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Matt Malone, S.J.December 02, 2019

Pope Francis stood in the center doorway of the U.S. House of Representatives, awaiting his moment. He was about to become the first bishop of Rome to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress, and he looked a little nervous, perhaps at the prospect of speaking English rather than his native Spanish.

At the other end of the center aisle, at the rostrum where he had been presiding for more than four turbulent years, sat John A. Boehner, the 53rd speaker of the House. He could see the pope in the doorway, standing below a bas-relief of Moses, a reminder that this was not the first time that a prophet had addressed an anxious nation. For nearly 25 years, almost from the day he had arrived as a freshman from Ohio’s Eighth Congressional District, Mr. Boehner had been trying to arrange for a papal address. Now, across the expanse of a jam-packed chamber, it was to John Boehner that the sergeant-at-arms addressed his words: “Mr. Speaker! The Pope of the Holy See!”

“95 percent of the people I served with on both sides of the aisle were good, honest, decent people trying to do what they thought was best for their constituents and the country.”

Mr. Boehner bit his lower lip. He was trying not to cry. After Francis made his way to the rostrum amid a thunderous ovation, the speaker formally introduced the pope. His voice briefly cracked—then, another lip bite. It was clear he would not hold it together very long. Indeed, just moments later, when the pope said that he was grateful “to address this joint session of Congress in ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave,’” Mr. Boehner’s emotion burst forth, in full view of a national audience.

John Boehner already had a well-earned reputation for being an emotional guy, unable to conceal his feelings in moments like this. But longtime observers thought he seemed different that day, even more intense. Robert Costa, a reporter for The Washington Post, closely observed Mr. Boehner throughout the pope’s visit. “Here was a man strikingly at ease after months of tumult in his ranks, a man who said he felt blessed,” Mr. Costa wrote the day after the speech to Congress. “We sensed that something had changed.”

Less than 24 hours after the pope’s departure from Capitol Hill, on Sept. 25, 2015, John Boehner surprised the Republican caucus by announcing that he would not finish out his current term. He was stepping down as speaker and resigning from Congress.

Something had definitely changed.

The ‘Dean Martin’ of U.S. Politics

A whiff of cigarette smoke signals that I am nearing his office. It is the autumn of 2019 and after a year of back and forth between us, John Boehner has consented to an interview. “You were persistent,” he tells me. As Mr. Boehner sees it, one of the benefits of his retirement is that he no longer has to answer questions from journalists. He is unhappy with the current state of the news media, saying, “It’s all intended to push and pull people into one of two camps, leaving fewer and fewer people in the middle.”

Still, he may have found it more difficult to say no to a journalist who is also a priest. That helps explain why I am here, for the Jesuits occupy a special place in Mr. Boehner’s heart.

After his discharge from the U.S. Navy, Mr. Boehner enrolled at the Jesuit-run Xavier University in Cincinnati, becoming in 1977 the first member of his family to graduate from college. It took him six years to earn his degree—he was also working full time to pay his tuition and to provide for his wife, Debbie, and their two daughters. Xavier’s registrar, also a Jesuit, helped him to arrange his schedule so he could do it all. “The Jebbies were always there,” he says.

John Boehner, at right, shares mementoes of his 25-year congressional career with America editor Matt Malone, S.J. (Isabelle Senechal/America Media)

For the few days each month he is in Washington, D.C., these days, Mr. Boehner hangs his hat at the law firm of Squire, Patton and Boggs, the third largest lobbying group in the country, where he represents a variety of major business clients and serves on the board of directors of the tobacco company Reynolds American. Throughout his career he has had a close relationship with big tobacco (he came under heavy criticism in 1995 for delivering campaign donations from tobacco lobbyists to members on the floor of the House), but at least he puts his money where his mouth is—literally. As I enter his office, Mr. Boehner is just coming in from having one of the five cigarettes he will smoke in two hours.

