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Bill Clinton remembers Pope John Paul II

Three U.S. presidents are leading the American delegation to  Rome. NBC News requested time with all of them, and former President Bill Clinton was kind enough to accept our invitation. NBC's Brian Williams talks to him about Pope John Paul II.

Three U.S. presidents are leading the American delegation here in Rome. NBC News requested time with all of them, and former President Bill Clinton was kind enough to accept our invitation. He was eager to talk about the man he came here to mourn.

Bill Clinton: He could work a crowd. He could build a crowd. He could move a crowd. And whether I agree or disagree with him, this guy is on my side. He cares about me as a human being — as a child of God. That’s what made him great.

Brian Williams: You're sitting with him in his spartan apartment at the Vatican. Do you feel an aura?

Clinton: When I was with the pope and in the Vatican, I had a feeling that, you know, 2,000 years was cascading down and crystallized in this moment, in this man, in this place. I was overwhelmed by it.

Williams: Now let’s talk about the challenges the church faces.

Clinton: How do you keep the faithful, how do you serve the faithful? And do they want these questions of how to serve the faithful in the West even answered now? Or do they want to just kick the can down the road a little bit and let it germinate a little more? I don't envy the cardinals this choice because it's a momentous one.

When I made mistakes in politics during my career it was usually because I tried to jam too much change too fast down the system. On the other hand, if you don't continue to change, then you wither and die.

The president talked about the plane ride to Rome — his first time back on Air Force One. The three presidents talked about the pope.

Clinton: We each talked about what he meant to us and what we thought he meant to Americans and to Christendom and to the world. And we all had a slightly different take on it.

Clinton talked about his new friendship with the first President Bush — a relationship solidified during their tsunami disaster tour, during which President Clinton let his senior partner sleep in the only bed on their plane.

Williams: Talk about your friendship with 41, President Bush.

Clinton: No difference I ever had with him obscured the fact that I thought he was basically a profoundly good man, a patriotic man and a public servant overall. I think he's terrific.

Williams: And he thought it was so kind that you let him sleep on the bed on the plane.

Clinton: (Laughter) It was fine. I can sleep anywhere.

Williams: How's your health?

Clinton: I think I'm doing fine. I had a good reaction to second surgery. I'm still a little sore, still a little tired. I think within two weeks I'll be completely back to normal, and I can breathe again fully, which is pretty great.

Williams: You knew something was wrong?

Clinton: Yeah, I did. I did. It was a fluke. But I could tell. Even though I was walking vigorously, I didn't have my color back. I knew something was wrong. And it turned out I had half of my breathing capacity turned off. So I feel great now.