Sunday, June 15, 2008

Today U.S. presidents meet with Catholic pope and stir barely a ripple

President George Bush's visit to see Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican on Friday brought back memories of the first time a Roman Catholic pope called at the U.S. White House.  The year was 1979. The pontiff was Pope John Paul II. The president was Jimmy Carter. I was there standing on the White House lawn along with about 100 other reporters who had special press badges allowing us to accompany John Paul on his historic first tour of the U.S.

The papal visit actually began three days earlier when John Paul's plane arrived in Boston for the historic precedent-setting six-day tour of America. The president sent wife Rosalyn to Boston to greet the pontiff and welcome him to America and lay the groundwork for the upcoming White House visit.  Behind the scenes, U.S. protocol officials fretted whether Mrs. Carter should 1. stay airborne until the pope landed, or 2. stay on board her plane until the pope had stepped on Boston soil, or 3. be standing on the tarmac waiting to greet the pope as he stepped off the plane. While amused by that silly drama, I puzzled over why behind the scenes in the press room so many reporters kept making ugly remarks about Mrs. Carter.

Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter did what John and Jackie Kennedy never could have done. During the 1960 election, Kennedy was berated unmercifully with accusations that he, a Roman Catholic, would be subservient to the pope. Kennedy had to go out of his way to distance himself from any thought that the pope would influence his Presidency.

Carter, on the other hand, was a Southern Baptist. No one ever thought he would pay much attention to the pope. When the Carters welcomed John Paul to the White House, the visit was noteworthy for its lack of controversy. With a warm handshake and welcome to the nation's capitol, Carter changed the American political climate almost immediately. He, of course, rode the crest of America's great curiosity over the Polish pope's escalating popularity among Roman Catholics as well as others worldwide.

Because of the Carters, other U.S. Presidents have been able to meet almost casually with the pontiff both at the White House and at the Vatican. Such meetings have proven beneficial for the U.S.

George Bush's visit with Pope Benedict XVI on Friday hardly stirred more than a brief mention in the U.S. media.

Amazing how quickly America's political landscape can change and things once thought controversial can become commonplace! Makes me wonder what other changes we will see in the years ahead.

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