Speakers, presidents have complicated social ties

June 18, 2011 - 8:44 AM
Obama Boehner Golf

FILE - In this July 1, 2009, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, golfs at the Pro Am for the AT&T National golf tournament at Congressional Country Club just outside the nation's capital in Bethesda, Md. Presidents and House speakers have a history of complicated relationships. On Saturday President Barack Obama and Boehner will add their own chapter on the golf links, political opposites each trying to put a ball in the same hole. (AP Photo/Rob Carr, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Dwight Eisenhower got along better with Sam Rayburn than with leaders of his own party. Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan would bury political differences after 6 p.m. Newt Gingrich felt snubbed by Bill Clinton on Air Force One.

Presidents and House speakers have a history of complicated relationships. President Barack Obama and Rep. John Boehner are adding their own chapter on the golf links Saturday, political opposites each trying to put a ball in the same hole.

Boehner, R-Ohio, and the president have a courteous, but not a social relationship. Their interactions are so businesslike that their decision to play golf together has been given significance far greater than it probably deserves.

While the president's frequent golf outings occur outside the prying eyes of the press, journalists were promised at least a glimpse, and a chance to photograph, Obama and Boehner with their game faces on.

Past president-speaker relationships have been defined by specific moments.

O'Neill, D-Mass., and Reagan shared evening martinis at the White House and exchanged Irish tales. Rayburn, D-Texas, gave Eisenhower a heifer for the president's Pennsylvania farm. Gingrich, R-Ga., complained that Clinton forced him to exit through the rear entrance of Air Force One during their 1995 trip to Israel for the funeral of assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

In these days of hyper partisanship, O'Neill and Republican Reagan are often held up as models of civility. They had drinks, traded stories and worked out a deal to extend the life of Social Security. But O'Neill also was combative, using charged language to underscore his positions. Reagan's son Michael wrote recently that when the president confronted O'Neill on his tough attacks, O'Neill replied: "That's politics buddy. After 6 p.m. we can be friends. Before six, it's hardball."

Underlying the presidential and speaker relations is the constitutional power the two institutions represent. Congress and the presidency are coequal branches of government, a status House speakers jealously protect.

Rayburn, was speaker on and off between 1940 and 1961, told an interviewer years later: "I never served under any president. I served with eight."

In his biography of Rayburn, Alfred Steinberg described how Eisenhower would invite Rayburn and then Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, D-Texas, to the second floor White House residence for a drink and a canapé. That angered Vice President Richard Nixon, who complained to friends that during Eisenhower's eight years as president, the president never invited Nixon upstairs at the White House.

But if party opposites sometimes attract, same party speakers and presidents haven't always fared so well.

O'Neill and President Jimmy Carter, both Democrats, had a cool relationship from the start.

In his autobiography, O'Neill recalled how he had asked Carter aides to accommodate friends and family members at an inauguration gala only to see them seated in the last row of the second balcony. A Carter staffer apologized, but O'Neill concluded that the aide regarded "a House Speaker as something you bought on sale at Radio Shack. I could see that this was just the beginning of my problems with these guys."

The Obama-Boehner golf outing coincided with White House and congressional negotiations on a long-term deficit reduction plan and raising the government's borrowing authority. Republicans have insisted on significant cuts of about $2 trillion over 10 years or 12 years before agreeing to increase the current $14.3 debt ceiling, which the government says it will surpass Aug. 2.

Obama's spokesman, Jay Carney, said the links outing was a chance for the leaders "to have a conversation, to socialize in a way that so rarely happens in Washington. I would expect they will talk about some of the very important issues that have to be dealt with by this administration and this Congress."

John Feehery, who served as a top aide to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said such private sessions are useful but that speakers must be wary.

It's a doubled edged sword," he said. "It's important to establish trust with the person you're negotiating with. When you have a speaker and a president from different parties, it's all about negotiation. But it also can be dangerous if you get too charmed."

Hastert replaced Gingrich as speaker and had a better relationship with Clinton.

"They had a good personal chemistry and got along pretty well, Clinton was good with Hastert," Feehery said. "But Hastert also had to avoid missteps with his conservative wing."

Boehner and Obama do not appear to have much in common. The speaker is gregarious, a creature of Washington with an emotional streak; Obama has a small circle of friends and a cool demeanor.

But they have their similarities. Both grew up in working class families, both are known to enjoy a cigarette, though aides say Obama has quit. Both have their golf.

"The fact that he and Obama both play golf, smoke and drink merlot — they have some common ground," Feehery said. "What you're trying to do is find the sense of humanity of each person and find a sense of, 'Is this someone I can do business with?'"