Published December 23, 2015
WASHINGTON -- Dwight Eisenhower got along better with Democrat Sam Rayburn than with leaders of his own party. Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan famously 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. On Saturday, President Obama and Speaker John Boehner will add their own chapter on the golf links, political opposites each trying to put a ball in the same hole.
Boehner 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, White House spokesman Jay Carney announced Friday that journalists this time will at least get to glimpse -- and a chance to photograph -- Obama and Boehner with their game faces on.
"They both play golf. A lot of Americans play golf," Carney said. "And this is an opportunity that I think has value beyond the game, great value beyond the game."
Past president-speaker relationships have been defined by specific moments. O'Neill and Reagan shared evening martinis at the White House and exchanged Irish tales. Rayburn gave Eisenhower a heifer for the president's Pennsylvania farm. Gingrich 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, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Reagan, a Republican, 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 co-equal branches of government, a status House speakers jealously protect.
Sam Rayburn, who 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 to the second floor White House residence for a drink and a canapDe, angering Vice President Richard Nixon, who complained to friends that during Eisenhower's eight years as president, he 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 comes as the White House and Congress negotiate a long-term deficit reduction plan while they set the stage for increasing the government's borrowing authority. Republicans have insisted on significant cuts of about $2 trillion over 10 or 12 years before agreeing to increase the current $14.3 debt ceiling, which the government says it will surpass Aug. 2.
The outing "is meant to be an opportunity for the speaker and the president, as well as the vice president and Ohio governor, to have a conversation, to socialize in a way that so rarely happens in Washington," Carney said. "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 Speaker Dennis Hastert, 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. And 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?"'