People

New US House Speaker makes time for family

Speaker-elect of the House Paul Ryan (left) waving to his supporters and guests in the House chamber in Washington, DC last Thursday. Also present in the House were (below, from right) his mother Betty Douglas, wife Janna, and children.
Speaker-elect of the House Paul Ryan (above) waving to his supporters and guests in the House chamber in Washington, DC last Thursday.PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Also present in the House were (below, from right) his mother Betty Douglas, wife Janna, and children.
Also present in the House were (below, from right) his mother Betty Douglas, wife Janna, and children. PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Republican negotiator wants to balance demands of high-profile post with family time

The new Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Paul Ryan, 45, is a man of seeming contradictions.

He said he never wanted the position of Speaker, yet was handed the gavel last Thursday, becoming the youngest person to hold the office since the 1860s.

Twice - for the 2012 and 2016 US elections - he turned down the chance to run for president. Yet, when asked, he joined former governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney in his 2012 bid for the White House, running for his vice-president.

An attempt to unravel who Paul Ryan is needs to start from when he was 16, when crisis struck his family. His father died of a heart attack, forcing Mr Ryan, the youngest of four children, to look for jobs which included flipping burgers and washing dishes to help support the family. He used his Social Security Survivors Benefits to pay for his bachelor's degree in economics and political science at Miami University in Ohio, according to reports.

His father's death, Mr Ryan has said, helped him understand 21st-century American social service programmes. It also explains why the father of three is so adamant about spending time with his own family.

ON RUNNING FOR WHITE HOUSE

First of all, I don't have this really huge ego that some have where they think, 'I'm the saviour. I'm the guy'... Second of all, I'm a normal person who likes being a normal person...

MR PAUL RYAN, new Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, responding to a question about his desire to run for the presidency

Before making his bid for the Speakership, he set down ground rules saying he would not be spending his weekends at fund-raisers or making hundreds of phone calls to party donors - responsibilities that usually come with the position of being third in line for the presidency.

But Mr Ryan's insistence on his family time has also courted controversy because he has voted against mandatory paid leave for new parents.

Attempting to clear up what some progressives have labelled hypocritical - wanting family time but not guaranteeing it for every American - his office has said he is supportive of paid family and medical leave and offers it to his staff, but believes the decision is best left to the employer and not the government.

Perhaps what is most odd about the new Speaker is his meteoric rise in politics as the "future of the Republican Party" against the backdrop of his seeming unwillingness to take on positions of power.

He jumped into the political scene, starting as a mail-room intern for a senator in Wisconsin when he was just 20, and was hired as a full-time staffer after graduation. He was elected to Congress at age 28, in 1998, and turned Wisconsin into a Republican stronghold.

But what might seem like the fast track to a possible presidential bid really did not seem to appeal to Mr Ryan.

"I know myself very well and I know where I'm happy, I like spending my time on policymaking," he told the National Journal.

He explained that 2012 was an exception, pointing out that running for vice-president is a 90-day sprint compared with a year-long presidential campaign.

Moreover, as the vice-president, he could contribute as an important fiscal policymaker in the executive branch and - his family always never far from his thoughts - could bring his family to Washington.

Mr Ryan and Mr Romney lost the 2012 election and President Barack Obama was re-elected.

After the government shutdown in 2013, he gained prominence again when he was named the House's chief negotiator and was able to broker a bipartisan agreement on government funding.

With all his years in politics, it seems hard to believe he is not aiming for the top job in the nation, but this year, he once again turned down the chance to run for the presidency.

"This president thing, it doesn't have to be me... I just want us to win. I just want the policies passed," he said.

It seems he had already attained his dream job as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee when the Speakership came knocking on his door.

As Ways and Means chairman, a position which he assumed in January, he was able to throw himself into issues of entitlements and tax reform.

When former Speaker John Boehner announced his resignation, Mr Ryan was quick to turn down the prospect of running for the position and stepped up to the plate only when begged by the Republican conference, because then front runner Kevin McCarthy was blocked by members of the conservative Freedom Caucus.

Now, as the chamber's 62nd Speaker, Mr Ryan is hoping to start with a clean slate.

"I am not interested in laying blame... We are not settling scores. We are wiping the slate clean," he said after he was sworn in.

But while he may cast himself as a leader who can unify the fractured Republican conference, he will have to bridge many divides.

Least of them is the difference in his style of politics. While he may be younger than the average House member, he is more at ease with the era of coalition politics than many lawmakers who he will have to work with. They thrive in a hyperpartisan environment which has evolved as a result of the arch-conservative Tea Party movement.

The fact that few Speakers have gone on to clinch the presidency is perhaps another hint that Mr Ryan has never really coveted the nation's highest office, a message he seems to have touted, but few have heard.

But who can blame the layman from thinking otherwise when Mr Ryan seems obviously capable and knows it himself.

When responding to a question about his desire to run for office, he said: "First of all, I don't have this really huge ego that some have where they think, 'I'm the saviour. I'm the guy'... Second of all, I'm a normal person who likes being a normal person..."

And just when you think his motivations are clear, he adds: "But I know I could do the job."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 02, 2015, with the headline 'New US House Speaker makes time for family'. Print Edition | Subscribe