Presidents and the Pope

Inside St. Peter's Basilica late Wednesday night, Vatican officials briefly blocked the massive line of people that had been waiting hours to view the body of Pope John Paul II. The move prompted slight outrage among many individuals who were anxious for their chance to view the late pontiff, but within an instant, that displeasure was replaced by stunned surprise, as onlookers caught their first glimpse at the people Vatican officials had moved to accommodate.

There, less than five feet away from the pope's body, stood a solemn President George W. Bush, clasping the hand of his wife, Laura, who wore a traditional black mantilla. Behind him stood two former presidents, including his father, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. Also on hand: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and White House chief of staff Andrew Card.

In an unscheduled stop, the group had proceeded to the Vatican directly upon their arrival in Rome late last night to view the pope's body. Escorted by Italian security agents to a back entrance at the church, the group bypassed a line of visitors more than a mile long that snakes through the gates of Vatican City. There, they were ushered through a dimly lit hallway, past historic frescos and grand golden altars dating back hundreds of years on their way to the cavernous dome of St. Peter's, where the pope's body lies in state.

As onlookers stared and snapped photos with their cell-phone cameras, Bush led the delegation to a pew beside the pope's body, where they kneeled and lowered their heads in a brief prayer. Bush lifted his head first and appeared to study the pope's face for a few seconds before rising to his feet. Within five minutes, the group had quietly vanished out the back entrance, resuming the tightly controlled schedule on what has already been a historic trip.

Bush is the first sitting American president to attend a papal funeral, perhaps a signal of how much relations have improved between the U.S. and the Vatican under John Paul II's tenure as head of the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed, no other president has reached out to the pope more than Bush. While Clinton personally met with the pope four times, more than any other president, two of those visits occurred when John Paul II traveled to America. Indeed, Bush traveled to see the pope three times--twice at the Vatican and once at the pope's summer residence, Castle Gandolfo.

Some perceive that level of outreach, as well as the president's trip this week, as Bush's efforts to shore up Catholic voters--more than an attempt to find common ground with the pope himself. While Catholics were once considered a reliable Democratic voting bloc, the GOP has made strong inroads with the group in recent years, thanks in part to the party's stance on social issues like gay marriage and abortion. According to the Annenberg Public Policy Center, Clinton won 60 percent of the Catholic vote in 1996. In 2000, Al Gore won just 52 percent of the vote, compared with Bush's 47 percent. Last November, Bush won 52 percent of the Catholic vote.

Administration officials have tried to avoid signs of political pandering on the trip. The president and First Lady have no scheduled public events. And on Wednesday, a White House official initially told reporters traveling with Bush on Air Force One that the two former presidents would make an appearance in the press cabin during the seven-hour flight. Later, though, another White House official said the presidents were reconsidering. "They don't want to make this trip about them," the official said. "This is a time of mourning."

In fact, both former presidents spoke to reporters about their memories of the pope. And their own accounts spoke volumes about their different, and often awkward, relationships with the Vatican. Bush 41 told how the pope opposed Operation Desert Storm in 1991, citing what the former president called the pope's "standard position on the use of force" and his concerns about "the long length of the war." The former president lamented the fact that he never engaged in a discussion about the concept of a "just war"--which was widely debated before his son's war in Iraq. The pope, and his envoys, made it abundantly clear to the current president that the Vatican did not think the recent war in Iraq was a just war.

Clinton, in contrast, claimed the pope's support for his intervention in the former Yugoslavia. "I think he favored what we were doing in Bosnia and Kosovo because it was in response to an immediate killing policy by [former Serbian president Slobodan] Milosevic," he told reporters. "I think he favored defensive wars, if you will, or wars in defense of innocent people being slaughtered. I think he thought that you shouldn't initiate war, even against oppressive people, unless there was some immediate human tragedy pending. That was the feeling I had in dealing with him."

President George W. Bush, for his part, acknowledged that the pope opposed the war in Iraq. "He spoke to the poor; he spoke to morality. And of course, he was a man of peace," he told reporters earlier this week at the White House. "And he didn't like war, and I fully understood that and I appreciated the conversations I had with the Holy Father on the subject."

That account barely grasps the extent of the Holy See's opposition to the war in Iraq, as Clinton suggested in his own unsubtle way. But just in case President Bush has forgotten, there's another reminder of his tensions with the pope at the funeral on Friday. The president and his delegation occupy a worse seating position at the funeral than the Iranians.