Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Speakerphone


When Republican Ohio Rep. John Boehner took possession of the gavel previously wielded by Nancy Pelosi and became Speaker of the House of Representatives, we were led to believe it was the realization of a dream come true, one that arrived with the recipient’s full realization of the power, and the constitutional importance, of the position.

Apparently, not so much. On the two most recent occasions — one of them absolutely impossible to understand given its deep national resonance — Speaker Boehner has shown he’s tone-deaf to the stagecraft and moment that’s bestowed on the office that puts him second in the line of presidential succession.

In the wake of the Tucson shootings on Jan. 8, Boehner was offered an invitation to fly to the city aboard Air Force One, as part of a bipartisan show of support from Washington on behalf of the victims — including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, one of his number in the House —and the city in which they lived. The memorial service that followed was as close as we’ve come in a while to a national moment of reckoning and connection, one that trumped the convenience of party politics. Simply put, he shoulda been there.

The Speakerphone had pressing business elsewhere. Boehner passed on personally appearing in Tucson so that he could attend a D.C. prayer service for the victims, and a benefit for Maria Cino, at that time a candidate to lead the Republican National Committee.

He’s pulled this crap before, remember. Between November 2009 and May 2010, Boehner rebuffed invitations to receptions for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Mexican President Felipe Calderon.

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Then there was tonight’s state dinner at the White House. The guest of honor? Not a bigwig he has to worry about — just Hu Jintao, president of the Republic of China, the second largest economy in the world, and the fastest growing.

Boehner’s reason? No real explanation. There are plans to meet Hu privately; "Speaker Boehner will have a substantive meeting with President Hu later this week," his spokesman, Michael Steel, told AOL News’ Annie Groer by e-mail. But there was no reason offered for missing such a world-class event.

Dutifully, the Republican sock puppets posing as strategists took to the airwaves and implied it was no B.F. Deal. Or said so literally: “It’s not that big of a deal,” John Feehery said on MSNBC. Consistently, the Speakerphone’s apologists offered a weak defense: Why is it such a big deal when Mr. Boehner doesn’t show up for state affairs, but it’s OK if [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid passes on them?

It’s true enough, Reid has opted out of one high-profile state dinner before, in 2007, when the haberdasher-deficient Nevada senator sent his regrets for being a no-show at a dinner for Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, reportedly because he didn’t have white tie.

But it’s different for the Speaker of the House. It’s that little matter of presidential succession. Boehner is in line to inherit the presidency, Reid is not. As one of the handful of people who may be required to assume the presidency in a literal heartbeat, Boehner is in a position that calls for a special sensitivity — certainly to the people he represents. The bar is higher.

The Tucson event and its aftermath cried out for a communication of unity, which President Obama satisfied completely. Boehner failed to realize that, rather than diminishing him, being there in Tucson would have burnished his bona fides as a national leader in ways that can’t be calculated.

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It’s much the same with the way he stiffed Singh and Calderon previously, and President Hu tonight. The magnitude of his office would have taken a hit against the majesty of two world leaders. You can only be so big, garner just so much personal attention, when you’re eating poached Maine lobster and D’Anjou pear salad with the two heaviest hitters on the planet.

But if you presume to lead, not just your party but your nation on the global stage — and that possibility is implicit in the job — sometimes you need to suck it up, put party politics and sad excuses aside and show up at events whose importance in the bigger picture is inescapable.

Sooner or later, Speakerphone Boehner will spout off with some presumably enlightened comment about our trade relationship with China. It doesn’t matter what he says, whatever he says would have been that much more credible, have that much more of the gravitas of leadership if he’d been there tonight.

Clearly, Boehner has some learning to do about the scope of his new gig, its ceremonial aspects foreign and domestic, all the things that may not be in the job description but which matter just the same.

Since taking over in the House, twice when it really mattered, the great and powerful John hasn’t missed the opportunity to miss an opportunity. It’s a bafflingly inauspicious way to start one of the most pivotal jobs in our government.

Image credits: Boehner: House of Representatives (public domain). President Obama, Michelle Obama and President Hu: Charles Dharapak/Associated Press. Mark Kelly and President Obama: Rob Schumacher/The Arizona Republic.

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