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John Boehner Leaves 'The Loneliest Place In The World'

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

John Boehner bids farewell to Capitol Hill today after nearly five years leading the House of Representatives, fighting the Democratic president and House members of his own party. Boehner is expected to hand off the speaker's gavel to Paul Ryan. House Republicans came together yesterday to endorse the Wisconsin Republican for speaker after a chaotic few weeks, when it wasn't always clear that someone would emerge to take over from Boehner. Before stepping down, the speaker talked to NPR congressional reporter Sue Davis, and she joins us now. Good morning.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, Boehner has had a very rough tenure as speaker. How does he feel about the job looking back on it?

DAVIS: He certainly does not appear to have any second thoughts about this being the right time to exit. He said as a lawmaker, you wonder when the day will come when you're ready to retire. But when you finally make the decision, the question in your mind starts to become how soon can I get out of here? And for Boehner, he was particularly candid about how his five years as speaker were some of the loneliest in his 25-year congressional career.

JOHN BOEHNER: This is the loneliest place in the world, almost as lonely as the president's. It took me a long time to realize this. What you find here is that yeah, you get a lot of people coming in and coming out, but you're away from your friends, you're away from your family, and it's a lonely place.

MONTAGNE: All right. Well, the last memory of John Boehner's time as speaker will, of course, be his battles with hard-line conservatives. How does he describe those battles at this stage?

DAVIS: You know, those conservatives - most of the ones that have given John Boehner the most opposition were elected in that 2010 Tea Party wave or after. And partly because the Tea Party has always viewed whoever was in the party establishment at best skeptically, at worst as the opposition. And that's always vexed Boehner because never viewed himself as any less conservatives than these members, just that they had a different idea of how you could advance a conservative agenda. Remember that John Boehner was an activist conservative when he was elected in 1990. He helped expose the House Bank scandal as a part of what was known as the Gang of Seven. He also played a significant role in both Republican takeovers of the House in 1994 and 2010.

BOEHNER: That rift is over tactics. We never disagreed on strategy. It's all over tactics, which to this day I wish I could explain that to you.

MONTAGNE: Strategy tactics - all right, so he can't quite explain all that was going on there. But he also talked about something I gather that may not be apparent to a lot of people but really caused a major shift in how the House operates as soon as he became speaker, right?

DAVIS: Yes. Oh, absolutely. So I think probably one of the biggest lasting impacts of John Boehner was his efforts to eliminate earmarks. Earmarks are congressional pet projects, usually funding dollars that were tucked into bills, often uses legislative horse trading to get things done. They were popularized very - increasingly during the DeLay era, and John Banner always saw them as a corrupting force. But in some ways, getting rid of earmarks made his job and the job of party leaders that much harder. He was perhaps the most vocal critic of earmarks. But, you know, without them, it's been much harder to instill that party discipline. But he said he has zero regrets about getting rid of them because he thinks it's made, you know, the legislative process run a little more honestly.

BOEHNER: I'm still shocked that we actually made it happen. I'm more surprised now than when we did it because I really never realized how everybody was in the game. When I say everybody, I mean virtually everybody was in the earmark business. I didn't realize that I was, like, the only one that just never did any of it.

MONTAGNE: John Boehner was essentially pushed out of office by the hard right. There are conservatives - those are conservatives who will say that he is the worst speaker in U.S. history because they felt he was too willing to compromise with Democrats. How does he feel?

DAVIS: He shrugs off the legacy question. He says, you know, it's up to others to decide his place in history. He does pride himself on his humble start in life and how he was able to climb - as he always likes to say, he was the son of a bartender and 1 of 12 kids. He was raised in a working-class family. And I think he sees his story as sort of a story - an American dream-like story.

MONTAGNE: NPR congressional reporter Susan Davis, who spoke to House Speaker John Boehner before he leaves office today. Thank you very much.

DAVIS: Thank you, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.