John Boehner on how history will judge presidents he’s known. Trump: ‘I don’t think very well’

MARCO ISLAND, Florida - He was one of a dozen brothers and sisters who grew up in a two-bedroom house in southwest Ohio, worked at his father's bar on weekends, and had no aspirations for public office.
71-year-old John Boehner is still a little surprised that Joe Biden is the 10th president he met in a career that began in Ohio state law and ended with a tenure as Speaker of the House. That job made him second in line to succeed the White House.
The cover for John Boehner's political memoir On the House.
One of those presidents, Ronald Reagan, inspired him to switch parties to become a Republican. George W. Bush got as close as a brother; Boehner says they are like "two peas of the same pod". He blames Barack Obama for the greatest disappointment in his public life when they failed to secure a landmark budget deal. And Donald Trump has alarmed him by the direction of the GOP and the state of democracy in the country.
Now out of office, Boehner gave the US TODAY his honest assessments of the presidents with whom he negotiated laws, fought political battles, gave advice and, with most of them, played golf. The interview at his home in this exclusive Florida resort came just before the release of On the House: A Washington Memoir. The autobiography will be published Tuesday by St. Martin's Press.
More: Exclusive: John Boehner says Donald Trump "abused" his loyalists by lying to them
When Boehner is asked why he never ran for president himself, he rejected the idea with a laugh. "I was never bitten by this bug," he said. "Thank God."
Here's what he said and wrote about those who were, including some he casually met after leaving office and others with whom he worked closely at Washington's highest level.
Richard Nixon
Boehner's family were Democrats, but when he was first old enough to vote for president, he voted for Republican Richard Nixon in 1972. Boehner's income as a salesman for a small plastics company rose and he watched his taxes rise to levels he thought were "just plain outrageous". Low tax rates would remain a defining topic for him for decades.
President Richard Nixon toast with Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai at a banquet in Beijing in February 1972 during an official visit to China.
"Without him we would never have a relationship with China," Boehner said of Nixon, "but he had a pretty dirty business."
That would be the Watergate scandal, the first of four presidential impeachment debates that Boehner would end up watching, some from a distance and one up close.
Gerald Ford
In 1976 Boehner voted again for a Republican president, Gerald Ford. The two men met years later after Ford left the White House. In 1992, Republican House Leader Bob Michel invited Boehner to compete in the Jerry Ford Invitational golf tournament. They hit it off immediately.
Boehner gained respect for Ford's character, if not his skills in golf. "He loved the sport, mostly as a reason to hang out with friends and have a good time, but he wasn't a natural golfer," said Boehner.
Playing a round of a par-5 hole in California in 1999, Ford hit his fourth shot into a water hazard. And his fifth shot. And his sixth shot. Then the 86-year-old former president jumped up and down yelling a line that cannot be printed here.
Undated photo of John Boehner with former President Gerald Ford.
By then they had become friends. "He was a warm, laid-back guy - from the Midwest, like me, and a man of the house like me," said Boehner. Ford had been the Republican leader of the House when he replaced the embarrassed Spiro Agnew as Vice President. He took the presidency when Nixon was forced to resign.
"He hadn't been looking for such progress, he was just doing his job - and we needed him to give the country much-needed stability after all the Watergate chaos," said Boehner. He called Ford "the most decent president I have ever met".
But the job Ford really wanted was the one Boehner finally got.
"It was pretty clear to me that Ford thought its jump into the executive branch was wrong," said Boehner. Ford told him "a little sad" that all he ever wanted to be was a speaker.
Exclusive: Ex-spokesman Boehner says Matt Gaetz should resign if he is charged - or expelled
Jimmy Carter
Boehner still considered himself a Democrat in 1976 but didn't vote for Jimmy Carter. As he watched Carter's tenure, Boehner became increasingly interested in politics - in 1980 he ran for president of the local homeowners association - and moved to the GOP.
"Quite a controversial presidency," he said of Carter without going into detail. "And to be honest, I think he got more famous after that."
President Jimmy Carter in the East Room of the White House in Washington on October 12, 1978.
Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan was the reason Boehner became a Republican.
"He talked about economics in a way that really got small business owners like me to stand up and pay attention," recalled Boehner, noting Reagan's commitment to lower tax rates, supply-side economics, and free market power. "So I finally looked around and said to myself, I'm no longer a Democrat. I'm a Republican. And I'm a Reagan Republican too."
But he also said Reagan would not recognize today's GOP, defined by Donald Trump and the Freedom Caucus, "and he couldn't fucking get elected in it."
President Ronald Reagan is at his desk in the Oval Office of the White House preparing a tax revision address in Washington on May 24, 1985.
George H.W. bush
"What a wonderful man, a wonderful man," said Boehner.
When Bush was serving as Vice President, Boehner started his own political career in the Republican Party. In 1984 he was elected to the Ohio House of Representatives and began an uninterrupted string of electoral victories and political ascension that would eventually make him close friends with Bush's son.
