WASHINGTON — Five American presidents in a row eagerly sought audiences with Pope John Paul II, even when the pontiff expressed strong opposition to some of their policies, such as President Clinton’s support for abortion rights and President Bush’s invasion of Iraq.
All five who occupied the White House during John Paul II’s 26-year papacy — Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton and George W. Bush — beat a path to the Vatican.
The current president visited the pope in Rome three times in his first term, most recently in June.
“Every American president, whether Republican or Democrat, could find elements of John Paul II’s agenda to agree with,” said James Guth, a specialist in religion and politics at Furman University in Greenville, S.C.
“Conservative Republicans identified with his role in the downfall of the Soviet communism, his concern for moral issues like abortion and euthanasia that have become part of the Republican party platform,” Guth said. “At the same time, Democrats recognized the pope’s travels throughout the Third World, his identification with the poor of the world.”
John Paul II became the first pope to visit the White House when Carter warmly welcomed him in 1979. That kicked off a string of frequent and high-profile meetings between the pontiff and U.S. presidents.
The pope received Carter at the Vatican the following year. Reagan met with John Paul II four times — twice at the Vatican, twice in the United States. The first President Bush visited the pope twice in the Vatican.
Clinton met with him four times — in the United States in 1993, 1995 and 1999, and at the Vatican in 1994.
When the current president called on the pope in June, he presented the pontiff with the presidential medal of freedom and called him “a devoted servant of God.”
For Bush, ‘an awesome experience’
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.”
Bush later told an audience of Catholics, “Being in his presence is an awesome experience.”
It is only natural that U.S. presidents wanted to been seen with the globe-trotting pope from Poland, said Allan J. Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University in Washington.
“He was a very charismatic, significant world figure with tens of millions of followers in the United States and hundreds of millions of followers worldwide,” Lichtman said.
Lichtman also said the magnetic appeal of John Paul II to U.S. presidents coincided with a lessening of anti-Catholic sentiment in the United States.
“When Reagan established formal diplomatic relations with the Vatican, it was very controversial,” Lichtman said, noting that Reagan sought the Rev. Billy Graham’s help in trying to smooth things over with evangelical leaders.
“The Catholics have blended in,” said the Rev. Gerald Fogarty, a Jesuit priest and professor at the University of Virginia who specializes in U.S.-Vatican relations.
But Fogarty suggested it was not solely fondness for the pope that motivated U.S. presidents to seek him out.
Reagan’s decision in 1984 to send an ambassador to the Vatican helped him gain more influence over outspoken American Catholic bishops, Fogarty suggested.
Clinton’s overtures to the pope, he said, were part of a strategy “to recreate the old alliance between Catholics and the Democratic party.”
The current president wooed the pope — and Catholic voters — in an effort to undo that alliance. The effort seems to have paid off.
Democrat presidential nominee Al Gore won 50 percent of the Catholic vote in 2000, while Bush got 47 percent. Bush increase his numbers to 52 percent of the Catholic vote in 2004, to Democrat John Kerry’s 47 percent, even though Kerry is a Roman Catholic. Bush is a Methodist.
Differences with Clinton, Bush
American presidents may have tried to reap domestic political mileage from their sessions with the pope, but the pope also used such meetings to advance the Catholic Church’s agenda.
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.
The pontiff never tried to hide his deep differences with Clinton. He held cordial meetings with Clinton even as papal officials issued a number of unusually sharp attacks on Clinton’s actions. During one such meeting, the Vatican called Clinton’s veto of a ban on certain late-term abortions “shameful.”
John Paul II’s long-standing criticism of the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba — and along with his visit to the island in 1998 — undercut policies of both Democratic and Republican U.S. presidents.
© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.