John Boehner left office months before the biggest political story of the decade played out: Donald Trump won the Republican presidential nomination, became President, and redefined the Republican Party. Boehner, who announced his resignation in 2015 with such relief that he sang zip-a-dee-doo-dah, watched Trump’s rise from afar, apparently glad to be out of the political fray.
Now the former Republican Speaker of the House has written a memoir: On the House: A Washington Memoir, published by St. Martin’s Press on April 13. The rollicking book is a reflection on his career, and he wrestles with how the Republican Party has changed, reckons with whether there’s a place for him in it now, drops a lot of f-bombs, and reveals scathing anecdotes about other members of Congress. (Texas Sen. Ted Cruz draws particular ire.)
Boehner was gone from the Capitol before the 2016 election, but during his Speakership from 2011 to 2015 he oversaw the rise of the Tea Party that unleashed the political forces that would arguably lead to Trump’s presidency. “People want to confuse some of the knuckleheads as being conservatives,” Boehner tells TIME. “They weren’t conservatives. They were crazy.”
TIME obtained an advance copy of the book and interviewed Boehner by phone the day before its release. He called from Florida, where he spends half the year, and spoke from his lanai while he looked out “at a nice, white beach” on the Gulf of Mexico.
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
What was the writing process like? Did you really drink wine while recording the audio version of the book?
[Laughs.] No wine [was] consumed during the writing of the book or the recording of the book. It’s one of those internet myths that continues to get propagated.
The Tea Party wave of the 2010 midterms swept you into the Speaker’s seat. How influential do you think tactics embraced by conservatives during your Speakership were in giving rise to former President Donald Trump?
I’m a conservative Republican. People want to confuse some of the knuckleheads as being conservatives. They weren’t conservatives. They were crazy. We saw this widening of our political spectrum on the far left and the far right. It continued to widen during the five years I was Speaker, and frankly continued to widen even more since then. Donald Trump is a product of the chaos we’ve seen in our political process over the last 10 or 12 years.
You didn’t endorse anyone in the 2020 presidential race, and a spokesperson for you said that you “would rather set [yourself] on fire” than get involved in the election. Who did you vote for?
I voted for Donald Trump. I thought that his policies, by and large, mirrored the policies that I believed in. I thought the choices for the Supreme Court were top notch. At the end of the day, who gets nominated to the federal courts is really the most important thing a President does.
Given the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6, do you wish you’d been more involved in pushing back against former President Trump’s efforts to overturn the election?
No. I’m retired. I try to stay out of the day-to-day rumble of politics. I really didn’t need to speak up. At some point [in 2018], somebody asked me about the state of the Republican Party, and I said, ‘The Republican Party’s taking a nap.’ I wrote to my staff several days after January 6, I said, ‘I called it a nap but now it’s become’… I might have said ‘crisis.’
You compare progressive Democrats today to the Tea Party by referring to both as “political terrorists.” But one party is trafficking in racism and misinformation, and the other is debating policy. Why don’t you think that’s different?
The tactics that are used by the far left and the far right are pretty much the same these days. We’ve got the internet. We’ve got Facebook, Twitter, every social media platform known to man. The more noise that they create, and the more attention they get, the more money they raise.
We always have what I’ll call a few nutty members on each side of the aisle. But nobody in the press paid any attention to them. And then along came talk radio and 24-hour cable news. The internet and social media platforms [have] given some of the crazier members [of Congress] a platform for which to create themselves out of virtually nothing.
You talk about an unwillingness in both parties to tackle immigration. The Senate did pass a bipartisan deal in 2013, but you chose not to put it on the floor for a vote. Do you have regrets about that?
No, I don’t have any regrets whatsoever about it. I thought a better way to do it would be to break the large Senate bill into maybe four or five pieces. But a leader without followers is simply a man taking a walk. And my members just did not want to deal with this. President Obama didn’t help matters. Every time we would get close to getting ready to do something, he would light the immigration issue on fire. Our immigration system is totally broken, from top to bottom. And it needs to be addressed, but it needs to be addressed in a bipartisan way.
You’ve recently started stepping back onto the political scene, both with your book and with at least one reported fundraiser for a Republican who voted to impeach Trump, Congressman Anthony Gonzalez of your home state of Ohio. What role do you see yourself playing leading up to the 2022 midterms?
None. I did some events for some of my colleagues that I liked. But I try to stay as far away from politics as I can these days.
You express doubt that you could fit into the Republican Party as it is today. What do you think the future of the GOP looks like?
If it were me, I would get the party back to the principles of the Republican Party: fiscal responsibilities, strong national defense. They need to reinvigorate the party based around our principles and our ideals, not around personalities.
You mention the gains Trump made with Black and Latino voters. What focus do you think the Republican Party needs to have on turning out a broader, more diverse base of voters?
The party needs to do a much better job of embracing diversity in our party. Our ideals match up very well with Black and Hispanic voters, but we’ve got to spend the time to reach out to them and bring them into the party, [and] make them feel welcome in the party. The more time that gets invested here, the better off the party’s going to be.
Do you miss being in politics ever? Is there a moment where you wish you’d been—
No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. Listen, I enjoyed my time, and I was never going to be one of those old guys walking around the halls of Congress who didn’t quite know where he was.
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