By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Bush wasn’t invitedto the Vatican. He asked if he could visit. When he was turned down the first time, he asked again, and reluctantly, the pope and the Holy See, who frown on election-year visits, said yes. Visiting Bob Jones, opposing stem-cell research, supporting a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, and appointing the first U.S. attorney general to have himself anointed as he was sworn in — all have won Bush the unqualified backing of evangelical Protestants. American Catholics present a problem. They listen to the pope. And for more than a year, they have heard John Paul II’s condemnation of Bush’s war in Iraq. So Catholics who should solidly support Bush because of his stance on abortion are wavering because of the war in Iraq and some social-justice issues.
Iraq in particular is a problem. On the eve of the war, the pope had sent Cardinal Pio Laghi, the former papal nuncio, to Washington to meet with Bush. “There are still peaceful avenues within the context of the vast patrimony of international law,” the cardinal said at the time. “A decision regarding the use of military force can only be taken within the framework of the United Nations.” The pope himself expressed his strong anti-war sentiment in public. Then in May, as Norman Birnbaum reports in Salon, Cardinal Laghi went on the attack again, with an interview in an Italian newspaper: “We are at the edge of an abyss and have to stop. Above all, America has to re-establish respect for humanity and return to the family of nations, conquering the temptation to act alone.” The pope, Laghi told reporters at Corriere dela Sera, had warned Bush.
So why bother going to Rome? Bush had visited the pontiff twice before the war. Cardinal Laghi implied that Bush was in for a ritual humiliation. But 23 percent of the nation’s 63.4 million Catholics live in what we have come to call “the crucial battleground states.” Catholics split in the last election, with Al Gore getting 50 percent to Bush’s 47. Rove is pondering the question Hitler asked: “How many divisions has the pope?” Hitler referred to divisions in the Vatican army. Rove is focused on divisions of voters in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida.
Bush went to Rome and sat still (with an utterly dumbstruck look on his face) while the pope delivered a ritual public humiliation, referring to “deplorable events that have come to light and troubled the civic and religious conscience of all and made more difficult a serene and absolute commitment to shared human values.” The pope also warned that if things continue on the course ordained by the American president, “neither the war nor terrorism will ever be overcome.”
Yet the visit was a huge success. Not even Bush’s clumsy and inappropriate demand that Vatican Secretary of State Angelo Sodano lean on American bishops to get them to support Bush on social issues could ruin it (a story reported only because The National Catholic Reporter’s exceptional Vatican correspondent John L. Allen is so well sourced). How can a visit to Rome where the pope lectured a president who was later caught crossing the constitutional line that separates church and state be considered a success?
There’s a simple answer. The National Journal’s Carl Cannon (with whom I wrote Boy Genius, a Rove biography) followed the president to Rome and reported that at one point Rove jumped from a limo to take pictures of the Vatican’s Swiss Guard. These were, of course, personal snapshots. But among Rove’s cardinal principles of electoral politics (win the “money primary” first, do your opposition research and use it to define and destroy your opponent, stay on message, etc.) is the understanding that “only the images matter.”
The Bush campaign is in trouble. So the president traveled to the Vatican to have his picture taken with the pope. Look for it three months from now, after embarrassing press accounts of the trip are forgotten. You’ll find it in a Catholic parish neighborhood near you. It’s the pictures, stupid.