Any observer of U.S. national politics undoubtedly spent the weekend mulling over House Speaker John Boehner’s announcement Friday that he would resign the speakership (and his seat in Congress) at the end of October.
The decision was not entirely unexpected, though the timing was a surprise. Analysts and insiders anticipated more battles between the speaker and the most conservative of his Republican colleagues, the most immediate of which would (and will), this week center on whether House Republicans should go to the shutdown mat over Planned Parenthood funding.
Speaker Boehner’s entire tenure has been difficult due to the ideological composition of his membership and the fact that Democrats have and have had enough votes in the Senate to thwart the passage of legislation.
And then, of course, there is the fact that the president of these United States, for these last several years, has been a Democrat. Not just any Democrat either, but one who, for whatever reason, seems to inspire deeper distrust and even hatred than any president, Democrat or Republican, in my lifetime. I would argue that even Richard Nixon, in his final days in office, was not hated as much as President Obama is by a significant minority of Americans.
It hasn’t been a joyride.
But one shouldn’t weep for Speaker Boehner. Few individuals have ever held a position of such prestige, power and potential. Few ever have had the ability to command the national media to attend upon their words. Because Boehner became the most powerful Republican in the U.S. when his party gained control of the House in 2010, and has remained in that dominant position to this date (despite the difficulties of managing his own party rank and file), he has had privileges and exercised power few of us will ever approach at any point in our lifetimes.
Which makes one element of his recent course of action particularly interesting to me.
Speaker Boehner has been trying for years to have a pope address Congress. There is little doubt that Pope Francis’ acceptance of his invitation, and his actual presence on Thursday before a joint session of Congress, meant a great deal to the speaker.
But it appears that it was a private moment, made public in off-the-cuff comments at his press conference Friday, that holds the key to grasping Speaker Boehner’s perspective as he steps down from the pinnacle of power.
The moment was the pope’s simple, private and personal request: “Pray for me.”
Speaker Boehner told the story with considerable emotion at his press conference. But it also has been reported that, the evening before, he broke his own habit of ignoring reporters with impromptu questions and shared that event with two of them in a manner that was, for the reporters, uncomfortably personal.
“Pray for me,” Speaker Boehner told the reporters Pope Francis had asked. The speaker’s eyes were wet with tears.
“Who am I,“ he mused on Friday before national media, “to pray for the pope?”
This isn’t the point in his career when currying favor with Catholics is going to matter. It even is debatable, given Pope Francis’ uncomfortable insistence on a view of the Gospels that isn’t exactly consistent with that of the Christian Right, that speaking in such warm terms of the Bishop of Rome would do him any good at all.
Speaker Boehner knows all this. I’m guessing that politics had nothing to do with sharing this story.
It is about understanding who we are at the end of a very long day. Who we always are.
We aren’t all the pomp and circumstance, all the power and privilege and prestige. Those all are fleeting things.
What matters, as Pope Francis reminded us on the flight back to Rome, is what we do with our moment, however brief, with the power we have, however great or modest.
It isn’t easy to get any of this right. The temptations of office don’t make it any easier.
So perhaps it was that when the Bishop of Rome, with over a billion followers, asked the speaker of the U.S. House, whose followers number, at most, in the millions, to pray for him, something became clear. The political and religious calculus would have reversed the exchange. It would have been fitting for Speaker Boehner to ask, at least in private, for the pope’s prayers.
Pope Francis insisted on upsetting those expectations with humility and, I am certain, great sincerity.
“Pray for me.”
I guess that’s one of the ways Pope Francis is doing good.