Panic Rooms, Birth Certificates and the Birth of GOP Paranoia

Panic Rooms, Birth Certificates and the Birth of GOP ParanoiaApril 2, 2021

In the 2010 midterm election, voters from all over the place gave President Obama what he himself called “a shellacking.” And oh boy, was it ever. You could be a total moron and get elected just by having an R next to your name—and that year, by the way, we did pick up a fair number in that category.

Retaking control of the House of Representatives put me in line to be the next Speaker of the House over the largest freshman Republican class in history: 87 newly elected members of the GOP. Since I was presiding over a large group of people who’d never sat in Congress, I felt I owed them a little tutorial on governing. I had to explain how to actually get things done. A lot of that went straight through the ears of most of them, especially the ones who didn’t have brains that got in the way. Incrementalism? Compromise? That wasn’t their thing. A lot of them wanted to blow up Washington. That’s why they thought they were elected.

Some of them, well, you could tell they weren’t paying attention because they were just thinking of how to fundraise off of outrage or how they could get on Hannity that night. Ronald Reagan used to say something to the effect that if I get 80 or 90 percent of what I want, that’s a win. These guys wanted 100 percent every time. In fact, I don’t think that would satisfy them, because they didn’t really want legislative victories. They wanted wedge issues and conspiracies and crusades.

To them, my talk of trying to get anything done made me a sellout, a dupe of the Democrats, and a traitor. Some of them had me in their sights from day one. They saw me as much of an “enemy” as the guy in the White House. Me, a guy who had come to the top of the leadership by exposing corruption and pushing conservative ideas. Now I was a “liberal collaborator.” So that took some getting used to. What I also had not anticipated was the extent to which this new crowd hated—and I mean hated—Barack Obama.

By 2011, the right-wing propaganda nuts had managed to turn Obama into a toxic brand for conservatives. When I was first elected to Congress, we didn’t have any propaganda organization for conservatives, except maybe a magazine or two like National Review. The only people who used the internet were some geeks in Palo Alto. There was no Drudge Report. No Breitbart. No kooks on YouTube spreading dangerous nonsense like they did every day about Obama.

“He’s a secret Muslim!”

“He hates America!”

“He’s a communist!”

And of course the truly nutty business about his birth certificate. People really had been brainwashed into believing Barack Obama was some Manchurian candidate planning to betray America.

Mark Levin was the first to go on the radio and spout off this crazy nonsense. It got him ratings, so eventually he dragged Hannity and Rush to Looneyville along with him. My longtime friend Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News, was not immune to this. He got swept into the conspiracies and the paranoia and became an almost unrecognizable figure.

I’d known Ailes for a long time, since his work with George H.W. Bush in the early 1990s. He’d gone to college in Ohio, and since we had that connection, he sought me out at some event and introduced himself. Years later, in August of 1996, when I was in San Diego for the Republican National Convention, I ended up having dinner with Ailes and a veteran broadcasting executive named Rupert Murdoch. At that dinner they told me all about this new TV network they were starting. I had no idea I was listening to the outline of something that would make my life a living hell down the line. Sure enough, that October, Fox News hit the airwaves.

I kept in touch with Roger and starting in the early 2000s, I’d stop in and see him whenever I was in New York for fundraisers. We’d shoot the breeze and talk politics. We got to know each other pretty well.

Murdoch, on the other hand, was harder to know. Sometimes he’d invite me to watch the Super Bowl in the Fox box, or he’d stop by the office. Wherever he was, you could tell he was the man in charge. He was a businessman, pure and simple. He cared about ratings and the bottom line. He also wanted to make sure he was ahead of any political or policy developments coming down the line. He was always asking who was up, who was down, what bills could pass and what couldn’t. If he entertained any of the kooky conspiracy theories that started to take over his network, he kept it a secret from me. But he clearly didn’t have a problem with them if they helped ratings.

At some point after the 2008 election, something changed with my friend Roger Ailes. I once met him in New York during the Obama years to plead with him to put a leash on some of the crazies he was putting on the air. It was making my job trying to accomplish anything conservative that much harder. I didn’t expect this meeting to change anything, but I still thought it was bullshit, and I wanted Roger to know it.

When I put it to him like that, he didn’t have much to say. But he did go on and on about the terrorist attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, which he thought was part of a grand conspiracy that led back to Hillary Clinton. Then he outlined elaborate plots by which George Soros and the Clintons and Obama (and whoever else came to mind) were trying to destroy him.

“They’re monitoring me,” he assured me about the Obama White House. He told me he had a “safe room” built so he couldn’t be spied on. His mansion was being protected by combat-ready security personnel, he said. There was a lot of conspiratorial talk. It was like he’d been reading whacked-out spy novels all weekend.

And it was clear that he believed all of this crazy stuff. I walked out of that meeting in a daze. I just didn’t believe the entire federal government was so terrified of Roger Ailes that they’d break about a dozen laws to bring him down. I thought I could get him to control the crazies, and instead I found myself talking to the president of the club. One of us was crazy. Maybe it was me.

