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Friends say the real John Boehner nothing like his 'insider' image

By Padmananda Rama and Brianna Keilar, CNN
Rep. John Boehner has come from humble beginnings to be the likely new House Speaker.
Rep. John Boehner has come from humble beginnings to be the likely new House Speaker.
  • Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, soon will take over as speaker of the House
  • Boehner was emotional the night the GOP swept to power in the U.S. House
  • He recounted his humble beginnings and hard work "chasing the American dream"
  • He's still the same man he was when he came to Congress, a close friend says

Washington (CNN) -- Who is John Boehner? Among friends, he's just one of the guys.

When the Republicans gained majority power in the House of Representatives Tuesday, the man poised to lead them was brought to tears.

That evening, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, who will soon become the new speaker of the House, told supporters, "I spent my whole life chasing the American dream."

With tears forming and his voice quavering, Boehner recounted details of his life growing up in southwestern Ohio: "I started out mopping floors, waiting tables and tending bar at my dad's tavern. I put myself through school, working every rotten job there was and every night shift I could find."

While it's a story of humble beginnings -- Boehner worked as a janitor in college -- it's a long way from the image many have of him today, as a Washington insider known for a ubiquitous tan, an unstoppable smoking habit and fiery speeches on the House floor.

One of Boehner's friends, Jerry Vanden Eynden, who has known the 60-year-old, 10-term congressman since seventh grade, told CNN Boehner's career continues to surprise childhood friends.

"It was nothing that any of us would ever have expected," said Vanden Eynden, president of a Cincinnati, Ohio, candle company. "We would have expected him more to be successful in business, the way he was, more than get into the political field."

"I can't say that there was anything that made him outstanding to me in grade school. He was just one of the guys," Vanden Eynden said.

Boehner is the second of 12 children.

"The thing I remember most about going to his house was there was always diapers on the line," recalled Vanden Eynden. "No matter what time of year it was, they were either outside or inside, but his mom always had cloth diapers. There were so many kids running around."

Who is John Boehner?
There's no substitute for having run a business. It's completely different if you've only signed the back of a paycheck and you've never signed the front.
--Dan Danner, lobbyist and longtime friend of Rep. John Boehner

Boehner is the first in his family to graduate from college. Earning a degree in business from Xavier University, Boehner eventually became president of Nucite Sales, a plastics and packaging company. Boehner began his political career in the 1980s, serving in the Ohio state legislature. He won his first congressional race in 1990.

Twenty years later, longtime friends reject the idea that he has turned into a Washington elitist who's too chummy with lobbyists.

Dan Danner, president and CEO of the National Federation of Independent Business and himself a registered lobbyist, has known Boehner since he first ran for Congress. He said the image of an insider as someone who is "co-opted by the system" and becomes "someone that you weren't when you came here" doesn't describe the congressman.

"You know, I think he's still John Boehner," he said.

"There's no substitute for having run a business," Danner said. "It's completely different if you've only signed the back of a paycheck and you've never signed the front."

During Boehner's time in Congress, he's also earned a reputation among reporters and colleagues as having a laid-back demeanor and a penchant for wisecracks. On Thursday, when questioned by ABC's Diane Sawyer about the possibility of a "Slurpee summit" with President Obama, Boehner responded, "I don't know about a Slurpee. How about a glass of merlot?"

"We were angels, and that's the way we'll keep it," said Vanden Eynden when asked if Boehner learned to joke around while attending an all-boys high school in Ohio.

And while friends don't recall Boehner as someone who easily sheds tears, they say the recent public displays of emotion are genuine.

"It's sincere," said Vanden Eynden. "I think he's seeing that he has a chance to realize that dream, that goal that he put out there."