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White House Briefing: Dan Froomkin

The President, the Pope and the Politics

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, April 4, 2005; 12:25 PM

President Bush's decision to attend Pope John Paul II's funeral in the Vatican on Friday is a testament both to the incredible stature of the man who led the Catholic Church for 26 years -- and to the increasingly conspicuous role of religion in modern American politics.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan announced this morning that the president and the first lady will lead a small delegation leaving on Wednesday, although plans are not yet finalized.

Bush will become the first U.S. president in history to attend a pope's funeral. He also ordered U.S. flags flown at half staff for almost a full week -- from Saturday until Friday night -- over federal facilities at home and abroad.

These extraordinary steps represent an unprecedented expression of communion between an American president and a religious leader. And they will also inevitably bring into focus the rhetorical and philosophical affinity between the two men.

Most notably, Bush has consciously appropriated the pope's phrase -- "culture of life" -- when discussing abortion, stem-cell research and other social-conservative issues. Most recently, he and his spokesmen used the phrase repeatedly during the debate over the removal of Terri Schiavo's feeding tube.

But at the same time, the pope's interpretation of the phrase was considerably wider than the president's. While they shared the view that the "culture of life" extended to abortion and euthanasia, the president did not share the pope's feeling that it also extended to the death penalty and the Iraq war -- which the pope opposed.

The Coverage

Maura Reynolds writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Some might read Bush's inclination to fly to Rome as a transparent attempt to court Catholics, a constituency in the cross hairs of strategists seeking to expand the Republican electoral base.'

And, in fact, she writes: "In the fall, President Bush accomplished a feat that eluded him in 2000 by winning the majority of votes cast by Roman Catholics. . . .

"But for all the praise the president has lavished on Pope John Paul II in recent days, the relationship between the two men and their politics was tense and complex. And for all the attention paid to the role of social conservatives in Republican politics, the 'Catholic vote' is still up for grabs."

Adam Nagourney writes in the New York Times: "The rising assertiveness of some church leaders is particularly significant for American politics because President Bush has been making a concerted effort to win support among Catholic voters. Mr. Bush's efforts are part of an overall drive by his chief adviser, Karl Rove, to make inroads among typically Democratic groups of voters.

"Mr. Bush assembled a group of Catholic advisers and began meeting with them regularly as soon as he entered the White House. Shortly after the Vatican announced the death of the pontiff, Mr. Bush and Laura Bush walked in unannounced to a Saturday afternoon Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle."

Richard Benedetto writes in USA Today: "Relations between popes and U.S. presidents have not always been as warm and open as they were during the time of Pope John Paul II.

"Many presidents were reluctant to appear to be too friendly with the Vatican. They feared criticism from those in this country who guard separation of church and state. They also worried about an unease with the rigid theology of the Roman Catholic Church among many American Protestants, the nation's largest religious group. Those feelings began to soften with the election of John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president. Lyndon Johnson was the first sitting president to have an audience with a pope. He met with Pope Paul VI in the Vatican in 1967."

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune: "President Bush, who had established a reverent and personal relationship with Pope John Paul II, mourned the pope's death Saturday with a brief televised statement at the White House. . . .

"The pope and president were in agreement in their stand against abortion, with Bush borrowing the Vatican's terminology in his political arguments for support of a 'culture of life' in America. But John Paul differed with Bush on Iraq, opposing the U.S.-led invasion of that country in 2003. The president had three audiences with the pope, in 2001, 2002 and 2004."

Here is the text of Bush's statement about the pope.

When John Paul I died in 1978, after just 33 days as pope, the U.S. delegation was headed by Lillian Carter, the mother of President Carter. For Pope Paul VI's funeral a few weeks before that, Carter sent his wife, Rosalynn, and Vice President Walter Mondale.

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press about Bush's visit with the pope in June, when he presented the pontiff with the presidential medal of freedom and called him "a devoted servant of God."

Raum writes: "Bush sat stoically as the pontiff read with a frail voice a lengthy statement expressing 'grave concern' about events in Iraq. Bush brightened as the pope concluded the session with 'God bless the United States.' . . .

