Former Speaker of the House John Boehner (R., Ohio)
August 15, 2016
To: The Board of the Chicago-Midwest Chapter of the Turnaround Management Association
Re: John Boehner and the TMA Chicago-Midwest Chapter’s (the “Chapter”) 2016 Executive Speakers Forum
Dear Chapter Board Members:
This year’s choice of former Speaker of the House John Boehner as the special guest and principal speaker for the Chapter’s 2016 Executive Speakers Forum compels me to write to you for two reasons: first, to tell you that I will not be attending (granted, a matter of no importance), and second, and more importantly, to let you know the reasons that inform my decision.
At the outset, I am sure you’ll agree that our constitutional form of government, with its various checks and balances, rests on the core idea that our elected representatives, regardless of diametrically opposed political philosophies and positions, will ultimately reach some resolution of their differences in a compromise that will advance the best interests of our nation.
That, at least, is the hope. The last few years reveal Mr. Boehner as one of the chief engineers of the destruction of that hope, and he, along with others whose records are beyond the scope of this letter, ranks among those most responsible for bringing our national politics to its present lamentable state.
To the extent that during his speakership Mr. Boehner exercised any leadership, he led a blatantly political decennial congressional redistricting that followed the Republican recapture of Congress in the 2010 election. This redistricting was done in conjunction with Republican Party leaders at the state level in order to safeguard and perpetuate Republican seats in Congress. In 2012 the result was Republican over-representation in Congress due to that party’s control of redistricting in 26 states. Through the efforts of Mr. Boehner and others in his party using the “REDMAP” program, the House became decidedly unrepresentative. Exhibit A in proof of the effects of Mr. Boehner’s efforts is the fate of those elected officials who were once known as moderate Republicans. Through their REDMAP redistricting campaign, John Boehner, Karl Rove and their partisan colleagues hunted Republican moderates to extinction. REDMAP apartheid, once imposed on a congressional district, eliminates any Democratic constituency large enough to persuade a Republican congressman to moderate his or her political positions in order to retain his or her seat.
Mr. Boehner’s redistricting activities were integral parts of Karl Rove’s grand strategy to deny voting rights to persons more likely to vote Democratic than Republican. This strategy was expressly intended to, and did, and continues to primarily disadvantage African-Americans, Hispanics, recent immigrants, students and the elderly in their rights to vote. Only recently have these manifestly partisan statutes begun to fall under federal court rulings. He furthered redistricting both nationally and in Ohio in order to make districts increasingly Republican and increasingly safe for his party. This Republican ethnic cleansing encouraged Republican congressmen to turn ever more rightward to avoid being “primaried” by a candidate from the even more extreme right (see, e.g., Eric Cantor, R., formerly Va. 7th Cong. Dist.).
But the crowning irony for Mr. Boehner is that he was hoist with his own petard. Following his redistricting efforts, the far-right Freedom Caucus challenged his position as Speaker and brought him down last year. These extreme-right Republicans owed nothing to Mr. Boehner, and they made quite sure he knew it. This, incidentally, is why Mr. Boehner now has his evenings free to address gatherings such as the Chapter’s 2016 Executive Speakers Forum.
We are today confronted with the aftermath of Mr. Boehner’s efforts. For example, in February 2016 President Obama requested an emergency appropriation of funds to deal with the Zika virus threat. The Congress engineered by Mr. Boehner and his colleagues can adopt any number of quixotic bills to repeal Obamacare, but it proved incapable of passing an emergency appropriation bill to fight Zika before it left for its July 4 recess. Zika subsequently broke out in Florida. Our country now confronts an epidemic of a disease that causes tragic birth defects. Although this occurred after his resignation as Speaker, it is a direct consequence of Mr. Boehner’s efforts to undermine the principles of our democracy. He must shoulder his ample share of responsibility.
Likewise, in early 2013, after 2012’s Superstorm Sandy tore through New York and New Jersey, taking more than 230 human lives and causing an estimated $75 billion dollars in damage, the U.S. Senate approved a $60.4 billion aid package. But the Boehner-designed House of Representatives refused to take up a bill for emergency aid for these states. Politicians from New York and New Jersey unleashed a wave of sanguinary fury. Staunchly conservative Republican Peter King of New York said:
These Republicans have no problem finding New York when they’re out raising millions of dollars,. They’re in New York all the time filling their pockets with money from New Yorkers. I’m saying right now, anyone from New York or New Jersey who contributes one penny to Congressional Republicans is out of their minds. Because what they did last night was put a knife in the back of New Yorkers and New Jerseyans. It was an absolute disgrace.
Republican Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, a recent contender for his party’s Presidential nomination, loosed his own Jovian, if not elephantine, thunder:
There is only one group to blame for the continued suffering of these innocent victims [of Superstorm Sandy]: the House majority and their speaker, John Boehner….
Last night, the House of Representatives failed that most basic test of public service and they did so with callous indifference to the suffering of the people of my state.
Mr. Boehner’s record of shame does not end there. On January 6, 2011, his first day as Speaker, Mr. Boehner was interviewed by NBC’s Brian Williams regarding a bill co-sponsored by twelve of Mr. Boehner’s House Republicans challenging President Barack Obama’s status as a United States citizen. This is how Mr. Boehner exercised leadership:
Williams: I’m curious as to how much responsibility you feel, specifically because of something that happened this morning. During the reading of the Constitution by Congressman Frank Pallone of New Jersey, was reading a portion of the document, interrupted by someone who heckled from within the chamber. It was to express doubt over the President’s American citizenship – provided you believe that the President is an American citizen. You’ve got twelve members co-sponsoring legislation that does about the same thing. It expresses doubt [about Obama’s citizenship]. Would you be willing to say: “this is a distraction. I’ve looked at it to my satisfaction. Let’s move on”?