His office is a modest corner room filled with mementoes of his congressional career—photos with presidents, the sign with his name that hung above his office door on Capitol Hill, a small plaque with the inscription, “Oh God, Thy sea is so great and my boat so small.” But the casual, almost languid way he shows me these things suggests that he is almost indifferent to these things, as if they are displayed here mainly for the benefit of visitors like me. Mr. Boehner’s aloofness, and his reputation for being “cool,” has prompted observers to say that he could have run with the Rat Pack—“the Dean Martin of American politics,” as many Republican colleagues have described him. Up close, I can see why: the tan that never fades; the hair that never seems to gray completely, even a couple of months before he turned 70; the effortless way he moves; the deep baritone voice.

On one shelf there is a bottle of Johnny Walker. On another, a bottle of Merlot. “Are you a connoisseur?” I ask him.

“No,” he says, and then changes the subject. No one has ever called John Boehner verbose. Ask a yes-or-no question and you will get a yes or a no and nothing else.

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“This was the only picture that was on my mantel” on Capitol Hill, he says, as he picks up a framed photo of the golf legends Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. Mr. Boehner loves the game and, while Golf magazine once described the hitch in his swing as “cringe-inducing,” he has had a handicap as low as 4.8. He tells me that the photo was taken on the balcony outside his House office. “I went up to them and said, ‘What are you guys talking about?’ And you won’t believe it, we’re talking about how easily we turn into tears…. We all have the same problem. Simple as that.”

I ask him later if he has always been like that, an easy crier. “No,” he says. “Somewhere along the way it happened. There are some things I have a hard time talking about: kids, soldiers, veterans, some of these moments. It used to be a problem. My staff used to yell at me. And I said, ‘Listen, it just is what it is. I’m not going to worry about it.’”

John Boehner: “My parents were the most patient people God ever put on Earth. I got a healthy dose of that patience, somehow.”

His Catholic faith is one of those things Mr. Boehner has a hard time talking about. He does not like wearing it on his sleeve. I ask him if there is a devotion, a place or a saint that speaks to him.

“Nope. I’ve got two places I go,” he says, meaning sources of daily, spiritual reflection. “I don’t talk about this, but two places I go and get the message of the day, and then I go take my walk. I walk for about an hour every morning. It’s the serious start to the conversations.” By “conversations” Mr. Boehner appears to mean prayer, though he does not use that word. “Reading the devotionals and thinking about it is one thing, but taking my walk, there’s an hourlong conversation about whatever. It’s pretty good.”

His is a simple, though not simplistic, faith, born of the piety and devotions he was taught during a hardscrabble youth in working-class, southwest Ohio. Mr. Boehner was one of 12 children in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom house in Reading, a suburb of Cincinnati.

“My parents were the most patient people God ever put on Earth,” he says, as he begins to tear up—the first of several times during my visit. “I got a healthy dose of that patience, somehow.” In his farewell address to Congress, Mr. Boehner would tell his colleagues that “patience is what makes all things real.”

“But [faith] was the foundation of how my parents lived,” he says, “and what they taught us. Simple as that.”

To make his point, Mr. Boehner tells me that, as a teenager, he played football at Moeller High School, where his coach was the legendary Gerry Faust, who would go on to be the head coach for the University of Notre Dame. “We said Hail Marys before football practice, during practice, after practice,” he recalls. “And my God, the day of a game, we went to Mass. We prayed before the game, we prayed on the bus. I could say a Hail Mary every day for the rest of my life and I’ll never say half the Hail Marys I did in high school.”

“My proudest accomplishment is that after 25 years in Washington, I’m still the same jackass who walked in there. Just a regular guy who had a big job.”

By the mid-1980s, Mr. Boehner had established a local business when he began to think that his life might take a different path. “I was busy running my business, I was in the packaging and plastic business, and along the way, I got involved in my neighborhood homeowners’ association,” which sparked an interest in politics. Then, he says, “one thing led to another, to another.” That first “another” was a successful run for the Ohio House of Representatives in 1985. After four years in the legislature, with the incumbent congressman mired in a personal scandal, Mr. Boehner’s supporters and friends were encouraging him to think about a run for the congressional seat.

But John Boehner wasn’t sure. “Is this me?” he asked himself. “Is this me or is this what the Lord wants me to do? So I went to Mass 10 days in a row. Downstairs, below the church, in the chapel, 12 old ladies and I show up. They’re all looking at me. I show up the next day. I caused quite a scene with these ladies, all of whom I got to know later; but after 10 days, I was like, ‘Alright, yeah. I think this is what he wants me to do.’ So I did it.”