"The pontiff used his sessions with Bush to emphasize his feelings about the war in Iraq, to convey his repulsion about the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. troops and to register his opposition to Bush's support for the death penalty."

Jim Nicholson, the former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican and current secretary of Veterans Affairs was one of Chris Wallace's guests on Fox News Sunday. Here's what Nicholson told Wallace about the pope and the president (Fox's transcript is garbled; here's how I heard it):

"Well, the last meeting I had with him was just a few weeks ago with my wife and I in his apartment when I was getting ready to leave Rome.

"And while he looked to a lot of people like he wasn't lucid and cognitive, he was extremely locked in. And the discussion he wanted to have that morning with me was about President Bush, who he admired greatly for his value system, and what we in America wanted to do now with our power, and the expression and use of this power that we had. And I was able to tell him that we want to fulfill our number one goal of our foreign policy, which is to enhance human dignity worldwide, which is the same goal that he had."

Bubble Watch

A helpful reader pointed me toward David Alire Garcia's column in Friday's Albuquerque Journal about President Bush's recent meeting there, in which he writes: "A spokesperson for Republican Sen. Pete Domenici's office, the office that distributed most of the tickets, told the Journal's Michael Coleman that people requesting tickets were actually quizzed about their views of the president and his plans for Social Security.

"Welcome to the brave new world of over-the-top media manipulation. No critical questions, no spontaneity, nothing left to chance."

And indeed, back on March 22, the day Bush's road show came to town, the Journal's Michael Coleman wrote all about this in a story that I missed, in part because it was and remains behind a subscription firewall: "In New Mexico, Sen. Pete Domenici's office was responsible for handing out tickets for today's event.

"Domenici spokeswoman Shaye O'Donnell said some screening occurred as tickets were distributed. She said people requesting tickets were asked about their views of the president and his proposal. But O'Donnell said that an admitted Democrat who simply wanted to hear what the president has to say would not be turned away.

" 'They would still get a ticket,' O'Donnell said."

Well, what about anyone who expressed opposition?

I called O'Donnell this morning and asked her. "I thought I was talking off the record," she said of her interview with Coleman. "I don't know how they actually worked, handing out the tickets."

She referred me to Lisa Breeden, communications director in Domenici's Albuquerque office.

"I really don't know anything about this," Breeden told me. "If that happened, it was not done by our office. That would have had to have been through the White House, I guess."

Breeden said that as far as she knows, people who called her office and wanted tickets were only asked for their names and phone numbers. Those were passed on to the White House advance team. Later, the office got a list back from the White House of people who were allowed to come.

Breeden then referred me to an independent political consultant who apparently handled some of the communication between Domenici's office and the White House. I have a call in.

Backdrop Watch

One of the most startling assertions in Bush's standard Social Security script is that Social Security's $1.8 trillion trust fund doesn't really exist -- it's just "a pile of IOUs."

It is possible that Bush will more fully flesh out this assertion, and what he means to do about it, when he takes his road show to Parkersburg, W. Va. on Tuesday, home of the Bureau of the Public Debt.

Because that's where the trust fund lives, inside a file cabinet, in the form of some 225 Special Issue U.S. Treasury Bonds in multibillion-dollar denominations.

For some background, read my Feb. 11 column on "The Amazing Disappearing Trust Fund," and Larry Eichel's piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer in January about the file cabinet.

Carolyn Lochhead writes in the San Franciso Chronicle that "the government's continued spending of Social Security payroll taxes on things other than Social Security" is turning into a political issue.

"Spending the surplus -- which will run about $2 trillion over the next 10 years, including interest, according to the Social Security trustees -- seems to irk ordinary people as much as anything else about the issue."

She writes that people on both sides of the private-account battle agree that Bush's repeated insistence that the bonds in the trust fund are only IOUs is starting to resonate with the public, and infuriate them.

But what is to be done? Create a Social Security "lock box"? Invest the surplus in stocks and bonds? Put it in private accounts?

Halfway Through the Blitz

David E. Rosenbaum writes in the New York Times: "Midway through their 60-day coast-to-coast blitz to promote fundamental revisions in Social Security, President Bush and others in his administration have been unable to pry loose any Democratic senators from the solid wall of opposition.

