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Bushes, Clinton but no Carter at funeral

President Bush and two of his predecessors on Wednesday left for Rome and Pope John Paul Id's funeral, but missing from the delegation was Jimmy Carter, the only U.S. president to have welcomed the late pontiff to the White House.
President Bush and first lady Laura Bush board Air Force One Wednesday before departing for Rome.J. Scott Applewhite / AP
/ Source: news services

President Bush and two of his predecessors on Wednesday left for Rome and Pope John Paul II's funeral Friday, but missing from the delegation was Jimmy Carter, the only U.S. president to have welcomed the late pontiff to the White House.

The president was leading a small U.S. delegation that included former President Clinton and Bush’s father, the first President Bush, first lady Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Carter had hoped to go as well, but backed off when told the Vatican had limited the official delegation to five “and there were also others who were eager to attend,” said Jon Moore, a spokesman for the Carter Center in Atlanta.

Carter, a Democrat, was a strong critic of Bush in last year’s U.S. election campaign.

The White House sought to play down any rift with the former president. “We did reach out to him to participate in the delegation,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. “It was his decision to make. We would have been more than happy for him to be part of the delegation.”

Moore said the Carters “always relish memories” of the pope’s 1979 visit to Washington, the only time a pope has been to the White House.

The only other living former president, Gerald Ford, is 91 and in frail health.

John Paul and the presidents
Bush, who will become the first sitting U.S. president to attend papal burial rites, on Tuesday called John Paul II "a great man," adding that "it will be my honor to represent our country in a ceremony marking a remarkable life, a person who stood for freedom and human dignity.”

All five U.S. presidents who served during the pope’s tenure met with him: Carter, Reagan, the first Bush, Clinton and the current president.

The younger Bush met with John Paul three times — twice at the Vatican and once at the pope’s summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, Italy.

Although Bush and the pope shared some conservative social views, they disagreed sharply over the death penalty and the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

When they last met in June 2004, Bush gave the pope the Presidential Medal of Freedom, this country’s highest civilian award.

At the time, the pope told Bush of his concerns about conditions in Iraq, including, indirectly, the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. troops.

The pope, who died Saturday, visited the United States five times. In addition to the 1979 visit with Carter at the White House, he met with President Reagan in 1987 in Miami, and he met three times with Clinton: in Denver in 1993, in Newark, N.J., in 1995, and in St. Louis in 1999. The pope did not visit the United States during either Bush presidency, but he met with the elder Bush in the Vatican in 1991.

Medical green light for Clinton
Clinton spokesman Jim Kennedy said the former president had been given clearance by his doctors to fly to Rome. Clinton had surgery a month ago in New York to deal with a rare complication from a heart bypass operation six months earlier.

When Pope John Paul I died in 1978 after serving only 34 days, Carter’s wife Rosalynn led the delegation that included his mother, Lillian Carter.

President Bush planned to leave Italy immediately after the funeral to spend the weekend at his ranch in Texas.

While in Rome, Bush was to have meetings Thursday with Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi and Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi.

Relations between the United States and Italy were strained last month when U.S. troops in Iraq fired on a car rushing an Italian journalist to freedom, killing the Italian intelligence officer who helped negotiate her release and wounding the reporter.

Berlusconi denounced the attack and announced plans to start to draw down his country’s 3,000-strong contingent in Iraq in September.

Congressional delegation
The U.S. Senate is sending a 14-member delegation, all Catholic except Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican who is Presbyterian.

The Democrats included the assistant Senate leader, Richard Durbin of Illinois, and the two Massachusetts senators, Edward Kennedy, whose brother John was the only Catholic president, and John Kerry, whose presidential run last year was criticized by some Catholics because of his support for abortion rights.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, a Protestant, said he will be joined by 23 other House lawmakers.