I get the feeling that the decision really was as simple as that.

“Next thing you know, I’m the speaker of the House,” he says.

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Yet the next few years were not as simple as that. Mr. Boehner’s assent to the speakership had its setbacks, including his defeat for re-election as Republican conference chairman following the G.O.P. losses in the 1998 midterm election. But he was a survivor.

“He withstood these challenges, came back, and became speaker of the House” his congressional colleague Mike Oxley said in 2015. “It’s extraordinary, and probably the only time that has ever happened in that kind of a sequence."

Mr. Boehner says he was just as surprised. “Thirty-five years” after he entered public life, he says, “It’s like, ‘This is not what I was going to do with my life.’ But I was made to do what I was doing, and you don’t realize it, sometimes God has other ideas.”

“Did you feel like you were being led?” I ask him.

“Oh, no question,” he says, without hesitating. “No question. By the time I became speaker of the House, I had no doubt that the Lord decided I was going to be the speaker of the House. No doubt. I was convinced of it. There were days I’d sit in my office by myself—this vaulted ceiling, highly painted, decorated. I’d look up and go, ‘Hello? Hello? You put me here. Well, come on, where are the answers?’ The answers came, just not as quickly as I wanted them to.”

I marvel for a moment at the irony. On the one hand, Mr. Boehner is a man who is pretty reluctant to discuss his faith. On the other hand, he is certain that God wanted him to be speaker, and he does not mind who knows it. Said by someone else, such a claim might seem arrogant or presumptuous, but Mr. Boehner appears to be saying something else. What I think he means is that God had to have done it because he could not have done it himself. He just doesn’t think that highly of himself.

Yet even if he harbored doubts about his natural abilities, Mr. Boehner clearly had ambition. Men and women without it don’t become speaker, except by accident. Still, when he fulfilled his ambition to be speaker, it was important, he says, that he not allow the job to change him. “Being speaker,” he says, “was never going to be about me. I said it my first day as speaker when Nancy Pelosi handed me the gavel. I talked about service. I talked about Lent and getting the ashes. ‘You are dust, and from dust, and you will become dust.’ Something like that. You know the words better than I do.”

Then he doubles down on his point: “I would work overtime, even before I was speaker, just to be me…. Sometimes my staff thought I was too much like me, but my proudest accomplishment is that after 25 years in Washington, I’m still the same jackass who walked in there. Just a regular guy who had a big job.”

An Open-Door Policy

John Boehner’s education for that “big job,” he says, began in his father’s bar, in the Carthage neighborhood of Cincinnati, where he started working when he was 8. “Drunks would be sitting there all night,” he says, “and you don’t want to agree with a guy, but you don’t want to get into a fight with him all night, so you find a way to disagree without being disagreeable.” Mr. Boehner says that was “one of the greatest lessons that helped me in my political career.”

“When you were a kid,” I ask him, “was your district Democratic?”

His answer surprises me: “I’ve no idea. We didn’t know about politics. We never talked about politics. We were Kennedy Democrats, but it was never a conversation. Never one political conversation that I can ever recall.”

When did he decide he wasn’t a Kennedy Democrat?

“Oh, early ’70s,” he says. “I thought, ‘I don’t know about this Muskie guy. Really? I don’t think so.’ And then ’76: ‘Ah, I think Ford’s a better pick.’ And then by the late ’70s, I knew I was for Ronald Reagan. Yeah, I’m a Republican. And the funny thing is my entire family all became Republicans. I never had one conversation with any of them.”

“You find a way to disagree without being disagreeable.”

He learned another lesson in his dad’s bar, Mr. Boehner says. “You have to learn to deal with every jackass that walks through the door. Trust me, when you’re the speaker of the House, they’re all walking in the door.” During his four years as speaker, his door was always open, he says, to Democrats, Republicans, whomever. And they all wanted something. “If I couldn’t do it, I just told them I can’t do it,” he says. “Or if there was a chance I could do it, I’d tell them there was a chance I could do it. I just told them as honestly as I could.”