"As a consequence, Republican lawmakers are beginning to doubt whether the president can succeed in establishing individual investment accounts under Social Security."

Rick Klein writes in the Boston Globe: "After spending a second congressional break hearing out constituents, many Republican lawmakers are set to return to Washington more convinced than ever that President Bush's Social Security plan isn't ready for launch."

Ron Hutcheson writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "White House strategists are preparing a new appeal targeting younger workers, who tend to be more open to changes in the retirement program. Ideas under consideration include sending the president to more events on college campuses or other venues with young people."

Warren Vieth writes in the Los Angeles Times: "If President Bush's Social Security initiative is going to ring bells anywhere, it ought to be a hit with the Better Investment Group of Waco, which meets once a month at Uncle Dan's Rib House to discuss earnings growth over barbecue and beans."

But it isn't.

New Chief Economic Adviser

Bush is nominating Federal Reserve Governor Ben S. Bernanke to be chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers.

Neil Irwin writes in The Washington Post: "Bernanke, 51, is an MIT-trained economist who taught at Princeton University for 17 years before being appointed to the Fed board in 2002. He is known as a strong speaker, particularly skilled in explaining the Fed's thinking on economic issues, and is generally respected on Wall Street and among economists."

Edmund L. Andrews writes in the New York Times that Bernanke "will be taking over a post that has waxed and waned in its influence."

WMD Commission, Part I

President Bush continues to start each morning with a document that the WMD Commission last week described as vague and alarmist. (See Friday's column for more.)

It's also basically useless, write Scott Shane and David E. Sanger in the New York Times.

"The small group of top government officials who read the President's Daily Brief, a summary of the most timely and critical intelligence on threats to the United States, told a presidential commission on intelligence that they find the highly classified document of little value, according to the commission's co-chairmen.

"The officials told the commission that they read the brief, known as the P.D.B., mainly for 'defensive' purposes, Charles S. Robb, a former Virginia senator and governor, and Laurence H. Silberman, a senior federal judge, said in an interview on Friday."

WMD Commission, Part II

Michael Isikoff writes in Newsweek, reminding readers of a Feb. 4, 2003, e-mail made public by last year's Senate panel on intelligence in which a senior CIA official sharply rebuked an analyst who had expressed skepticism about the reliability of a key informant.

"Keep in mind the fact that this war's going to happen regardless of what Curve Ball said or didn't say and that the Powers That Be probably aren't terribly interested in whether Curve Ball knows what he's talking about," the CIA official wrote.

So Isikoff asked Silberman why the e-mail wasn't even mentioned in the report, which concluded that "No analytical judgments were changed in response to political pressure."

Writes Isikoff: "'What e-mail are you talking about?' Judge Lawrence Silberman, the chairman, testily responded. . . . 'I'm mystified.' Two hours later, after Newsweek supplied the panel with a copy of the e-mail from the Senate report, a commission spokesman explained that the panel was aware of it but chose not to include it because its contents were already known. But its absence from the report raises questions of whether the Silberman panel may have 'cherry-picked' evidence to exclude anything politically embarrassing to the 'Powers That Be.' Not so, says the White House. A senior official says the report lays to rest any notion that the administration lied or falsified intelligence."

Friday Night Recess Appointment

Eric Schmitt writes in the New York Times: "In an unusual rebuke of a senior senator from his own party, President Bush announced on Friday that by making recess appointments he had completed creation of a nine-member independent commission to review the Pentagon's list of proposed base closings this year.

"Senator Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican who strongly opposes the coming round of base closings, has been holding up a vote by the full Senate since last month on Mr. Bush's choice to lead the panel, Anthony J. Principi, a former secretary of veterans affairs, senior Republican aides said."

Mike Allen notes in The Washington Post: "The White House made the announcement at 7:27 p.m. Friday, ahead of the Senate's return at midday Monday."

Poll Watch

Dana Blanton writes about the latest Fox News poll: "President George W. Bush's ratings are down a few notches, many Americans are unclear about Social Security investment accounts, and the Terri Schiavo case and gas prices join the typically popular topics of the economy and Iraq as the most talked about topics among friends and neighbors this month."

