Nearly two decades later, 60-year-old John Boehner, the sole remaining House member from those upstart freshmen, is poised to claim victory: If Republicans win control in the Nov. 2 elections, he is expected to become the chamber's suavely dressed, Camel-smoking, golf-loving, bronze-tanned speaker.
Boehner, now the House minority leader, was little known outside his home district until President Barack Obama began holding him out as the personification of backward and elitist Republican policies. In return, Boehner is drawing heavily on his blue-collar upbringing as he travels the country offering the GOP counterpoint to Obama's campaign pitch.
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In this duel of definitions, Boehner, one of 12 children of a working-class family in Ohio, tells of mopping the floors in his father's bar at age 10, of the skills required to deal with all the characters who walked in the door of Andy's Cafe, of toughing it out in night school while turning around a failing small business.
"If there's one thing I hope you learn about me, it's that I'm a regular guy," Boehner tells one audience.
"I've got two brothers that are unemployed; I've got two brother-in-laws that are unemployed," Boehner tells a TV interviewer. "I understand what's going on out in America."
"I've had every rotten job there ever was, but I gotta tell you I was grateful to have every single one of them," Boehner says in a speech.
It's all meant to counter the "G-T-L" refrain of Boehner's critics, who try to keep the focus on just three things: Boehner's love of golf, his head-turning tan and his close ties to lobbyists. The three all feed into Democrats' characterizations of Boehner as a country club Republican who's looking out only for corporate bigwigs.
"It tells a story about where his priorities are," says Justin Coussoule, his longshot Democratic challenger in Ohio's 8th district, which runs along the Indiana border and takes in suburbs of Cincinnati and parts of Dayton.
Boehner, pronounced BAY-nur, took the first steps on his long climb up the leadership ladder not long after his election to the Democratic-controlled House in 1990. Angry and embarrassed by revelations that legislators had been routinely allowed to overdraw their House bank accounts, Boehner and six other Republican freshmen commiserated in the back of the House chamber over what they saw as the GOP's get-along, go-along leadership and its limp response to the check-bouncing scandal.
Soon they were getting together for pizza and beer and plotting a minor revolt.
"We were ready to chew some red meat," recalls former Rep. and Sen. Rick Santorum, a member of the Gang of Seven. "John was more, 'OK, boys, let's take a step back, figure out a game plan. They'll chew you up and spit you out if you don't."'
The seven played it right, stoking public anger and using it as a cudgel to shut down the House bank and press for broader changes. Even then, Boehner was angling for a leadership position and honing the qualities that would take him there: a calm and approachable manner, an insistence on strategic planning, a refusal to give up.
"He never gets too high when things are going well and he doesn't get too low when things are not going so well," says Rep. Steve LaTourette, a fellow Ohio Republican. (Boehner does cry, though. He's known to choke up over school kids and bank bailouts.)
Former aide Terry Holt remembers a day when he and another aide had grabbed one another's lapels in a hallway shouting match, and Boehner walked by.
"He didn't even slow down," Holt says. "He just said, 'All right boys, come on, let's go to staff meeting."'
Boehner's life is writ large with turning points when he found opportunity in misfortune, his own, and that of others.
When his partner at Nucite Sales, a marketing firm for plastics and other small manufacturers, died, Boehner took charge of the struggling enterprise and turned it into a moneymaker that eventually earned him millions.
When an Ohio congressman got caught in a sex scandal, then-state Rep. Boehner snatched away his seat in the U.S. House.
When Boehner finally got and then lost a GOP leadership position in the House, he didn't sulk. He hunkered down and proved himself an effective committee chairman.
"It was awful, but I was never going to let the bastards see me sweat," Boehner later said of being ousted from his leadership post after the GOP election losses in 1998. "I just smiled and went to work."
Eight years later, when Majority Leader Tom DeLay was indicted on charges of political money laundering, Boehner staged a comeback and then some, outmaneuvering two other challengers to replace him.
"I feel like the dog who caught the car," said Boehner, flashing a grin.
Now, Boehner is hoping that an unfortunate election year for Obama and the Democrats will be his ticket to the speaker's chair in Congress.
As he makes the case for the Republican agenda of cutting taxes, repealing Obama's health care overhaul and shrinking government, Boehner also is making the case for himself without providing much detail about his agenda should he become speaker.
His mission is twofold: demonstrate to fellow Republicans that he's got the goods to lead as speaker and stave off a challenge to his leadership if GOP election gains don't live up to sky-high expectations.
He often recites a refrain that is reminiscent of the best-selling book "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten."
Says Boehner: "All the skills I learned growing up are the skills I need to do my job."
With just one bathroom in the house, "you had to work within the schedule Mom put out so that you didn't get left behind," recalls Boehner's big brother Bob. "Everybody had to work together." And that, says Bob Boehner, laid the foundation for his brother's success in politics and working with all sorts.
The Boehners, like many big Catholic families, were what Bob Boehner calls conservative "Kennedy Democrats," but not politically active.
Earl and Mary Anne Boehner sent their kids to Catholic schools and put to them to work helping out at the family's bar on nights and weekends.
At Archbishop Moeller High School, John Boehner was an average student and a better linebacker. He played football for Gerry Faust, who later coached for Notre Dame. Faust, 75, remembers Boehner as "the kind of guy who gave his all, all the time," despite back trouble from a basketball injury.
