By Dana Milbank
Thursday, April 17, 2008
"In our nation," President Bush told Pope Benedict XVI at the White House yesterday, "faith and reason coexist in harmony."
Well, most of the time.
As the pontiff addressed an adoring crowd on the South Lawn -- about the time he mentioned the "sublime destiny of every man and woman" -- his gentle tones began to compete with a din coming from Pennsylvania Ave.
"I know what's in your religion! Drunkenness! Sexuality!" Larry Craft, stationed near the corner of 17th and Pennsylvania, shouted into his bullhorn. He carried a banner informing Catholics "Your priest is lying!" and shouted insults at passing priests: "Are they drunk today?"
The efforts of a dozen such hecklers stirred up the crowds of Catholics who had come to the White House gates to catch a glimpse of the Popemobile. They tried to drown out the Protestant protesters with songs and musical instruments, adding to a general cacophony that could be heard on the South Lawn.
Protesting the pope? On his first U.S. trip? On his 81st birthday, no less? It seemed to merit a new entry in the is-nothing-sacred category. But for His Holiness, it was all part of a quintessentially American welcome: well intentioned, but at times unruly and awkward.
Benedict spoke of the need for "international diplomacy to resolve conflicts"; the White House answered by having a military choir sing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," including the part about the "terrible swift sword." The Vatican informed the White House that the pope would not attend a state dinner in his honor; the president decided to throw the party anyway -- apparently the first time a state dinner has been held without the guest of honor.
The moment Benedict stepped from his car, his white hair and robe glowing in the bright sunshine, thousands of arms extended to take his snapshot.
Moments after the pontiff took the stage, audience members serenaded him with an unauthorized rendition of "Happy Birthday" -- then, with permission, reprised the performance later in the welcoming ceremony.
The pope was evidently prepared for a bit of chaos. In his remarks, he said he had come "with great respect for this vast pluralistic society," and he spoke approvingly of a "commonwealth in which each individual group can make its voice heard."
Particularly if members of that group have bullhorns.
The president, who long ago shed the anti-Catholic taint of Bob Jones University, was on his best behavior. He dug up his compassionate-conservative rhetoric for the pope, talking about "the weakest and most vulnerable among us" and the "universal call to feed the hungry and comfort the sick and care for the infirm."
The war leader also played the man of peace. "We welcome you with the ancient words commended by Saint Augustine: Pax tecum," Bush said, later reminding him of the American efforts to "promote peace" in the world. In deference to the pope's antiwar sensibilities, the White House skipped the usual review of the troops in favor of a lineup of Boy and Girl Scouts. But even this plan ran into trouble when three of the Girl Scouts fainted and had to be carried off by ushers.
Bush did, however, enlist the pontiff's help in the war against "some" people; the president did not identify this enemy, but he seemed to have in mind a combination of terrorists and Democrats.
"In a world where some invoke the name of God to justify acts of terror and murder and hate, we need your message that God is love," Bush said. "In a world where some treat life as something to be debased and discarded, we need your message that all human life is sacred. . . . In a world where some no longer believe that we can distinguish between simple right and wrong, we need your message to reject this dictatorship of relativism. . . . In a world where some see freedom as simply the right to do as they wish, we need your message that true liberty requires us to live our freedom not just for ourselves, but in a spirit of mutual support."
The crowd cheered noisily for Bush's antiabortion reference ("all human life is sacred") and his reference to a "dictatorship of relativism," but they were quiet for the "spirit of mutual support" bit.
The pope, tactfully, made no direct mention of Iraq, torture, global warming and other disputes with the administration, but he did call the Bush-hostile United Nations an "effective voice for the legitimate aspirations of all the world's people." He continued: "On this, the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the need for global solidarity is as urgent as ever, if all people are to live in a way worthy of their dignity."
Tact continued to reign during a briefing by White House press secretary Dana Perino, who said she didn't know whether the pontiff and the president discussed Tibet, torture or anything beyond the plight of Christians in Iraq. But she did know that Bush gave Benedict a crystal cross and some classical and religious CDs for his birthday, and "we presented him with several tiers of a birthday cake."