Contemporary secular prophet Jon Stewart, formerly of cable TV’s “The Daily Show,” has often observed that the news media and, as a result, its consumers – us – are easily distracted by shiny objects. Something happens — a major government controversy dominates news coverage for several days and then, before it’s resolved, they/we notice a new shiny object – an approaching hurricane, for example – and all of our attention turns to that. And we obsess, via the media, on the storm and its aftermath until another important person does something embarrassing – the latest shiny object – and then guess where our collective focus turns.
Rarely are cable news channels and other media outlets able to handle two shiny objects at once, which is why I groaned upon hearing the first reports Friday morning that Speaker of the House John Boehner had announced his plan to retire. This was huge news. It was “we-interrupt-this-program-with-an-NBC-News-special-report” kind of news. The reality, however, was that TV news organization were already covering huge news, they’d already interrupted game shows and talks shows for Pope Francis’ address to the United Nations General Assembly. What would they — what would we — do with two shiny objects glaring upon us at the same time?
Something similar involving the pope occurred in late June. The Vatican released his much-anticipated environmental encyclical, Laudato Si, on the morning after the horrific murder of nine people at a Charleston, S.C., church. The encyclical would have been the primary story of the day, maybe for several days; instead it was relegated to the back pages of newspapers and got little attention at all on TV. By the time, the Charleston story had evolved, the pope and his revolutionary teaching on “our common home” were no longer new or, seemingly, newsworthy.
Now after two days in which TV news was pretty much dominated, wall-to-wall, with Francis coverage, I easily imagined people who make such decisions darting their attention to the newest shiny object. But they didn’t. Thanks, largely, to John Boehner.
If that man didn’t love Pope Francis before Thursday morning, he did by Friday. One of Boehner’s fondest hopes was for a pope to address a joint session of Congress. Invitations were issued, but Francis was the first to accept, and there was John Boehner, former altar boy from southwest Ohio, sitting at the pope’s left shoulder celebrating the moment, contemplating the message and measuring the impact of both upon his life. When the applause died down and the speaker’s tears were wiped away, he had a private moment with the pope. Francis put his arm around Boehner and asked for his prayer.
After such a moment it seems the speaker couldn’t return to the same old, same old. After such a moment of glory, the pope affirming the sacred purpose of legislating, which is too often petty and mean-spirited in Washington — after that Boehner apparently decided it was time to walk away, his heart, his soul at peace. And in the spirit of a visitor’s words the previous day, people from both parties lauded him, recognizing his dedication to his country and the House, wondering if Francis’ encouragement of harmony might endure.
He could have waited a week and avoid competing with the pope for media attention, but Boehner said it was time. Instead he delayed his press conference until Francis was enjoying a well-deserved afternoon break, and so we were able to hear Pope Francis tell the UN delegates, “The common home of all men and women must continue to rise on … respect for the sacredness of every human life, of every man and every woman, the poor, the elderly, children, the infirm, the unborn, the unemployed, the abandoned, those considered disposable because they are only considered as part of a statistic. This common home of all men and women must also be built on the understanding of a certain sacredness of created nature.” John Boehner, the pope’s new prayer partner, allowed reporters, and us, to do the seemingly impossible: focus on two shiny objects at once. TL