“You all know that I did not seek this job,” House Speaker Paul Ryan reminded the country in announcing his retirement. “I took it reluctantly.”
That’s putting it mildly. Three years ago, Ryan had been adamant, refusing to drink from the poisoned chalice of becoming a GOP speaker. He relented and took the job only after being begged to do so by fellow Republicans, who convinced him that party loyalty, patriotism and national duty gave him no choice.
Ryan’s reluctance had been well-founded. As a college student, his first involvement in politics had been as a campaign volunteer for John Boehner, and once in Congress himself he had watched as Speaker Boehner was badgered endlessly by Republican purists. Boehner was by any measure a conservative, but to many in the GOP caucus he hadn't been mean enough or confrontational enough. Eventually, Boehner grew so sick and tired of the intra-party backstabbing and his party’s inability to govern that he just woke up one morning and quit, proclaiming it one of the happiest days of his life.
Prior to Boehner, the chalice had been handed to Speaker Denny Hastert, who had also tried and failed to turn the House GOP into a body capable of handling the responsibilities of government. "I continue to worry about the breakdown of civility in our political discourse," Hastert told lawmakers as he said goodbye in 2011. "When I addressed this chamber for the first time as your speaker, I noted that solutions to problems cannot be found in a pool of bitterness. Those words are as true today as they were then."
And before Hastert, there had been House Speaker Newt Gingrich. When he resigned as speaker in 1999, also because he was under attack by those in his own party, Gingrich told fellow Republicans that he was leaving because he was “not willing to preside over people who are cannibals,” a complaint that was rich with irony.
Five years earlier, Gingrich himself had ridden to power by undermining longtime Republican leader Bob Michel, whom Gingrich attacked as craven and weak. In his own farewell address, Michel had lamented the influence of those who would rather pick a fight than pass a bill, a reference aimed right at Gingrich.
“Michel understands that politics is not war, it is an alternative to war,” as one observer wrote at the time. “It is knowing what is possible and what isn’t. It is give and take, not divide and conquer. And in a group as diverse as the House, compromise is likely to produce more in the long run than confrontation.”
Boehner, notorious as a smoker and defender of the tobacco industry, this week announced that he was joining the advisory board of Acreage Holdings, a major marijuana-growing company, and would lobby Congress to legalize the drug at the federal level. Hastert was released last year from federal prison, after confessing to sexual abuse of young boys during his previous career as teacher and coach. And these days, Gingrich is ranting like a madman on Fox News, likening the FBI and the Justice Department to Stalin and the Gestapo in their investigation into President Trump.
What Gingrich gave us, what has crippled our government ever since and made the role of Republican leadership impossible, is the notion that compromise equates to surrender, that those who disagree are not merely wrong but evil, that no rules of civility apply and that politics is not just war but a war to destroy or be destroyed. It has poisoned our democracy, and it has turned politics into a cesspool into which too many men and women of good will are choosing not to wade any longer.