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Op-Ed

When the speaker wouldn't speak

The president calls the speaker of the House, in the midst of an economic crisis, and he won't pick up the phone? You don't refuse a call from the president, no matter what.

July 29, 2011|By Michael Kinsley

On July 22, a Washington Post story about how talks broke down on the debt ceiling contained a disturbing sentence: "Then Obama called Boehner back and didn't get him."

What?

The president of the United States calls the speaker of the House, in the midst of an economic crisis, and the speaker won't pick up the phone? You don't refuse a call from the president, no matter how deplorable you find his policies.

Everyone knows that, by the rules of telephone tag, it would be Boehner's obligation to make the next call even if it wasn't the president of the United States who was trying to reach him.

It could have been worse, I suppose. At least Boehner didn't put the president on hold.

But wait. Let's be fair. It could be that Boehner was truly unavailable. He was in the bathroom, perhaps, or visiting his psychic at a location known only to his chief of staff, who was on vacation. Or maybe Boehner was accidentally locked in the Capitol garage without his cellphone. Or maybe he'd snuck out for a cigarette and didn't care to reveal his addiction even to a fellow sufferer (although earlier reports had said that Boehner and Obama had actually bonded over their shared cigarette habit). Or maybe the president reached an answering machine or voice mail and failed to leave a message or call-back number, and maybe Boehner didn't have Caller ID. I'm leaning over backward here.

Even in these unlikely circumstances, though, you would think that the speaker would return the president's call fairly promptly. But no. Obama's call to Boehner was on Thursday evening, July 21. By midday Friday afternoon, July 22, Boehner had not called back.

Early Friday afternoon, July 22, Obama called Boehner for a second time. This time the president of the United States was told by some aide of this ... this ... this congressman that Boehner would call him back at 5:30 p.m. Can you imagine? What exactly could be so important that Boehner couldn't squeeze in a chat with the president?

("I'm terribly sorry, Mr. President, but the speaker has his yoga class from 4 p.m to 5 p.m and he always tries to get in a good 45 minutes of meditation and an hour's massage beforehand. And 'namaste' to you too, sir."

Or perhaps — delusions of grandeur — the speaker thinks he's a dentist: "I'm sorry Mr. President, he's all booked up. But I'll be glad to put you on his waiting list in case there's a cancellation.")

Actually, as the call-back witching hour approached, according to the Post, "Boehner was chatting with reporters in the Capitol, joking with one guy about his tan and puffing on a cigarette." In other words, while the president no doubt was nervously pacing the floor at the White House, waiting for 5:30, probably dying for a cigarette, Boehner was smoking and yukking it up with a bunch of journalists.

Probably it was only respect for the first lady that stopped him from inhaling a Big Mac as well.

Michael Kinsley is a member of the editorial board of Bloomberg News and a former editorial page editor of The Times.

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