Freshman Rep. Francis Rooney, 63, a Florida Republican, talks about being ambassador to the Vatican, seeing the Capitol Visitor Center as a hole, and boating in his home state.
Q: What has surprised you about being in Congress so far?
A: I’ve really enjoyed meeting so many really decent public servants who are dedicated to trying to see our country do better and to see policies that they believe in put in place. They serve with a good motive and with some really pretty interesting different backgrounds, too. The House of Representatives really is kind of the people’s house. It reflects the diversity of our country. You can feel it when you’re there.
Q: In your time as ambassador to the Vatican, what did you learn that you can bring to Congress? [Editor’s note: Rooney served as ambassador to the Holy See from 2005 to 2008.]
A: The Vatican was kind of a unique post because rather than dig into everything going on in a specific bilateral country, you deal with certain large-scale issues all across the world — threats to religious freedom, threats to human dignity, nontransparent corrosive authoritarian regimes — and I got to see firsthand what those kinds of regimes can do to their people when they don’t have religious freedom. I think that I certainly have a stronger appreciation for the role some of these fundamental guiding principles have in creating a decent, civil society.
Q: Did you have a favorite day during your time at the Vatican?
A: I would say my favorite day was when I presented my credentials to the pope, [Benedict XVI]. That’s pretty good. What happened there, we had family pictures and handouts of rosaries and then me and the pope went into his office and shut the door. Just me and him in there around a desk. That was really great. We visited for a long time. We visited about Islam and the then-rising threat of Islamic terrorism, which has gone to a level none of us would have even anticipated back then. We spoke about the potential for radicalization of … secular Muslims in West Africa. Ten years later, look what we have — Boko Haram.
A lot of the concepts and ideas that he was thinking about in 2005 have unfortunately come to pass with the metastasization of radical Islamic terrorism.
Q: I hear your company, Manhattan Construction Company, worked on the Capitol Visitor Center. Tell me about that.
A: I never was lost in it when it was just a big hole in the ground, but I’ve been lost in it a lot since coming here. It was still under construction when we went to Rome in 2005. I remember going to a lot of meetings there in 2003 and ’04 and the architect of the Capitol was with us.
Q: Where do you like to take your boat out?
A: This politics has put a real dent in my sailing and fishing, I have to say. We get the boat out occasionally when we’re in Naples, go for a spin with friends. I’ve been a sailor my whole life. When we first came to southwest Florida in the mid-’80s, I took my sailboat down there with some of my friends. … We keep it down there in the winter and go back and forth with our kids. It’s how we got to know southwest Florida.
Last book you read: “Democrazy” by [former Rep.] Trey Radel, and a book about George H.W. Bush
Last movies you saw: “The Founder”
Favorite song of all time: Beethoven’s Ninth, “Ode to Joy”
Role model: “Certainly have been some great leaders of the Catholic Church and people like [George W. Bush] and Jeb.”