The president and the pontiff

“The thing I like is that he speaks with moral clarity,” said President Bush about Pope Benedict XVI on the way to Andrews Air Force Base. Explaining why for the first time in his presidency he chose to meet an arriving head of state rather than wait to receive him at the White House, he continued, “It’s a sign of respect. He’s a major figure in the world. More people listen to him than anyone in the world.”

If it was unusual for George Bush, it was even more unusual for Cokie, who received an invitation to join him, Laura Bush and their daughter Jenna in the limousine from the White House to Andrews. The president clearly wanted to tell a reporter personally why the pope’s visit mattered so much to him.

“He is a worldwide spiritual leader, millions of our citizens are excited about having him in America,” said the world’s most powerful leader, who was pretty excited himself. “Some hardened souls in the White House are deeply touched about meeting him.”

That’s not to say that the president and the pontiff see eye to eye on every issue – far from it. Bush knows that Benedict strongly opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, though he says the pope has come to believe that a “precipitous drawdown of troops” could endanger the Christian minority there and in the rest of the region.



And even as an elaborate White House ceremony celebrating the pope’s birthday was under way, with more than 13,000 exuberant well-wishers crowding onto the grounds, the Supreme Court handed down a decision upholding the use of lethal injections in executions. The death penalty is another area of sharp disagreement between the two men.

The Catholic Church views the death penalty as a violation of its pro-life principles and though the president disagrees on that issue, it is the pro-life message that Bush finds most appealing about Catholicism. “I will bring up how very important it is for the Church to maintain a strong position on life and our shared vision for helping with hunger and education and health care. And I will make clear that my concern is not just Afro-centric, that we need programs for the poor here in our own hemisphere.”

This hemisphere, particularly the plight of Latin American immigrants, was on the pope’s mind as well as he traveled to the United States, where almost 40 percent of the Catholic population is Hispanic. Benedict told reporters that he would talk with Bush about the crackdown on immigrants in this country, urging him to fight violence “so that immigrants may lead dignified lives.”

On that subject, the president welcomes the pontiff’s support. “Catholicism is the religion of the newly arrived. When you arrive as a stranger in a strange land, it’s important to have loving sisters and brothers welcoming you. There’s no better place to find a safe haven and love than church.”

Asked if he thought immigrants were discriminated against because they are Catholic, the president responded, “No. That has happened in the past, but now it’s that the people who are immigrants happen to be Catholic.” And though Bush understands the “frustration” over immigration, he personally believes that “the newly arrived invigorate our spirit and our soul.”

So his frustration is not with immigrants but with members of Congress who “draw themselves such safe districts” that the only thing they worry about is someone running against them in their own parties. So Republicans are using the immigration issue to protect themselves from challenges on the right. That’s not something the president thought he’d want to get into with the pope, but – his irritation evident – he did expect to explain his disappointment with the failure of immigration reform.

But mostly, President Bush, like the “hardened souls” he joked about, just wanted to be in the pope’s presence, as millions of other Americans do. Though polls show majorities of Catholics disagree with Benedict XVI on one issue or another, they are lining up for tickets to his Masses, jostling each other out of the way for a space by the window as his motorcade passes by.

You don’t have to agree with the pope to be touched by him. That’s what the president understands as he says simply, “Every time I’ve been around a Holy Father, I come away a better person.” That’s why the President of the United States was so eager to welcome Benedict XVI to America. He was ready to drink in a dose of that “moral clarity.”

Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at stevecokie@gmail.com.

Copyright 2008, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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