In the dimming twilight of his presidency, George W. Bush finds himself with a 28 percent approval rating and few friends in high places. Today, however, he will revisit one of the most fascinating friendships of his term when he visits with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican.
Unlike all other heads of state, Bush will meet with the pontiff not in the library of the Apostolic Palace, but in the medieval St. John’s Tower in the Vatican gardens. The media is portraying the Pontiff’s unusual gesture as an act of reciprocation for Bush’s warm reception of the Pope to Washington on the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base on April 16 — an effort Bush did not make for any other visiting dignitary during his presidency.
Benedict’s greeting, though, seems to be more than a businesslike repayment of kindness. A closer look at Bush’s apparent admiration for the Pope and his appreciation of the Pope’s convictions reveals a regard that runs deeper than ceremonial cordiality.
Certainly Bill McGurn, the President’s former speechwriter, believes so. “Benedict is a smart man. He would not do this for someone he did not respect. And he doesn’t have to do any of it — the President will be in office only a few more months,” he told TAS.
Francis X. Rocca, Vatican correspondent for Religion News Service, agrees: “[T]he Vatican is grateful for Bush’s gesture of coming to the airport, but also they want to show their appreciation for someone who upholds Catholic teaching in a number of controversial areas.”
Indeed, Bush has stood for many of the principles espoused by Pope and Church during his presidency. He has on many occasions voiced his appreciation for the Catholic Church’s commitment to human life. He has backed up those remarks with his own opposition to embryonic stem cell research and appointment of staunchly pro-life judges.
ONE DIFFERENCE THE Pope had with Bush came when the Vatican disapproved of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. But John Paul II biographer George Weigel called that a matter of prudential judgment that does not seem to have strained their relationship too much.
“The goal is a stable Iraq with a responsive and responsible government, leading a society safe for pluralism, including religious freedom. It would be a great help if Democratic politicians would adopt this Vatican approach and stop acting as if this were 2003 or 2006,” Weigel told TAS.
It was not shared convictions that led Bush out onto the runway to greet Benedict XVI. Bush seems to have an almost mystical view of the Pope. McGurn, who was present for the welcoming of the Pope on the White House’s South Lawn, recalls it as “an extraordinary day for America.”
McGurn described the “love bursting out from the crowd,” which he said he could tell the President appreciated by watching his “body language.” When they spoke later, McGurn said Bush “was just full of praise for Benedict.”
Later on the evening of that White House visit, America laughed with Jon Stewart of The Daily Show when he played a clip of Bush thanking the Pope for his speech on the South Lawn in a truly goofy fashion: “Awesome speech, your Holiness!” But that response brought out a quality in Bush that perhaps not everyone appreciates: his authentic excitement over the Pope’s message.
Although Bush is not especially articulate, sometimes he finds poignancy in his lack of verbosity. He gave an interview to EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo just prior to the Pope’s visit. Arroyo referred to Bush’s quip that when he looked into Vladimir Putin’s eyes, he saw his soul, and asked what the President saw when he looked into Pope Benedict’s eyes.
Bush responded, simply, “God.”
WHAT DOES SUCH A striking statement say about the Bush and the Church? Some, like Daniel Burke of the Washington Post, believe that Bush’s disposition towards the Pope indicates that he is likely to follow in the footsteps of another good friend, Tony Blair, and seek confirmation in the Catholic Church once his term is finished. His brother Jeb, the former Governor of Florida and a convert to Catholicism, has also modeled that path for him.
If in fact Bush is leaning towards Rome, the Pope might be inviting him to more than just a stroll around St. John’s Tower.
Weigel thinks there’s no use for such speculation. He suggests instead that their conversation will focus on their shared concern for persecuted Christians in the Middle East, especially in Iraq, which is still recovering from the murder of the Chaldean archbishop Mosul Paulos Faraj Rahho.
George Neumayr, editor of Catholic World Report and a columnist for TAS, suggests that their conversation will follow up on Benedict’s book on Europe, Without Roots, which Bush reportedly read and enjoyed.
Whatever the topic of their conversation, it is clear the President and the Pope have established a rapport that extends beyond matters of state. McGurn said that at the White House dinner for Catholic Leaders, Bush described the Church as “a rock in a raging sea.”
For a president known for verbal gaffes, that’s a surprisingly strong image. For a besieged and worn-down Methodist President who sees God in the eyes of the Pope, however, nothing too unusual.