John Boehner has enjoyed highs and lows during his quarter-century in Congress, but an intimate moment with Pope Francis — one day before the Republican resigned as U.S. House speaker — may be the one he treasures the most.
Boehner is Catholic, the son of a tavern owner, and no one was more proud — and perhaps more teary-eyed — than the speaker himself as the pontiff made his historic visit to Congress Thursday, a dream Boehner described as 20 years in the making.
“Was I emotional yesterday? I think I was,” Boehner admitted Friday.
And while he insisted the pope had no bearing on his resignation announcement, the coincidence was noteworthy. The pope’s Capitol Hill stop received wall-to-wall television coverage, and Boehner featured prominently — seen over the pope’s shoulder as he addressed Congress, and at his side as Francis spoke to thousands on the west side of the Capitol building.
But Boehner, one of 12 children from modest means, revealed a moment of intimacy between himself and the world’s most powerful Catholic.
“As the pope and I were getting ready to exit the building, we found ourselves alone,” Boehner said during his resignation announcement.
“The pope grabbed my left arm, and said some very kind words to me about my commitment to kids and education,” he added.
“And the pope puts his arm around me, and kind of pulls me to him and says, ‘Please pray for me,'” Boehner said, his eyes moistening as he recalled the moment.
“Well, who am I to pray for the pope? But I did.”
One might assume Francis spared a thought for the House speaker as well, although Boehner did not say whether he discussed his potential departure with His Holiness.
The pope waded into controversial political territory in his congressional speech, calling for an embrace of millions of undocumented immigrants, more action to fight climate change and abolition of the death penalty — positions more in line with progressive Democrats than rank-and-file Republicans.
“I hope we will all heed his call to live by the golden rule,” Boehner said.
The Ohioan said he once again started to think about his political future at the end of the momentous day with the pontiff. He huddled Thursday night with his chief of staff who urged him to sleep on it. Boehner talked it over with his wife, Debbie.
It was a “bittersweet day” for Boehner, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers said.
“He lived that dream yesterday, but all the while he must have been thinking so much about the upcoming decision that he would announce to us today.”
On Friday, with a government shutdown looming, far-right Republicans demanding more conservative action, and the need to raise the U.S. borrowing ceiling fast approaching, Boehner decided to call it quits.
“This morning I woke up, and walked up to Starbucks as usual and got my coffee and came back and read, and walked up to Pete’s Diner (Boehner’s breakfast joint in Washington)… and got home and thought, ‘Yep, I think that today’s the day.'”