J. Scott Applewhite/File/AP
As you might imagine, President Barack Obama, a Democrat, plays from the left side. Surprisingly, House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican and right-handed, hits his putts as a lefty. They will play golf together today.
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. Today, President Barack Obama and Speaker John Boehner will add their own chapter on a golf course, political opposites each trying to put a ball into the same hole.
Boehner and the president have a courteous relationship, but not a social one. 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 golf outings occur outside the prying eyes of the press, White House spokesman Jay Carney said 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 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, said years later, "I never served under any President. I served with eight."
In a 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, 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 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 (Joe Biden) and Ohio governor (John Kasich), 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."