Here are the complete results.

In an open-ended question, Fox asked respondents why they approved or disapproved of the president. Here are the top 10 responses for each.

Approve: 1) Doing a good job; 2) Agree with him on issues; 3) Fighting/war on terrorism; 4) Like him personally; 5) Honesty/Character; 6) Economy is improving; 7) Religion/Christian morals; 8) Social Security; 9)Tax Cuts; 10) Middle East.

Disapprove: 1) War in Iraq; 2) Do not agree with him on issues; 3) Doing a bad job--general; 4) Economy/jobs; 5) Doesn't care about average people; 6) Don't like him; 7) Social Security; 8) Not doing good job fighting terrorism; 9) Tax cuts for the rich; 10) He's not smart.

A Turn in Fortunes?

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times that Bush and the Republicans are to some extent seeing the downside of their complete domination of the political discourse.

"The danger for the GOP is that the political dialogue is being structured less as a choice between Republican and Democratic ideas than as a referendum on Republican ideas alone. And some of those aren't faring so well."

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum and John F. Harris write in The Washington Post that Bush rarely mentions medical malpractice litigation anymore. "The troubles faced by his 'med-mal' proposal may signal a turn in Bush's fortunes on domestic policy."

Holly Rosenkrantz and Laura Litvan write for Bloomberg: "The tightly disciplined, Republican-controlled Congress that gave President George W. Bush key pro- business victories in the first few months of his second term may now put political survival ahead of party unity."

Today's Calendar

Bush this morning meets with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and holds a joint press conference. Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press that Bush is "expressing no hard feelings about Yushchenko's plans to pull troops from Iraq and his predecessor's sale of weapons to U.S. foes."

In the afternoon, Bush posthumously awards Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith with the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for valor. It is only the third Medal of Honor given for actions since the Vietnam War, and the first from the Iraq war.

CBS News has more about Smith, including an interview with his wife.

Alex Leary writes in the St. Petersburg Times about Smith's 11-year-old son, David, who will accept the award on his father's behalf.

Those Cheneys

Deborah Orin writes in the New York Post: "Vice President Dick Cheney yesterday gave U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan the big chill, declining to express any desire to have him stay on the job after the oil-for-food scandal."

Orin also writes: Vice President Cheney says it's 'entirely possible' that there will be a woman president during his lifetime -- but he hopes it won't be Hillary Rodham Clinton."

Mike Allen and Brian Faler write in The Washington Post with yet more news from Cheney's interview with the New York Post.

Nadia Mustafa writes in Time: "Members of the Vice President's family are nabbing government promotions and book deals."

Susannah Meadows interviews Mary Matalin for Newsweek, about Mary Cheney's upcoming book.

Meadows: "Will she write about coming out to her parents?"

Matalin: "That's not what she's about. She's very much like her father. Not a touchy feely type. She's got other stories. . . . "

Meadows: "I think it would be interesting to read about what it's like for her to be gay in a conservative family."

Matalin: "I agree with that. [But] she won't answer the question like that. . . . "

Briefing Room Watch

In the New York Times, Elisabeth Bumiller writes about the planned renovation of the mouse-infested, badly-ventilated hovel where the White House correspondents ply their trade.

She makes a bulge joke in her lead: "President Bush concluded a recent news conference in a White House press briefing room so sweltering that his secret transmitter, if it ever existed, would have been setting off sparks."

And she quotes Ron Hutcheson, the Knight Ridder reporter who is president of the White House Correspondents' Association: " 'I think it's part of the Bush administration's anal-retentiveness,' Mr. Hutcheson said. 'They like everything neat and tidy. And for all of us who work there, you've got to admit it could use a little tidying up.' "

'West Wing' Watch

Paul Bedard writes in U.S. News and World Report: "White House and GOP insiders say they feel like suckers after falsely believing President Bush's re-election would be met with acceptance from Hollywood. Their tip: Last month's West Wing episode in which the Alan Alda character blasted pols who use religion for political advantage."


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