But did he help members of Congress laugh together?
That may be an odd question to ask about Paul Ryan after his surprise announcement April 11 that he will retire as speaker of the House in January. As a senior leader of his party and second in line to succeed the president, so much of Mr. Ryan’s legacy is now being judged on his legislative wins and losses, or his support, silence, and criticism concerning the behavior of President Trump. Many on both the right and left are either mocking or belittling his legacy (or his prospects over the next nine months).
He did, after all, style himself as a policy wonk, a master of issues like the budget process and the tax code. Yet little is being said about whether he lived up to his own promises, made in 2015 when he took the post, of bringing civility to Congress.
Collective laughter is only one way to help dry up the venom in today’s politics and restore a culture of trust. A reading of his speeches shows he did often trigger a bipartisan chuckle over a partisan issue or party division. As philosopher William James advised Americans in 1899, “One hearty laugh together will bring enemies into a closer communion of heart than hours spent on both sides in inward wrestling with the mental demon of uncharitable feeling.”
But at the heart of Ryan’s promises was a call to pray. In a speech to the House as the new speaker, he asked this of all members:
“A lot is on our shoulders. So if you ever pray, pray for each other – Republicans for Democrats, Democrats for Republicans. And I don’t mean pray for a conversion. Pray for a deeper understanding, because – when you’re up here, you see it so clearly – wherever you come from, whatever you believe, we are all in the same boat.”
Another promise was to let all members contribute to a debate in hopes either side might change its tune.
“A neglected minority will gum up the works. A respected minority will work in good faith. Instead of trying to stop the majority, they might try to become the majority,” he said.
He also offered to lessen the fear of “honest differences” if they are honestly stated. In other words, let’s be clear about the core of a debate rather than rely on power plays and personal attacks. “I believe a greater clarity between us can lead to a greater charity among us,” he said.
Ryan is the first speaker to be leaving on his own terms in more than 30 years, a sign of his integrity. Other recent House speakers were either tainted or lost support. He says he simply needs to spend more time with his three children. Years from now, his legacy may be less about what the House did during his time than what he did for the House. Did he improve on its civility, perhaps even leave a tradition of laughter?
That would be a civil way to judge his legacy.