Mr. Boehner won the speaker’s chair with the Republican takeover of the House in 2010, after stints as both House minority and majority leader. He was the unanimous choice of the Republican caucus, but that momentary good will did not prove a harbinger of his tenure. This was during the turbulent middle years of the presidency of Barack Obama, whose election in 2008 had mobilized the forces of reaction as never before. The rise of the far right—the Tea Party, the Freedom Caucus, the Fox News juggernaut—caught the establishment, including John Boehner, by surprise. Politicians who were considered conservative by almost any standard were all of a sudden not conservative enough for the new wave of Republican activists, increasingly isolationist in foreign affairs and populist at home. Though his rise was facilitated in part by the Gingrich revolution of 1994, in many ways Mr. Boehner is a pre-Tea party politician in a post-Tea Party world. As a result, Speaker Boehner was bedeviled by the far right as much as he was by the left.

Still, while “it was polarized [in my time],” he says, things are worse today.

“I think it’s media, talk radio, cable TV, LinkedIn, YouTube, Twitter, the internet, people starting organizations overnight, spreading”—he makes air quotes—“news.” He saw the erosion of common ground during his time as speaker, and I get the sense that he felt powerless to stop it. “It got to the point,” he says, “where I used to go to see President Obama, and I’d have to sneak into the White House, because if I walked in where the press would always see me, the right-wing press would go crazy and the left-wing press would go crazy on President Obama.”

While Mr. Boehner concedes that he failed to make the “grand bargain” with President Obama—a big, bipartisan deal to reduce the national debt—he says he has no regrets. “There’s some things I wish we could’ve gotten done that didn’t get done, but no, not one [regret].” That’s because, he says, he did what he thought was right. He says he used to tell his colleagues, “Listen, this is what my parents taught me, this is what I taught my kids, and I’m going to teach you. If they do the right things every day, for the right reasons, the right things will happen…. It never seemed to be that hard to me.”

Mr. Boehner blames the media for a lot of the polarization and the sorry state of American politics, but he hints at other possible causes. He insists, for example, that he is an optimist—“always,” he says—and that he was born with his glass half full. I think he believes that, though I am not convinced that it’s true: He seems more wishful, which is not the same thing. When I ask Mr. Boehner what it will take to fix the country’s politics, he says, “either God’s hand or some horrific event,” which seems pretty pessimistic.

There has to be a moment, Mr. Boehner says, big enough to cause “Americans to look up and go, ‘Oh, yes. I might be liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, but first, I’m an American,’ which they’ve forgotten.”

I ask whether he would go into politics if he were a young man today. He responds with a hearty laugh: “No! Shoot me, shoot me!” He is careful to add, however, that “95 percent of the people I served with on both sides of the aisle were good, honest, decent people trying to do what they thought was best for their constituents and the country. We had our share of disagreements, but we got along a lot better back then.”

When Mr. Boehner talks about his relationships with some of his former colleagues, it sounds as if he is describing life from a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, rather than things as they were done here in Washington just a few years ago. I ask him, for example, about the people who inspired him in public life. “Ted Kennedy,” he says, invoking the name of the late liberal lion from Massachusetts. “Ted Kennedy and I, they used to call us the political bookends. For about five years, I was the chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, and he was the head of a similar committee on the Senate side. We did all these things together, all this legislation together. We never sounded like it because he’d go out and make all this noise [campaigning against Republicans], but he was a serious legislator who wanted to get things done. We always got things done. I learned a lot of political lessons from Teddy.”

“Was he a friend?”

“Oh yeah,” he says. “Dear friend. Yes.”

The Washington where John Boehner—a pro-life, pro-tobacco, fiscal conservative—could be friends and a productive partner with a man who was the symbol of everything opposite seems long gone. Or is it? A lot still gets done in Washington, but when people work across the aisle, the media doesn’t cover it, Mr. Boehner says. He mentions Joe Biden, who as vice president sat next to Mr. Boehner when the pope addressed Congress. “Joe and I could’ve worked anything out on any subject,” he says, growing wistful. “He was a moderate Democrat. I was a conservative Republican, but I wasn’t crazy. He and I knew each other, liked each other, we resolved all kinds of things. Frankly, there’s nothing we couldn’t resolve.”

