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John Boehner on how the rise of ideologues harms America

John Boehner on how the rise of ideologues harms America
John Boehner on how the rise of ideologues harms America 08:29

Five-and-a-half years ago, Speaker of the House John Boehner decided to end his Congressional career walking past his church. "I'd glanced over at this grotto and I went, 'Yep, today's the day.'"

The pope had just visited Congress, a project Boehner had been working on for 20 years. "It was, like, the happiest day I'd seen on Capitol Hill in 25 years I had been there," he told "60 Minutes" correspondent John Dickerson. "'Maybe I'll just do it tomorrow.' Because it's not gonna get any better than it was now, that day."

It didn't get any better.

In a new memoir, "On the House" (St. Martin's Press), Boehner writes that the ideological forces he fought with as Speaker now threaten the country. Dishing expletives and payback, the book is hot enough to light one of the cigarettes that were more a symbol of his Speakership than his gavel. "I got to Washington and I thought, 'Oh, my God. This is the biggest gavel I've ever seen!'"

Former Congressman John Boehner (right, with CBS News' John Dickerson) gave up the House Speaker's gavel in 2015.  CBS News

When Boehner came to power in 2011, he found that no matter how big the gavel, he lacked the power to keep reactionary members of his party in line.

Dickerson said, "You write in your book that you became 'Mayor of Crazy Town.' What does that mean?"

"Well, you know, by 2010 talk radio had been around for a little while. By 2010 we had the internet. We started to have apps. And people really didn't need the party as much as they used to need it. And so, members, candidates, members could kind of create themselves out of nothing."

The new modes of communication gave those rebellious members a direct line to the party base. Playing to the crowd rather than accomplishing things in Congress became the route to success. "There's an allure there to be a noisemaker instead of a policymaker," Boehner said.

Former House Speaker John Boehner.  CBS News

Making policy means finding common ground with the opposition. For noisemakers, that was a sign that Boehner was a "sellout."

"I thought if I could get half a loaf and live to fight for the rest, that was a good deal," he said. "'No way! "No way! Sellout! It's 100% all my way or nothing!'"

For partisan media, attacking Boehner was good for business: "I was a caricature of myself, which they needed to rile up their audience. Bigger audience, the bigger the revenue and more they got paid."

Without party unity, Boehner said, he had no leverage against President Obama and the Democrats: "I'm negotiating with the White House, and I'm naked," he laughed. "I've got no position, because my guys wouldn't vote for anything. Some of these members, I'm not quite sure what they're for. They're against everything. But I've never been able to determine what they're for.

"When you're in the majority party, you've got a responsibility to govern, not just make noise."

St. Martin's Press

Boehner is describing a system still in place today where ideologues create a culture of fear. "We had a really good member, solid member, tried to do the right thing, sometimes it was really hard to do the right thing because they were hearing from the far-right, if you will, or the crazy right, the knucklehead right that you know, they were sellouts. And well, they didn't wanna be accused of that. And so, it really put all these members in a really tough spot."

It's a poison that Boehner says affects both parties, but is further along in his own.

Dickerson said, "You call some of these members political terrorists." 

Boehner replied, "Oh, yeah, Jim Jordan especially, my colleague from Ohio. I just never saw a guy who spent more time tearing things apart, never building anything, never putting anything together." 

And then there's Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who Boehner says is the ultimate false prophet: "I don't beat anybody up, it's not really my style, except that jerk. Perfect symbol, you know, of getting elected, make a lotta noise, draw a lot of attention to yourself, raise a lotta money, which means you're gonna go make more noise, raise more money." 

The book examines Boehner's humble roots in Ohio, and glosses over his role in building the party by electing many of the members he now complains about. But as he warned, the forces of extremism he confronted did grow. The former Speaker was at his Florida home on January 6 when the Capitol was attacked by supporters of then-President Donald Trump.

Boehner said, "It was sad. Revolting. And I literally, I couldn't watch it anymore."

"Did it make you angry?" asked Dickerson.  

"Oh, hell yes, it made me angry." 

"And was there anything you could do?" 

"No, not really, other than I decided, I think I'll send an email to Boehner Land – 'Boehner Land' is what my staff called our team."

In the letter, Boehner urged all his staffers to speak up against the forces corroding the party.  

Dickerson asked, "In the book, you write about political terrorists leading to actual terrorism. Was this the outgrowth of the mindset that you've been describing?"

"Yes, no question about it," he replied. "This is the most extreme example of political terrorism."

"Would you say Donald Trump is a political terrorist?"

"Donald Trump is a product of the political divisions that we've seen grown in our country over the last 20 years," Boehner said.

"He's a product, but he also knew how to play just the system you describe."

"Well, he, he, he has a little different style than I do."

In the book, Boehner is less coy. He has no problem tying Mr. Trump to political terrorism. He writes:  "Trump incited that bloody insurrection for nothing more than selfish reasons, perpetuated by the bulls**t he's been shoveling since he lost a fair election the previous November."

Dickerson said, "I think you're ducking calling him a political terrorist. You've described in the book – aren't you basically saying, 'I don't want the headache this is gonna give me'?"

"Listen, I'm not in office anymore, I don't have to answer all the questions that I used to have to answer, right?" Boehner laughed. "And while it isn't my style, I don't wanna use a pejorative term like that, talking about him or anybody else."

"Well, some people you have used that term with," Dickerson said. "Here's why I'm – I'm not just trying to get you to say something incendiary. What you describe in the book is a system that incentivizes behavior that is dangerous. We saw on the 6th, the attack on the People's House. And so you're saying, 'We want less of that behavior.' Donald Trump knew how to play to that audience, and he's at the center of the Republican Party now."

"You know, the Republican Party today, we have the Trump Republicans and the traditional Republicans," said Boehner.

"But you don't have any doubt that he's, I mean, he's driving the bus in the Republican Party even though he's out of office?"

"Well, he's attempting to. And he's still got a pretty big soap box. But you know, there's clearly been some push-back. And I think Mitch McConnell has laid out the case, if you will, for the traditional Republican Party."

"You said that after the 6th of January, 'It should be a wake-up call for a return to Republican sanity.' But after the Congress was breached, 139 Republicans voted to overturn the election results," Dickerson said.

"Let's go back to winning elections. You gotta go home, and for most of these members their biggest threats in a primary. And the president's out there sayin' that he won the election. And you know, they wanna go home and answer the noise. I don't – I understand it."

Boehner still owns his modest Capitol Hill apartment he lived in as Speaker, but other things have changed. He said he needs golf less now as a stress-reliever; has evolved from merlot to cabernet; and has dropped his opposition to marijuana use. "I drink red wine," he said. "If somebody wants to smoke a joint or eat a gummie, eh, it's really none of my business. So what?" 

Convinced of the medical benefits, Boehner joined the board of a cannabis company

Dickerson asked, "Did you do any first-hand research?"

"No. No. I'm not, I'm not a cannabis user."

"But you're not ruling it out for yourself?" 

"Hey, tomorrow's tomorrow," Boehner replied. "Who knows?"

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Story produced by Gabriel Falcon. Editor: Emanuele Secci. 

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