Sherwood Boehlert was a moderate Republican in the House who almost went unnoticed as he established himself as a party staffer in the 1970s.
Boehlert was a member of John F. Kennedy’s White House staff, working for his adviser, Lyndon B. Johnson, and then first associate director of the CIA under President Kennedy’s brother, Robert Kennedy. In his time in the Senate, he was seen as a soft-spoken, genial Republican who was admired for his candor. He didn’t support Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal and didn’t endorse George H.W. Bush for president in 1988. Instead, he backed the more liberal Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts. In 1994, he was elected to Congress and eventually was chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. But he is best remembered for his infrequent, but insightful, bylines in the New York Times.
In 1989, he wrote of his friend McCain, who was one of the last members of Congress to accept a major party endorsement, but then quit the party and had to campaign on the Republicans’ third-party line:
“Now I know a lot of people who were Republicans who didn’t like George Bush, but they don’t like the third-party choice; they just didn’t like the fact that those who were Republicans were heading toward a booth somewhere and leaving the Republicans behind. […] Second, I know a lot of conservatives who thought that Robert Dole was a far more effective Republican nominee than George Bush. And I understand that many conservatives feel bad for Bob Dole, but most of them still think that what the party offered Bush for that year was a dying condition.”
And then, in 1992, his columns began showing up in The New York Times.
Boehlert had a side-splitting ability to write about himself, how much his lifelong leftward leanings made him “a Republican in a small way.”
“How hard is it, I ask, to justify to yourself that you should be a registered Republican?” he wrote in a column marking his 20th anniversary in the House. “It is very hard.”
Not difficult for Boehlert to explain why he’d been so loyal to a particular set of Republican values since being elected to Congress:
“I happen to be a liberal Republican,” he said. “I am in a pro-choice party. I am anti-Bush. I vote with my party all the time. And that’s something I am not proud of. But so what? This is a conservative state. Everything about the Republican party has changed so radically. Most people here have never even seen a Republican before. The one thing they have known is the tax bill – that’s it. But that tax bill was the worst thing they’ve ever seen.”
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Boehlert retired in 1998 and moved back to New York City, where he continued to write columns in The New York Times and The Washington Post. He also wrote for The New Republic and, under different editors, The Daily Beast. And he worked as a professor at the New School for Social Research, where he met his wife, Cynthia Geiman.
While not active in politics, Boehlert published a new book last fall, called “Becoming a Liberal: Why I turned my back on the Republican Party and embraced the Democrats.”
At one point, Boehlert blamed a culture of partisanship on the Republican Party, which no longer appealed to its working-class voters, because it had moved so far to the right. He claimed that the National Rifle Association had taught young Republicans to dislike regulations. But Boehlert himself was often outspoken about his own political views.
Boehlert died March 10, in his hometown of New Rochelle, New York. He was 84. A private service was held.
“Mr. Boehlert did much to help the Republicans create their current legislative agenda by introducing and supporting a small cadre of highly popular initiatives, such as America’s first school uniform bill and the historic taxpayer exemptions bills,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said. “We are indebted to him for his many years of service and will miss him.”