John Boehner on Ted Kennedy: “We always got things done. I learned a lot of political lessons from Teddy.”

“So what got in the way of resolving the big stuff?” I ask him.

“Oh, everybody else,” he says. “You have to remember, a leader without followers is simply a man taking a walk.”

In light of what he had just said, I ask Mr. Boehner how he would vote if 2020 turned out to be a choice between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. He is evasive, then adds, with a flash of annoyance, “also not a fair question.”

While Mr. Boehner may not have regrets about his political career, he does regret one thing. I ask him if he prayed a lot when he was speaker. “Every day,” he says. “All day.” Then he pauses and adds, without my prompting, that “one of the things that I was sorry about was that I didn’t understand the need to have this personal relationship with our Lord earlier on. Somewhere along the way, over the last 30 years, probably 35 years, I began to understand the importance of this personal relationship, where the Lord is my King, and my comrade, my colleague, my companion.”

Alone With Francis

Pope Francis was standing on the balcony of the U.S. Capitol, not far from where Mr. Boehner had talked with Mr. Nicklaus and Mr. Palmer. The pope had just concluded his address to Congress and now he was greeting the crowd of 75,000 that had gathered outside. “They were cheering and carrying on,” Mr. Boehner says. “I didn’t know what the plan was, so I leaned over and said, ‘Holy Father, you might want to say a few things.’”

“Oh, yes, yes,” the pope replied.

By the time the pope said “God bless America,” Mr. Boehner was weeping.

I ask him, “Why was it so important for you that the pope address Congress? Why did you persevere for 20 years in trying to make that happen?”

“I don’t know,” he says. “Catholic grade school, Catholic high school, Catholic university. I’m pretty Catholic. The pope’s always played a big role.”

Pope Francis and then-House Speaker John Boehner at the pope’s address to Congress on Sept. 24, 2015. (official photo by Caleb Smith)

This pope, especially, played a big role in the final chapter of Mr. Boehner’s political career. By the autumn of 2015, he knew that he would probably not run for re-election. Times were changing. The Republican caucus had steadily moved further rightward during his tenure. His hold on the speakership was tenuous and Mr. Boehner knew it. But any announcement about his retirement was still several months away, or so he thought.

“I met [the pope] on the first floor and there’s this departure ceremony,” he says. “And I look up; it’s the pope and me. There’s not another soul anywhere, and the pope takes his left hand and he grabs my left arm and pulls me next to him and starts saying the nicest thing anybody’s ever said to me. He’s still holding onto me, gives me this giant bear hug with his right arm and says, ‘Speaker, would you pray for me?’

“Who, me?”

“Yes, yes,” the pope says.

In the 25 years he had served as a member of Congress, Mr. Boehner says, “I’d never seen the Hill happier than it was that day…. It was all the members. There were a lot of Catholic members, but members of the Protestant faith, Jewish faith, Muslim faith, they were all happy.”

Can America recapture the sense of unity that prevailed that day? Playing the optimist, Mr. Boehner says we can. “Americans, we’re the most resilient people God ever put on Earth. We make mistakes, but we seem to figure it out. And at some point, the American people will say, ‘All right, I’ve had enough of this noise. I’ve had enough of Washington being Washington. I’m going to vote for someone else.’”

John Boehner On Pope Francis: “He gives me this giant bear hug with his right arm and says, ‘Speaker, would you pray for me?’”

Still, even if we can regain some of the spirit of that day, John Boehner realized something else as he watched the pope leave Capitol Hill: There was never going to be a day to equal that day. So when Mr. Boehner got home that night, he said to his wife, Debbie: “I might make an announcement tomorrow."

“Announce what?” she asked.

“That I’m out of here.”

But there was someone else he had to check with, something else Mr. Boehner had to do before he made the final decision. He needed to have one of those “conversations.”

Early the next morning, after getting “the message of the day,” he went for a long walk. “I walked up to Pete’s Diner, where I had eaten breakfast for 25 years. I was walking down Second Street from Pete’s Diner and I walked right past St. Peter’s Church, where there was a grotto. In the grotto was a statue of the Virgin Mary.

“I glanced over there and I went, ‘Yup. Today’s the day.’”

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