Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Amid Electoral Sea Change, Mr Speaker Makes History

(SVILUPPO: The first published version of this piece erroneously identified John Boehner as being in line to become the first Republican Catholic to become House Speaker; as it turns out, he'll be the second. With all apologies for the flub, the story is corrected and added onto below.)

Since the first Congress convened in 1789, only five American Catholics have been entrusted with the gavel as Speaker of the House.

To be sure, four of these have been Democrats. When it comes to shaking up the balance of power, however, it's now historical fact that Republicans have better luck.

After a tense, dramatic, and often wild campaign, the People's Chamber swept back into Republican control last night as the GOP picked up an unprecedented 60 seats for the party, giving it at least a 21-seat majority in the 112th Congress and making the head of the minority caucus, Ohio Congressman John Boehner, the presumptive Speaker-designate.

An alum of Cincinnati's (Marianist) Archbishop Moeller High and the Jesuits' Xavier University -- where he took night classes while making a workaday living -- the 60 year-old, 10-term member stands in line to become the second Catholic Republican to reach the top of the rostrum. The last time that happened came in 1946, when Massachusetts' Joseph Martin became the first Catholic ever to head the House after leading what, until last night, stood as the biggest GOP bonanza in history -- a gain of 55 seats.

From decades since among the pews, Boehner likewise follows in the footsteps of Democratic Speakers John W. McCormack (1962-71) and Tip O'Neill (1977-87), both also from Massachusetts, Washington State's Tom Foley (1989-95) and, of course, his predecessor, Nancy Pelosi of California -- the first-ever "Madame Speaker" -- who's wielded the gavel since 2007.

The second of 12 children born to a bar-owning family in Southwestern Ohio, the GOP leader choked back tears in his victory speech last night (above).

That wasn't exactly a rare occurrence; among other moments, Boehner wept on recalling his family at a pro-life benefit earlier this year.

While the presumptive 61st Speaker now surpasses Martin's distinction as the Catholic leader of the largest-ever Republican "wave" into the House, history likewise bears a cautionary note for Boehner; just two years after his caucus' historic win, Speaker Martin's 1946 intake took an even bigger drubbing than it had given, losing 75 seats.

Four years later, the first Catholic Speaker was returned to the chair with a majority of just three, then lost 18 seats at the 1954 vote.

After 22 terms in Congress, Martin left the House in 1966. Shortly after his death two years later, his papers were given to Stonehill College, a Catholic university near his district led by the Congregation of Holy Cross.

In 1990, with Congressional funding, a center for law and society was founded by the college and named for the late Speaker.

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In a state of affairs that would've been unthinkable not all that long ago given prior eras' widespread anti-Catholic hysteria on these shores, the handover of the House keeps three of the faithful among the Federal government's top five office-holders: the others remain Vice-President Joe Biden and Chief Justice John Roberts. To say nothing of an unprecedented two-thirds of the current Supreme Court.

Across the aisle, meanwhile, Monday sees the 50th anniversary of the watershed moment that marked the church's ultimate arrival in the American mainstream: the election of John F. Kennedy as the first Catholic President... a place at the pinnacle that remains his alone.

PHOTOS: Bill O'Leary/Washington Post(1); Popperfoto(2)