I have no idea what the relationship between Ailes and Murdoch was like, or if Ailes ever would go off on these paranoid tangents during meetings with his boss. But Murdoch must have thought Ailes was good for business, because he kept him in his job for years.

Places like Fox News were creating the wrong incentives. Sean Hannity was one of the worst. I’d known him for years, and we used to have a good relationship. But then he decided he felt like busting my ass every night on his show. So one day, in January of 2015, I finally called him and asked: “What the hell?” I wanted to know why he kept bashing House Republicans when we were actually trying to stand up to Obama.

“Well, you guys don’t have a plan,” he whined.

“Look,” I told him, “our plan is pretty simple: we’re just going to stand up for what we believe in as Republicans.”

I guess that wasn’t good enough for him. The conversation didn’t progress very far. At some point I called him a nut. Anyway, it’s safe to say our relationship never got any better.

Besides the homegrown “talent” at Fox, with their choice of guests they were making people who used to be fringe characters into powerful media stars. One of the first prototypes out of their laboratory was a woman named Michele Bachmann.

Bachmann, who had represented Minnesota’s 6th Congressional District since 2007 and made a name for herself as a lunatic ever since, came to meet with me in the busy period in late 2010 after the election. She wanted a seat on the Ways and Means Committee, the most powerful committee in the House. There were many members in line ahead of her for a post like this. People who had waited patiently for their turn and who also, by the way, weren’t wild-eyed crazies.

There was no way she was going to get on Ways and Means, the most prestigious committee in Congress, and jump ahead of everyone else in line. Not while I was Speaker. In earlier days, a member of Congress in her position wouldn’t even have dared ask for something like this. Sam Rayburn would have laughed her out of the city.

So I told her no—diplomatically, of course. But as she kept on talking, it dawned on me. This wasn’t a request of the Speaker of the House. This was a demand.

Her response to me was calm and matter-of-fact. “Well, then I’ll just have to go talk to Sean Hannity and everybody at Fox,” she said, “and Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, and everybody else on the radio, and tell them that this is how John Boehner is treating the people who made it possible for the Republicans to take back the House.”

I wasn’t the one with the power, she was saying. I just thought I was. She had the power now.

She was right, of course.

She was a conservative media darling and, by then, the conservative media was already eyeing me skeptically. She had me where it hurt. Even if I wanted to help her, and I sure as hell didn’t, it wasn’t a decision I had the power to make on my own. That power belongs to a little-known but very important group called the Steering Committee.

I knew there was no way the Steering Committee would approve putting Bachmann on Ways and Means. The votes just weren’t there. If I even pushed the issue, they wouldn’t have let me leave the meeting without fastening me into a straitjacket. But then, Bachmann wouldn’t go on TV and the radio to explain the nuances of House Steering Committee procedure. She’d just rip my head off every night, over and over again. That was a headache I frankly didn’t want or need.

I suggested the House Intelligence committee to Bachmann as an alternative, and mercifully, she liked it. It would be a good perch for anyone wanting to build up their foreign policy chops for a run for president, which she was already considering— Lord help us all. None too pleased was the man preparing to take up the gavel as chairman of the Intelligence Committee, Rep. Mike Rogers from Michigan, an army veteran who had also served in the FBI. So I took my lumps from Rogers, and Bachmann took her seat on the committee.

The funny thing is, Michele Bachmann turned out to be a very focused, hardworking member—even though she spent a few months later in 2011 on a short-lived campaign for president. She showed up to the committee, did her homework, and ended up winning over her fellow members with her dedication. Mike Rogers was impressed—and I have to admit, so was I. The whole situation ended up working out well for everyone. As one of those old Boehnerisms goes, “Get the right people on the bus, and help them find the right seat.”

In January 2011, as the new Republican House majority was settling in and I was getting adjusted to the Speakership, I was asked about the birth certificate business by Brian Williams of NBC News. My answer was simple: “The state of Hawaii has said that President Obama was born there. That’s good enough for me.” It was a simple statement of fact. But you would have thought I’d called Ronald Reagan a communist. I got all kinds of shit for it—emails, letters, phone calls. It went on for a couple weeks. I knew we would hear from some of the crazies, but I was surprised at just how many there really were.

All of this crap swirling around was going to make it tough for me to cut any deals with Obama as the new House Speaker. Of course, it has to be said that Obama didn’t help himself much either. He could come off as lecturing and haughty. He still wasn’t making Republican outreach a priority. But on the other hand—how do you find common cause with people who think you are a secret Kenyan Muslim traitor to America?

Under the new rules of Crazytown, I may have been Speaker, but I didn’t hold all the power. By 2013 the chaos caucus in the House had built up their own power base thanks to fawning right-wing media and outrage-driven fundraising cash. And now they had a new head lunatic leading the way, who wasn’t even a House member. There is nothing more dangerous than a reckless asshole who thinks he is smarter than everyone else. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Senator Ted Cruz. He enlisted the crazy caucus of the GOP in what was a truly dumbass idea. Not that anybody asked me.

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