Boehner: The state of Hawaii has said that President Obama was born there. That’s good enough for me.
Williams: Would you be willing to say that message to the twelve members in your caucus who seem to either believe otherwise, or are willing to express doubt and have co-sponsored legislation?
Boehner: Brian, when you come to, to the Congress of the United States, there are 435 of us. We’re nothing more than a slice of America. People come regardless of party labels. They come with all kinds of beliefs and ideas. It’s the melting pot of America. It’s not up to me to tell them what to think.
(Emphasis added.) In other words, as far as Mr. Boehner was concerned, the President’s status as a citizen of the United States was not a matter of objectively determinable fact, but was rather a matter of subjective opinion akin to a preference for vanilla over chocolate ice cream.
Mr. Boehner’s non-leadership with regard to the President’s faith and citizenship was on display again a few weeks later. During the February 13, 2011 edition of Meet the Press, host David Gregory afforded Mr. Boehner a second chance to act like a leader regarding Republican claims that Obama not only was not a U.S. citizen, but also was a secret Muslim. Gregory ran a clip of a Fox News focus group in which Iowa Republican caucus-goers said Obama was a Muslim and that his policies as President were guided by his Muslim faith:
Gregory: As the Speaker, as a leader, do you not think it’s your responsibility to stand up to that kind of ignorance?
Boehner: David, it’s not my job to tell the American people what to think. Our job in Washington is to listen to the American people. Having said that, the state of Hawaii has said that he was born there. That’s good enough for me. The president says he’s a Christian. I accept him at his word.
Gregory: But isn’t that a little bit fast and loose? I mean, you are the leader in Congress and you are not standing up to obvious facts and saying these are facts, and if you don’t believe that it’s nonsense?
Boehner: I just outlined the facts as I understand them. I believe that the president is a citizen. I believe the president is a Christian, I’ll take him at his word.
Gregory: But that kind of ignorance over whether he’s a Muslim doesn’t concern you?
Boehner: Listen, the American people have the right to think what they want to think. I can’t — it’s not my job to tell them.
(Emphasis added.) Like other Republican so-called leaders, Mr. Boehner abdicated his responsibility to condemn the spreading of lies and falsehoods about the faith and citizenship of the President of the United States.
I submit to the Chapter’s Board that this is not leadership. It’s cowardice.
An understanding of Mr. Boehner’s character gains greatly from the juxtaposition of (i) his colloquies with Williams and Gregory in early 2011, to (ii) the enthusiasm and alacrity with which he came to the defense of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R., La.) in December 2014.
As you may recall, towards the end of 2014 it came to light that in 2002 Rep. Scalise had given the keynote address to a convention of the European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO). EURO is a white supremacist/neo-Nazi hate group founded by former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke. When this scandal broke, Mr. Boehner wasted no time releasing a statement supporting Mr. Scalise, terming his address to EURO an “error in judgment,” and retaining him as Republican Majority Whip. Of Scalise Mr. Boehner said “I know what’s in his heart.”
Mr. Boehner thus put the finishing strokes on his own tableau vivant of a Republican white-supremacist dog-whistling to his party’s base. With regard to our country’s first African-American President, Mr. Boehner vehemently denied any responsibility to disabuse members of his own political caucus, much less the nation at large, of self-evident falsehoods about Barack Obama’s faith and citizenship. But when a colleague was caught trying to garner votes and political support at a neo-Nazi/ Ku Klux Klan convention, Mr. Boehner stood proudly before the cameras of the national broadcast networks and told the American people what they should think because he knew what was in Mr. Scalise’s heart.
Stated somewhat differently, Mr. Boehner always has his [white] man’s back.
Mr. Boehner’s record would be egregious enough if it ended there. But there’s also the matter of his intervention in the case of U.S. v. Windsor to support the Defense of Marriage Act. Then there’s the December 15, 2010 full page ad signed by Mr. Boehner and 21 other members of Congress in support of the Family Research Council, an organization listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its dissemination of false and demonizing propaganda about gays and lesbians (e.g., the FRC’s assertion that all gay men are pedophiles). Let’s not forget Mr. Boehner’s personal distribution of cash (yes, real greenbacks) from lobbyists to Congress members on the very floor of the United States House of Representatives, an act so heinous and depraved that even Mr. Boehner himself later came to regret it. For good measure, we should toss in the former Speaker’s failure to support and deliver on legislation securing equal pay for women. In short, Mr. Boehner embodies almost every aspect of the rot afflicting our nation’s politics. His record is an egregious one. He can’t simply walk away from it. This Chapter should not ignore it.
Should Mr. Boehner ultimately address this years 2016 TMA Forum, I’m confident that our Chapter’s members will give him a respectful hearing consistent with the high standards of decorum characteristic of all this Chapter’s events. But by affording an appearance of concord and dignity at this year’s event, this Chapter will benefit a politician who, while in office, bent every sinew of his will denying that same concord and dignity to women, people of color and the LGBTQ community. In its choice of Mr. Boehner as speaker, this Chapter risks being seen as condoning his record and indelibly imbruing its own character with the racist and sexist stain of Mr. Boehner.
Finally, allow me to say that I very much appreciate the work done by this Board in making this TMA Chapter both a worthwhile and enjoyable enterprise. I know that you contribute your time as volunteers, and all of you are to be commended for the hard work you perform on the Chapter’s behalf. Section ES1.4 of the TMA’s Code of Ethics calls on TMA members to uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors. That obligation cannot be reconciled with Mr. Boehner’s record, and so I trust the Board will reconsider, and rescind, its invitation to him.
/s/ Paul G. Neilan
cc: The Sparkspread Blog