After high school, it took Boehner most of a decade to get through night school at Xavier University, working odd jobs before landing at Nucite Sales, where he made his fortune. He speaks often of the turning point in the late 1970s when he became a Republican: He says it was when he started making real money and discovered that he was paying more in taxes than he'd earned a few years earlier.
The minority leader is known on Capitol Hill as a likable if polarizing legislator. He answers to "Boehner," sans title.
He shrugs off constant jokes about his tan from everybody from Obama on down. (Family and friends insist he just has a naturally dark complexion.) Always well dressed, he'll offer gentle gibes at the sartorial choices of staff members or reporters he knows in the Capitol, and feign disgust at those with long hair.
In a bitterly divided Congress, Boehner's worked with Democrats at times. He and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., jointly sponsored an annual fundraiser for Catholic schools in D.C. He'll even share an irreverent joke with Democrats.
When he sat down with Democratic congressional leaders in January 2008 to talk about a stimulus package for the staggering economy, he quipped to Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer in full view of reporters and photographers, "As soon as they put those cameras away, I'm going to flip you the bird."
He didn't, of course. But he worked hard to make sure Republicans voted in unanimous opposition to the stimulus, then did it again on Obama's signature health care bill. And his "hell no" rant against "Obamacare" turned out to be a YouTube hit.
Boehner's not known as a particularly dynamic orator or a deep thinker. But he's considered a sound manager and credited with instilling extraordinary discipline in House Republicans. He's so far managed to corral the GOP's restive young guns, the old guard and those in between, earning their loyalty in part by bringing in huge sums for GOP candidates.
He spends a chunk of each August on a bus tour raising cash for Republican candidates. So far this campaign, he's raised more than $43 million and headlined more than 160 campaign events on the road for GOP candidates and party committees. He's addicted to the Weather Channel, so he'll know what to expect wherever he's headed.
Friends and colleagues all have a favorite Boehner story, most of them involving cigarette smoke. (His beloved Barclays were discontinued in 2007, forcing him to switch to Camels.)
Rep. LaTourette thinks back to 2004, when he was going through a bad divorce and feeling beaten down in the last few weeks of a campaign.
That's when Boehner's banged-up campaign bus rolled into town.
"The door opens and this huge cloud of smoke comes winging out of the bus," LaTourette remembers. "Boehner steps out and says, 'Come on, let's go door to door.' It was a great lift of spirits."
Boehner acknowledges his smoking is a bad habit, but he doesn't seem inclined to quit. While the Capitol is officially smoke free, Boehner still smokes in his office.
"It's something that I choose to do, and you know at some point, maybe I'll decide I've had enough of it," he told CBS when questioned about what example he's setting.
It's all part of Boehner's persona, which has brought recent comparisons to Don Draper of TV's "Mad Men."
"He has that kind of devil-may-care swagger," says former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who got to know Boehner when he steered George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind legislation through Congress. "He's droll and sucking on that cigarette, and he's a low talker."
Boehner stays in a basement apartment while in Washington. His wife, Debbie, lives in Ohio at their home in a golf course community. Their two daughters are grown and on their own.
While in D.C., Boehner is up early to check news sites and his Facebook page, out the door for a long walk or bike ride by 6:30 a.m. Then he hits a nearby diner for breakfast. Despite a well-earned reputation for working the room at evening fundraisers and cocktail parties, Boehner tries to be in bed by 10.
"He wears most of his foibles on his sleeve," says former aide Holt.
"He enjoys a glass of wine. He smokes. He's a hopeless schmoozer. He enjoys golf."
Holt says that's part of what makes Boehner real and approachable.
Critics paint it as something more unseemly, part of a broader characterization of Boehner as beholden to special interests.
The lore of Boehner's connections to the K Street lobbying scene includes late-night events that lobbyists have thrown for him at Republican conventions, his 1996 apology for passing out checks from tobacco PACs on the House floor, his "Thursday group" meetings with lobbyists on Capitol Hill and his annual "beach party" fundraiser on D.C.'s waterfront to court rich donors.
The Democratic National Committee launched BoehnerLand.com to track Boehner's many ties to lobbyists.
Boehner, for his part, says there's nothing untoward about keeping in close touch with business interests. In 2006, as he made his bid for majority leader, Boehner told his GOP colleagues, "Yes, I am cozy with lobbyists, but I have never done anything unethical," The Washington Post reported at the time.
He makes a point of refusing to take earmarks, which many legislators use to steer special projects to their home districts. Aides point out that Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi has outpaced Boehner in fundraising from lobbyists over her career.
Give Boehner a day off, and he'll be happy to spend it on the golf course. he loves the game, and he's good at it, even if friends say he has a funny hitch at the top of his swing.
He also multitasks on the links, courting campaign donors and lobbyists.
"If you're going to ask people to give you money, why not let them enjoy themselves," he told Golf Digest in 2005. Boehner said he doesn't discriminate against lobbyists who don't golf, but added, "If someone I've gotten to know on the golf course comes into my office with a good argument, I tend to want to listen."
In 2005, the magazine ranked Boehner the fifth-best golfer in Congress and reported he played 100-plus rounds a year. His handicap then was 4.8. Now it's closer to 8, and aides say he doesn't have much time for the game lately.
When George W. Bush was president, Boehner bragged of beating him soundly. Last year, he was teamed up with Tiger Woods in a pro-am tournament at Congressional Country Club. Boehner calls golf "my escape from the pressures of my job." Democrats run billboards and TV ads of him teeing off to paint him as the poster child for out-of-touch Republicans.
He shrugs off such criticism, saying simply, "Comes with the territory. I can handle it."