Just when you thought this was going to be a quiet week (and weekend) on the religion beat, there was an earthquake in Beltway land.
Anyone who has lived in Washington, D.C., knows that the job of Speaker of the House may be the single most overlooked piece in the puzzle that is the U.S. government, in terms of the public failing to understand how much power resides in that office.
So Speaker John A. Boehner, one of DC's most public Catholic voices, hit the exit door only hours after fulfilling his dream of seeing a pope address Congress. This also happened, of course, in the midst of fierce infighting over morality and money – to be specific, the mountains of tax dollars going into the coffers of an institution at the heart of what St. John Paul II liked to call "The Culture of Death."
All of Washington muttered, at the same time, this question: So, what's the link between the pope's visit and Boehner's exit?
At the very least, the timing became linked – on multiple levels – with the emotions of the Francis visit. I don't know what surprised me more, in the elite media coverage: the word "prayer" showing up high in such a blockbuster political story or The Washington Post admitting, in print, that The New York Times broke the story.
Oh, and the Post almost had the scoop – on the spiritual level. We will come back to that.
The Times managed to keep the pope out of the lede, but – after the political necessities – wrote faith into the equation.
Speaker John A. Boehner, under intense pressure from conservatives in his party, announced on Friday that he would resign one of the most powerful positions in government and give up his House seat at the end of October, as Congress moved to avert a government shutdown.
Mr. Boehner, who was first elected to Congress in 1990, made the announcement in an emotional meeting with his fellow Republicans on Friday morning.
“My first job as speaker is to protect the institution,” Mr. Boehner said at a news conference at the Capitol, adding, “It had become clear to me that this prolonged leadership turmoil would do irreparable harm to the institution.”
The religion reporter in me really wanted to see one other factor included in the drama: What issues are at the heart of the current crisis? What issue was the fuse on this bomb?
Next comes the prayer reference:
Looking poised and sounding rehearsed, Mr. Boehner, who stunned the capital with his news, became emotional as he recalled a moment alone with Pope Francis, who had been his guest the day before at the Capitol and who had asked the speaker to pray for him.
Reflecting on his decision, he said, “This morning, I woke up, said my prayers, as I always do, and thought, ‘This is the day I am going to do this.’ ”
Over at the Post, the story unfolded in almost precisely the same way, with the same basic specifics and the same – up top – vague crisis. This is long, but let's let the story play out into the passage where the Post team included the white-robed ghost in the Capitol:
House Speaker John A. Boehner, faced with a constant conservative rebellion, announced Friday he will step down at the end of October, a move that shocked Capitol Hill and exposed the deep tensions within the Republican party over how to use its congressional majority.
Boehner’s nearly five-year hold on the speaker’s gavel had grown increasingly unsteady amid threats from more than 30 Republicans that they would force a no-confidence vote in his speaker’s position, which would have forced him to rely on Democratic votes in order to remain in charge.
At an afternoon news conference, Boehner said he made the decision to resign Friday morning.
“Last night I started thinking about this,” he said. “I woke up, I said my prayers, and decided today was the day I’ll do that. Simple as that.”
Boehner, a devout Catholic, said Pope Francis’s visit to Capitol Hill Thursday was “emotional,” and he teared up when recalling the pope asking him to pray for him in a private moment in the Capitol. But he said he had long contemplated stepping down – planning at one point to announce his retirement on his birthday in November – and said the papal visit did not inspire his decision to retire. ...
The shocking move, first reported by The New York Times, means there’s unlikely to be a government shutdown next week.
Now, in light of an unusual sidebar published by the Post, it was clear that reporter Robert Costa came very close to having this scoop. In some ways, Costa has the spirit of the story the previous night, but not the journalistic flesh and bones, in terms of basic facts.
Costa's first-person analysis piece focused on a quiet, but dramatic, encounter – along with Jake Sherman of The Politico – with the speaker at the end of the dramatic day that included the pope's address to Congress. The two reporters simply waited and waited (old-school journalism, in a social-media age) for Boehner to leave his office.
We had heard rumors from several members that Boehner was mulling retirement and that, as a devout Catholic, he privately saw the pope’s congressional visit, which he had orchestrated, as a fitting denouement to his long political career.
There is so much Washington in that short passage. The speaker pulls them aside, close to a first-floor bust of Winston Churchill – to a spot where he met the pope.
Now, try to take the religious content out of this amazing anecdote:
Boehner moved a few steps over and closed his eyes for a moment, seeming to recall what it was like for him as Pope Francis entered the Capitol. His blue eyes grew moist and his voice shaky. He asked me to stand inches from him, in essence standing in for Pope Francis as he recreated the scene, perhaps hoping to savor the rush of it all 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 about his own 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 is obvious.
“So. So, the pope puts his arm around my left arm,” Boehner said as he pulls 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 said as he dipped his head. “He said, ‘Please pray for me.’ ”
On one level, the reporters – on instinct alone – have to be standing there knowing that they have a story.
But do they? What are they going to be able to report in print?
I asked if he had anything left to accomplish as speaker, that 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 brushoff 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.
So no scoop. No facts. Just drama and some amazing material in a reporter's notebook. What are reporters supposed to do with this kind of material, in a era in which the lines between the personal and the factual keep getting blurred?
Personally, I think Costa made the right decision, the responsible decision. Yet I also think I understand a bit about the dilemma he faced, because of an incident that happened to me many years earlier. I was lucky though and got to watch my hunch play out before deadline, Yet I also knew that there were personal elements to the story that would be hard to report, in terms of traditional journalism.
I shared this story in 2013, in my farewell "On Religion" column to Scripps Howard News Service readers after 25 years (at the closing of the wire service). It concerned a private encounter with Mother Teresa that ended up, from all appearances, shaping the news. The scene took place after a press conference in Denver, shortly before an ecumenical prayer service in which the tiny, but powerful, nun from Calcutta took part.
During that press conference, I had asked Mother Teresa a very specific, but pushy, question about a decision that was supposed to be years, or even a decade, in the future.
The clergy taking part in the rally were gathered in a holding room deep inside the arena and, eventually, security guards moved through to remove the reporters. I was in a corner, hidden behind the Greek Orthodox cathedral dean in his flowing vestments. The guards missed me.
Suddenly, Mother Teresa entered, spending a few moments with each of the clergy. When a priest tried to introduce me, she took my hand. "Yes," she said, smiling. "He asked me earlier about starting a house here." We talked briefly and she said she was surprised that a reporter had asked that question.
Hours later, as the rally ended, Denver's archbishop followed protocol and gave the elderly nun several gifts from the people of Colorado. Then she raised her hand to silence the crowd.
"I have a gift for you," she said, gesturing toward members of her team. "I will give you my sisters and I hope that, together, we are going to do something beautiful for God."
Archbishop J. Francis Stafford – now a cardinal in Rome – flushed red with shock. The work to build a Denver mission would begin immediately, rather than many years in the future.
Mother Teresa's gift was the story of the day and my editors kept asking a blunt question: What led to her shocking decision?
I had a quote from the archbishop, saying that, yes, this was truly shocking and also mysterious.
But I had solid quotes in my reporter's notebook, so I told my editors about my encounter with Mother Teresa. Could I include this factual material in a hard-news report, even though I was directly involved in what transpired?
No, we couldn't. We played the story straight – but with a first-person sidebar about my conversation with a woman that millions were already calling a living saint. I think that was the right decision then and I think Costa and his editors made the right call with his dramatic material about the speaker.
Oh, but you know he wanted to write that up. On the spot.
What a week, and we're not done yet.