House Speaker John Boehner during a news conference on Capitol Hill on Sept. 25. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)
Opinion writer

Even by John Boehner’s usual standard of lachrymosity, Thursday was a gusher.

The House speaker shed a few tears while watching Pope Francis address a joint meeting of Congress. When he escorted the pontiff to the West Front of the Capitol to bless the masses below, Boehner was near unto bawling.

Now we know why. Boehner announced Friday morning to a stunned Republican caucus that he was resigning the speakership and the seat in Congress he held for a quarter century.

That the Catholic speaker made his announcement just after his audience with the pope is no accident. Though Boehner said Francis didn’t lead him to his decision (he had planned to leave at year-end anyway, he said), the speaker made the association himself in a news conference Friday afternoon.

“Just yesterday we witnessed the awesome sight of Francis addressing the greatest legislative body in the world, and I hope we will all heed his call to live by the Golden Rule,” Boehner said. “But last night, I started to think about this, and this morning, I woke up and I said my prayers, as I always do, and I decided, you know, today’s the day I’m going to do this.”

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) resigned Friday and said he feels like he is doing the right thing for the right reasons. (Reuters)

The connection of the two events is fitting on another level. Francis’s speech to Congress, though touching on climate change, immigration, poverty and war, was really about the obligation of leaders to work together for the common good and to resist polarization. “A good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism,” the pontiff said.

This is the kind of leader Boehner, who I’ve followed since I first covered Congress 20 years ago, aspired to be. This is the kind of leader Boehner was on a good day. But for most of his speakership, he could not be that leader, because his caucus constantly tugged him toward extremism and implacability. He kept his title, but he lost any ability to lead. Finally, he had enough.

All were stunned by Boehner’s announcement; none should be surprised. Trying to force pragmatism on a band of ideologues is a joyless task, and whoever replaces Boehner — likely the amiable but weak majority leader, Kevin McCarthy — will inevitably be brought to tears, too. Boehner, who had used the words “jackass” and “knuckleheads” to describe Republican hard-liners in recent weeks, said he wanted to spare the House the upheaval of a leadership struggle this fall, when firebrands would have tried to depose him.

But it was Francis who, in his address to Congress, gave deeper meaning to why Boehner could no longer be the public servant he wanted to be with the no-compromise caucus over which he presided. Francis advised lawmakers to “guard against the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil,” and he said the world “demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps.”

Asking for a “renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously,” Francis told the members of Congress: “The challenges facing us today call for a renewal of that spirit of cooperation, which has accomplished so much good throughout the history of the United States.”

Francis wove the themes of pragmatism and cooperation — “to build bridges,” “to support one another, with respect for our differences” — through his speech. “Politics,” the pope told the legislators, is “an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life.”

Sitting in the press gallery above and behind the pope, I watched Republicans join in the applause of this sentiment. But they have practiced the very opposite of what the pope preached.

Theirs has been a reign of no compromise — and of no confidence in Boehner when he tried to sacrifice for the common good.

No wonder the speaker, facing the cameras Friday, seemed more at ease than he has in ages. He was expansive and funny, giving a rendition of “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” at beginning and end. He choked up once more as he described a private moment with the pope: “The pope puts his arm around me, and kind of pulls me to him and says, ‘Please pray for me.’ Well, who am I to pray for the pope? But I did.”

And in his prayers, Boehner decided to take his leave, to spare the House more “turmoil.”

What makes him think there will be less turmoil? Heaven knows. But, Boehner said, after “the pope’s call for living by the Golden Rule yesterday, hope springs eternal.”

Twitter: @Milbank

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