This Sunday, 60 Minutes ran a segment on Speaker-elect John Boehner that would have made Horatio Alger proud.
In the run-up to this year’s midterm elections, President Obama spent the campaign’s latter weeks attempting to define his opponent. Aided greatly by an October profile in The New York Times, Boehner was painted as a suntanned corporate shill in love with lobbyists and private golf courses. His sartorial preferences were meticulously scrutinized, while the anecdote of his distributing checks from tobacco lobbyists on the House floor was offered as evidence of his ultimate insider-ism. For the amorphous Tea Party movement, surely Boehner was an unacceptable avatar. Now that campaign rhetoric has subsided (allegations of “hostage-taking” notwithstanding), it’s incumbent upon the incoming Speaker to define himself to the American public.
In this pursuit, the 60 Minutes profile couldn’t have been better scripted by the NRCC itself. Boehner appeared humble and urbane, reasonable and, yes, prone to tearful loss of composure. The segment revisited Boehner’s childhood home, a single-story residence shared with his parents and 10 siblings. His wife of 37 years—who never moved to Washington—sat beside him as she recounted meeting her future husband while he was working as a garbage collector. In the evening’s closest approximation of a tough exchange, Leslie Stahl pressed the Speaker-elect on his aversion to the term “compromise” in working with President Obama. Boehner pivoted brilliantly, saying that in discussing values, the word makes his working class brethren “perk up” and say, “They’re gonna sell me out.” Instead, he continually stressed the need for “common ground”, a semantic distinction allowing him to appear both reasonable to independents and principled to the Tea Party contingent.
Just as the segment offered a stark counter narrative to Democratic depictions of Boehner this fall, it also served as a rejoinder to Tea Partiers’ irrational disdain for the “lamestream media”. Boehner rode to power on a wave that harbors only the greatest contempt for the journalistic establishment, yet Stahl’s treatment was closer to Frank Capra than Katie Couric. In the segment’s closing moments, Stahl sat with Mr. and Mrs. Boehner at the bar once owned by Boehner’s father. With Stahl remarking on his remarkable rise from mopping the bar’s floors to Speaker of the House, Boehner paused and delivered a line with Reagan-esque flair: “Welcome to America.” No, the segment wasn’t exactly journalistic hardball. But politically, Boehner knocked it out of the park.