President George Bush gestured during his impromptu press conference at the White House in Washington on October 13, 1989. Bush spoke on various emotional topics including flag burning, Panama and abortion laws.
Bill Clinton
If Boehner's assessment of the elder Bush is short and sweet, his view of Bill Clinton is more complicated and mixed.
"One of the best politicians of my life," he said, and "a fantastic speaker".
But he also said Clinton reminded him of Eddie Haskell, the submissive boy from "Leave it to Beaver," a television sitcom from the 1950s and 1960s. "He could steal your watch right in front of you, and you would be grateful if he would tell you the time," said Boehner. The president also played "a somewhat seedy" game of golf, including a penchant for mulligans or do-over strokes. Boehner called them "cheap people".
Former President Bill Clinton shakes hands with House Speaker John Boehner at the inaugural dinner in the Statue Hall on Inauguration Day at the U.S. Capitol on January 21, 2013 in Washington, DC. US President Barack Obama was sworn in for his second term today.
In his book, Boehner wrote that he admired Clinton's "nifty" campaign in 1992 "in which he managed to survive allegations of adultery, evasion, communism, drug use and even mass murder." He added, "Some of these allegations were more believable than others, but I'll let you decide which was which."
It was a voter setback to Clinton's first two years in office that gave Republicans control of the house in 1994, he said.
Boehner voted to charge Clinton with oath and obstruction of justice when he tried to cover up an affair with a White House intern. He said the move was motivated by calculating the Republican whip Tom DeLay that the impeachment was "politically a huge win".
It was not, and Boehner is no longer arguing that Clinton's misdeeds resulted in the "high crimes and misdemeanors" required by the constitution for impeachment.
"I regret it now," he said. "I'm sorry I didn't fight it."
George W. Bush
They are close together in age and personality, both sociable men with a penchant for sports and humor. "My brother," said Boehner of George W. Bush. "We are like two peas of the same pod."
They met in the 1990s when the House Republicans were trying to forge closer ties with GOP governors, including Bush. But Bush wasn't very good at the poker games they sometimes played. The Texas governor would fold if he didn't have a packed hand - a tell for everyone else in the game. "He didn't seem able to bluff," said Boehner.
When Bush was elected president in 2000, Boehner was part of the Republican leadership of the house. He would be the Republican leader of the House during Bush's second term.
President Bush and John Boehner, minority chairman of the House of Representatives, R-Ohio, right, made a statement Wednesday, May 7, 2008 after meeting with the House Republican Conference in the east room of the White House. Bush criticized the approach taken by the Democrats in dealing with the US housing crisis and rising energy prices.
They worked together to pass Bush's signing education bill early in administration, but struggled to respond to the 2008 financial meltdown. By then, Boehner said, "My friend George Bush had lost almost all credibility with conservatives who hated his opinion, immigration and the rest of the country, fed up with the war in Iraq."
Barack Obama
Barack Obama is "a good man, but not a great president," said Boehner.
When the two were playing a round of golf in 2011 - the four of them that included Vice President Joe Biden and Ohio Governor John Kasich - Boehner suggested they work on a big budget deal. After close negotiations, Boehner said they had reached an agreement that had begun to bring the federal deficit under control. But he said Obama, under pressure from Democrats, called for a last-minute change that undermined him.
In his essay "A Promised Land," published last year, Obama dismissed a deal and compared Boehner to the state lawmakers he knew in Springfield or the lobbyists who kept them in power. "He portrayed him as personable but ineffective and had no control over a noisy Republican caucus.
Boehner described the failure to seal the comprehensive budget as the greatest regret of his political career.
"The deal was closed and he walked away from it," he said of Obama. "Sad, sad, sad, sad."
House Speaker John Boehner listens as President Obama speaks to reporters at the White House in this Jan. 13, 2015 photo.
Donald Trump
As with several other presidents, Boehner first met Trump at a game of golf.
Boehner was then the leader of the house minority on a fundraising tour to play golf with two insurance managers at Trump National Golf Club in Westchester, New York. "Out of nowhere," they were informed that Trump himself would be their fourth.
President Donald Trump speaks to the crowd during a campaign event on Thursday, January 30, 2020 at the Knapp Center in Des Moines.
"He was very friendly, but in a way they talk in New York that I wasn't used to at all," Boehner recalled. "Direct, loud, intense." When a young Boehner aide embarrassed Trump by giving him the wrong name for one of the insurance managers, Trump dressed him in such a way that Boehner said he was "dark". He called the aide an "idiot" in an explosive tirade.
"That was more than just New York," said Boehner. "That was real anger about something very, very small. We had no idea then what that anger would do to our country."
Boehner withdrew from electoral politics in 2015 when Trump considered an offer for the White House. At the beginning of his presidency, Trump called on him for advice. Among other things, Boehner urged him to stop tweeting, a piece of advice the president is known to have rejected.
How will history judge Trump?
"Well, I don't think very well."
This article originally appeared TODAY in the USA: Boehner rates the presidents he knows from Nixon to Trump
In this article:
John Boehner
Donald Trump
Ronald Reagan
George W. Bush

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