He was the only president ever to host a pope at the White House when John Paul II came to visit a quarter-century ago, and in many ways Jimmy Carter had a powerful spiritual and philosophical affinity for the Polish pontiff. But when the pope is buried at the Vatican this morning, three living U.S. presidents will be in attendance and Carter will not.
The reason has touched off a classic Washington imbroglio fueled by suspicion, animosity and distrust, one that has reopened a rift between the camps of the former president and the current one. When Carter was left off the delegation list assembled by President Bush's White House, Democrats assumed he was snubbed. The Bush team is angry at what it considers an unfair smear.
The truth is a little harder to sort out. Both sides agree that the White House invited Carter and that he ultimately chose not to go, but questions immediately arose as to whether he was genuinely welcome or subtly discouraged from joining the entourage. Both sides have officially denied any dispute and issued instructions to their various surrogates not to discuss the matter publicly to avoid prolonging what has turned into a messy sideshow to a solemn event.
According to people on both sides most familiar with the discussions, the episode grew out of a sequence of telephone calls during a fluid two days that evidently left room for misunderstanding. White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. called Carter at least twice to invite him to join the delegation. Carter initially accepted, but when Card called back and reported that others were interested in joining a delegation limited to five members, the former president withdrew.
One person close to Carter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, said the former president thought the final delegation was a strong one and did not require his presence. "He did not believe there was any kind of snub or anything inappropriate," the person said. "The president and first lady, and I include them both, have been nothing but gracious and courteous to President Carter."
A senior administration official who likewise insisted on anonymity said Card had no desire to keep Carter out of the delegation. "If he had wanted to go, he would be there," the official said. "It's just that clear. Andy is sick about the distortion. . . . Andy would have thrown somebody else off rather than keep President Carter off."
But partisans without direct knowledge found that hard to accept, especially given the history of bitterness between the Carter and Bush teams. Carter strongly condemned Bush's war with Iraq when he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, and he delivered a sharply critical speech at last year's Democratic National Convention. While Bush lately has forged a relationship with Bill Clinton, he has never been close to Carter.
The skepticism in the Carter camp was exacerbated by the televised images out of Rome on Wednesday showing Bush kneeling in prayer along with the other members of his formal delegation -- his wife and father, Clinton, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. And then joining them was Card, who was not even officially a member of the delegation.
"I think it's an outrage," said Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter's national security adviser, who said he has not spoken with his former boss about the funeral. "It's scandalous. He should have been included in the official party. I suppose in the White House there was some resentment that the president was so critical of Bush at the convention."
Another source close to Carter said it appeared to be a misunderstanding at first. "I can see how an honest mistake could have happened," he said. But this source took umbrage that the White House has portrayed Carter as uninterested in attending the funeral. "You sort of think maybe it wasn't an honest mistake."
The awkward uncertainty represents a unique moment in the annals of presidential missions. Never before has a sitting president attended a papal funeral, much less brought former presidents with him. Carter sent his wife, Rosalynn, and Vice President Walter F. Mondale to one and his mother to another during his tenure. President John F. Kennedy sent Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson in the early 1960s.
Only since John Paul II's ascension did U.S. presidents begin to deal directly with the pope, starting with the pontiff's 1979 visit to the White House. Carter waited on the North Portico to greet the pope along with a Marine band, ushered him into the Oval Office for a long private talk and presented him to thousands of onlookers gathered on the South Lawn. "I was very thrilled to meet him," Carter said afterward.
The current tiff began over the weekend even before John Paul died, when Card first called Carter to ask if he would want to go to the funeral with the president, according to several accounts. Carter accepted. None of the other former presidents was going at that point. Gerald R. Ford has grown too weak to travel extensively, Clinton was recovering from recent surgery, and George H.W. Bush did not plan to accompany his son.
Clinton, though, met with his doctor Tuesday and got clearance to go. George H.W. Bush, who has been working with Clinton on tsunami relief efforts in Asia, decided to go too.
Accounts diverge at this point. According to one, Carter withdrew when told no other former president was going, and then Card called back and reported that the senior Bush was going and asked if Carter wanted to reconsider. Carter considered that a father-son pairing and declined, in this version.
According to another, Card called back and said both Clinton and the senior Bush were going and Carter could be the fifth member. If he did not want to go, Card said, Rice was interested. In this variation, Carter felt that was a strong enough delegation without him and agreed to let Rice go in his place.