Opinion writer

Pope Francis address Congress as Vice President Biden and then-House Speaker John Boehner look on. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

In today’s surreal and vitriolic political environment, where opponents and their ideas are belittled and debased, Notre Dame’s commencement on Sunday will celebrate a miracle, of sorts. The prestigious Catholic university will bestow its highest honor to Vice President Biden and former house speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) for their commitment to civility, cross-party dialogue and compromise.

“While both former Speaker Boehner and Vice President Biden have been loyal and committed partisans,” Notre Dame’s president, the Rev. John Jenkins, told me in explaining why he awarded the men the Laetare Medal, “they were leaders who put the good of the nation ahead of partisan victory, seeking through respectful dialogue honorable compromise and progress.”

I know what you’re thinking. Boehner was more obstacle than partner to President Obama in governing this nation. I wrote plenty about that. His tea party caucus proved an omnipresent menace that held him and the nation hostage to their unachievable demands. Their actions and the inflammatory rhetoric that often went with them served to worsen the hyperpartisanship that’s made a mess of politics. And some conservatives will surely point to Biden’s role as then-Senate Judiciary Committee chairman during the contentious Supreme Court nomination hearings for Robert Bork (1987) and Clarence Thomas (1991) as a prime contributor to said hyperpartisanship.

But both Biden and Boehner are products of that long-gone era of governing. When getting 80 percent or even half of what you wanted in a negotiation was considered proper and just. Throughout the dramas over debt ceilings and fiscal cliffs, the problem was never whether Boehner wanted to do the right thing. He most certainly did. It was the inability of the rabble in his Republican caucus to listen to reason or to understand that compromise wasn’t a dirty word. The vice president was and remains Obama’s best emissary to the Capitol. When a do-or-die deal needed to be sealed, Biden got it done.  

Those are traits Jenkins is hoping to inspire in the Notre Dame graduating class. By awarding the university’s highest honor to an American Catholic simultaneously to two men of opposing parties, Jenkins hopes to foster the same kind of “Biden/Boehner brand of statesmanship [that] has helped our messy democratic process to soldier on.”

This is in keeping with Jenkins’s long-standing pursuit of finding a cure for incivility. In a Jan. 8, 2013, op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, he despaired of the caustic debate that engulfed Washington during the run-up to the deal that averted the fiscal cliff and offered a valuable lesson in persuasion.

If I am trying to persuade others, I first have to understand their position, which means I have to listen to them. I have to appeal to their values, which means I have to show them respect. I have to find the best arguments for my position, which means I have to think about my values in the context of their concerns. I have to answer their objections, which means I have to work honestly with their ideas. I have to ask them to listen to me, which means I can’t insult them. 

Of course, the award to Biden and Boehner wasn’t universally hailed. The Notre Dame University Faculty for Life unanimously passed a resolution last month calling the Biden honor “a scandalous violation of the University’s moral responsibility . . . never to honor those who act in defiance of fundamental moral principles about the sanctity of life.” And John Gehring of the National Catholic Reporter reminded readers that a group of prominent professors from Catholic colleges and universities across the country criticized Boehner for his support of budgets that slashed programs for the poor.

But Gehring pointed something else out. “Along with almost every Catholic public official, the vice president and the former House speaker don’t always live up to the fullness of Catholic teaching in their policy positions,” he writes. “A church that defends the unborn, the undocumented immigrant, the death row convict and the striking worker makes every Catholic elected official uncomfortable in different ways.” No politician could clear that high bar.

Jenkins wants it to be known that Notre Dame “is not endorsing” the policy positions of Biden and Boehner. Rather, the award “celebrat[es] two lives dedicated to keeping our democratic institutions working for the common good through dialogue focused on the issues and responsible compromise.” He added, “Their agreement to cross the same stage together as political opponents but not as enemies is good for America and good for the world.”

That Boehner has retired from politics and the vice president is mere months from joining him is a pity for this country. They are a dying breed because what they did and what they know how to do are becoming so rare in American politics at all levels.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj