It was late Thursday at the Capitol, and the crowds had gone. Outside House Speaker John A. Boehner’s suite, the halls were empty and silent, save for a police officer strolling through the rotunda. On the marble floor were pieces of masking tape with the names of elected officials scrawled in black, marking the places where they stood to greet Pope Francis hours earlier.
Politico’s Jake Sherman and I stood there for an hour or so, steno pads in hand and trading stories, as we waited for Boehner to appear. We had heard rumors from several lawmakers that Boehner was mulling retirement and that, as a Catholic, he privately saw the pope’s congressional visit, which he had orchestrated, as a fitting denouement to his long political career.
Finally, Boehner appeared, walking toward the House’s exit and his waiting caravan of SUVs. In a dark suit and the same grass-colored tie he had worn all day, he grinned and shook his head playfully as he spotted us. But then he did something unusual, a move out of character. Instead of rushing past and ignoring our questions — the Boehner response familiar to lingering reporters — he slowed and moved closer, extending his hands.
“Look at you! Where have you been?” Boehner asked me. He then leaned in, put his hands on our shoulders and nodded toward a small circular area near a bust of Winston Churchill. “Come over here. Let me show you something.”
Boehner moved a few steps over and closed his eyes for a moment, seeming to recall what it was like for him as Francis entered the Capitol. Boehner’s blue eyes grew moist and his voice shaky. He asked me to stand inches from him, in essence standing in for the pope as he re-created the scene, perhaps hoping to savor the rush of it again while the memory was fresh.
Sherman and I looked at each other, both a little uncomfortable. But Boehner’s unprompted interest in telling us the details of his experience was too compelling to leave. We listened.
“The pope, he comes up the steps right there. He comes right here,” Boehner said, pointing down at my feet.
“Right here?” I asked. “Right here!” Boehner said, smiling. “Right here. When he gets here, there are all of these kids he is going to bless. And you know how I get.”
“You start crying?” I asked.
Boehner shot me a look, as if that was obvious.
“So. So, the pope puts his arm around my left arm,” he said as he pulled my arm up to his shoulder. Boehner was now fully committed to acting it out. “Hold on, hold on,” he said as I pulled my arm away. “Let me finish. The pope says to me, ‘Please pray for me.’ ”
“Please pray for me,” Boehner repeated as he dipped his head. “He said, ‘Please pray for me.’ ”
He stood there for 10 more seconds, not saying a word, his hands at his sides, and then he turned sharply toward his security detail, the now-open doors and a shimmering sunset on Capitol Hill.
As Boehner stepped away, Sherman and I jolted back. I asked if he had anything left to accomplish as speaker — whether maybe the pope’s visit was it for him. He narrowed his eyes and issued a gruff but coy, “No.” I wasn’t sure if he meant it as a brush-off of the question or an answer to it. Sherman asked if he was resigning. Boehner laughed as he ducked into the back seat, and he was gone.
About 14 hours later, in a Friday morning meeting, Boehner announced his coming retirement, stunning many of his colleagues.
If they had seen him Thursday at twilight, vividly remembering a pope’s simple request, maybe they wouldn’t have been that surprised. Here was a man strikingly at ease after months of tumult in his ranks, a man who said he felt blessed.
We didn’t get the scoop, but we sensed that something had changed. Boehner was at peace.