My Common Ground with John Boehner

At first glance, Republican House leader John Boehner, the chain-smoking “congressman from K Street,” didn’t appear to be the sort of person I could in any way identify with. But, reading Peter Boyer’s profile of him in The New Yorker of last December 13, I recognized something in common in our family backgrounds.

Like my parents in Toronto, his parents in Cincinnati owned a tavern that served a blue-collar clientele. Boyer recounts John’s father Earl opening up early to serve shots and beer before work, John himself tending bar, and the whole family doing an annual cleaning, attempting to remove the layers of cigarette tar from the walls.

All this sounds very familiar. In the fifties my father and his father owned a tavern in Toronto near the Massey-Ferguson factory and in the sixties my father and mother owned another one thirty miles away in Whitby, near the GM factory. As I recall them telling me, it was hard work, but it provided a decent living.

Taverns were regulated in Ontario, and there was a standard draft beer glass with a line approximately 1/16 inch thick near the top. In serving, the trick was to pour so that the meniscus just touched the bottom of the line at the sides of the glass. Doing that consistently contributed substantially to the profit margin.

The clientele usually ordered draft, so the owner’s big decision was which brewer’s draft to sell. As a reward from one brewer or another, my parents often received free tickets to Toronto Maple Leafs games (at a time when they were contenders for the Stanley Cup).

John’s parents, devout Catholics, had a family of twelve children, and that stretched the income very thinly. As second oldest, he had considerable responsibility for minding his younger siblings and helping in the tavern. It took him seven years of part-time study to earn his undergrad degree, and he was the first in his family to do so.

He then hit it big in industrial marketing for a plastic packaging company in the late seventies, earning $74K, which was a very hefty salary at that time. (I know from personal experience that entry level academic salaries at Northwestern’s business school were then around $20K, and $40K was a very good academic salary). In his own eyes, he had pulled himself up from poverty to claim his share of the American dream.

In contrast, I had it a lot easier than John. First and foremost, my parents had only three children. None of us ever worked in the tavern. We all attended university and, in my case, with some help from my paternal grandfather, there was enough money to pay for Ivy League tuition. John’s parents both smoked heavily and his mother died of smoking-related pulmonary failure. While my grandfather, father, and mother all inhaled far too much second-hand smoke, they were all spared lung disease.

According to Boyer, John’s reaction to his having achieved his version of the American dream was resentment at being placed in a high marginal income tax bracket, and a conversion to free-market fundamentalism. I can’t help but wonder if John didn’t also resent his parents for their rejection of family planning and the younger siblings who became his responsibility. Because such resentment would have been psychologically unacceptable, he may have transferred his resentment of his parents to the state and of his siblings to those citizens who were dependent on the state.

The trajectory of my political beliefs was also very different. Like most Canadian Jews, we identified with the Liberal Party. Reform Judaism, the branch with which we affiliated, had a strong social action tradition, comparable to the social gospel among Protestants or liberation theology among Catholics. For us, the phrase “because we were slaves unto Pharoah in Egypt” stood as a strong mandate for identification with those who were oppressed.

From my perspective, the version of the American dream for which John Boehner so readily tears up is self-seeking and narrow-minded, simply sucking up to the corporate elite and advancing their political agenda so that he can get to play at their golf courses and ride in their private jets.

But there is a bigger issue here, something Tony Blair put his finger on in his discussion of the origins of New Labour in his recent memoirs. Politically, what happens to people of modest means who work hard and achieve some measure of success? As Blair noted, in Britain they would normally convert from Labour to Tory. New Labour was an attempt to retain their loyalty by combining some tax cuts with efforts to improve public services.

Is Boehner merely the enabler of Tax Party activists intent on preserving the version of the American dream they have achieved and preventing the state from helping those less fortunate than themselves to aspire to it?

The attempted assassination of Representative Giffords is leading to political soul-searching, particularly in the House of Representatives. Is Boehner the sort of person to lead it to greater political civility? The two hopeful things I can see in his background are that tavern owners must learn to deal with dissatisfied and irrational customers and that people in marketing must be attuned to the needs of others. We’ll see.

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