully, knowing I am but its caretaker.”

Boehner followed a less direct path to the top than Pelosi. First elected in 1990, Boehner was the architect of his own political resurrection. He spent much of the early part of the last decade out of elected leadership; he lost his slot in Republican leadership in 1998, when then-ally Newt Gingrich (Ga.) fell from the Speakership. He spent eight years in the GOP trenches, rebuilding relationships and his reputation before becoming Majority Leader in early 2006, besting then-Majority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.), to succeed Tom DeLay (Texas).

In Boehner’s roughly 14-minute speech after he won the gavel Wednesday, he appeared, more than anything else, humbled.

Boehner repeatedly signaled the reform-minded, conservative tea party movement that swept him to power, renewing his vow to make the legislative process more transparent, accountable and constitutionally driven, starting with a rules package that the House adopted Wednesday. He pledged to shrink the size of government — starting with the Congressional budget — cut the size of committees, slice government spending and institute more vigorous oversight of the Obama administration.

“No longer can we fall short,” Boehner said to a packed House, citing a burgeoning federal debt, high unemployment and still-rising health care costs. “No longer can we kick the can down the road. The people voted to end business as usual, and today we begin carrying out their instructions.” 

The 61-year-old lawmaker’s posture was clearly designed to win him points with his right flank and to reinforce an image of being a regular guy who understands middle America.

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