Friday, April 18, 2008

Popes, Presidents and Prime Ministers

In recognition of this being my 300th post since October 2006, I turned the spigot on. Read till you drop!

Thoughts pile up at the end of the week, mostly about the pope’s visit to Washington. I stayed home and watched it on TV, including the interview by NBC’s Brian Williams of NBC’s Tim Russert about the latter’s private audience with Pope Benedict XVI. Was I surprised that Russert, who fancies himself the king of the world, got to meet the pope? Nope. My only question is who kissed whose ring. (I am surprised that Wolf Blitzer was among the group.) Anyway, Williams said that Russert was on the set “wearing a different hat today” than he does as Washington bureau chief of NBC news and moderator of Meet the Press. The picture that immediately came to mind was of Russert in the world’s largest mitre to fit the world’s largest head.

In the been-there-done-that department, I’ve been in presence of a pope three times, probably ruining three days in the long life of John Paul II, who was elected after the death of Pope Paul VI and the death of Pope John Paul I just 30 days after ascending the throne of St. Peter. The former Karol Wojtyla was conservative enough to simply take the name of John Paul II instead of the natural progression to Pope George Ringo.

When he was in Washington in 1979, I was assigned to cover his visit to a chapel on the grounds of Trinity College, across the street from the basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Nothing of substance happened, but I was there to gather “color.” What I phoned in was that the pope strode down a garden path, as per his itinerary, and as women hoisted up their babies, virtually throwing them at the man, he stopped like any American politician and kissed them.

About a year or two later, sitting in the living room of a couple we had met and grown to like because our kids were in the same Montessori school, I glanced a small framed photo on an end table. It was JP-I kissing the little girl of the family. It was strange, to say the least. I had been pretty much where the photographer had been. The young mother now runs Catholic schools in the D.C. area. We are still friends and the "little girl" can now really dance.

I later accompanied President Reagan on a trip to Italy and the Vatican, to which I had come armed with a rosary I bought for our friend’s mother and a pope-head bottle opener for her husband. The next day, as part of the press pool, I was in the Vatican library, I believe, when JP-II raised his arms and said something. I assume I was blessed personally along with the rosary and the bottle opener. My main memory of that photo op was noticing that the Polish pope was wearing ugly brown shoes. (It turns out, based on the ruby reds that Benedict XVI wore, JP-II’s footwear may have been simply in need of buffing.)

And I saw JP-II once more in South Florida later that year, when the Catholic-wannabe Reagan flew to Miami to greet the pope (an unusual departure from protocol by the Great Communicator in homage to the Great Excommunicator). It was there, after a long hot day of travel, where I said something that the pope, any pope, may have never heard before.

We press poolers, including TV camera people and still photographers, had been unexpectedly shunted into an anteroom of the Vizcaya mansion instead of being ushered into the site of the presidential-papal photo op. The velvet rope was suddenly dropped, and like cattle, we headed for the entrance to what I thought would a grand hall where we would have to race for position. Then, out of nowhere, a surly Vatican security guy blocked the door, apparently having not gotten the memo. I happened to be in line ahead of the still photographers, which was no big deal because when we got into the room, people like me always allowed the shooters to get the best position.

So a Newsweek photographer who could not see over my head that I had been blocked from entering, yelled, “Come on, Irrraaaaa!” So I immediately explained the situation in wire service brevity: “Fuck you, Larry!” At which nanosecond the guard stepped aside, we were free to enter the room and to see, gulping, that the pope was seated on a dais about 15 feet from the doorway.

I like to embellish the story by saying, the pope looked down upon me beatifically and intoned, “Fuck me? Fuck you, Allen!” But that didn’t happen. All that happened was that after I had left the White House after four and a half years, it dawned on me I was the only press corps regular who had not been invited to a State Dinner.

Another story from a papal visit I like is from a woman colleague who accompanied Vice President Mondale to a Vatican meeting and who was told she would not be allowed in because she was wearing pants. Enterprising as any UPI reporter, she rolled her pants legs up and met the pope in her winter coat, with only bare leg showing.

Finally, upon hearing Benedict’s studied remarks on the South Lawn of the White House, the biggest embarrassment America has ever produced, whispered into a live mike, “Awesome speech!”

But This Dude Made an Awesome Cliché

The BEAHEP this week met with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and offered to grill hamburgers for him. But I was most impressed by Brown’s non-answer to a British press question about the economy, in which he said, “And that's why we will not hesitate to take any action that is necessary ...”

Maybe it’s just the accent that makes Brits sound so erudite, but upon reflection, what he was saying – regardless of the issue at hand – is when it is necessary we will take action. Yes, of course. People, excluding the BEAHEP, generally will never hesitate to act when they have to act.

Bumper Sticker Politics

Let’s add to, “I am not a crook” and “Not indicted” Sen. Hillary Clinton’s suggestion that her supporters go door to door in Pennsylvania telling voters, “She’s not as bad as you think.”

Yes, it was a joke. But as Will Rogers once said, "I make jokes, but some of them get elected to Congress. “She’s not as bad as you think” is, in my opinion, the best rationale she has for continuing to run.

What people missed in that debate in which former Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos proved his loyalty, was that Hillary Clinton promised an all-out nuclear attack on Iran should it lob a nuke at Israel. She used the phrase “massive retaliation,” which anyone born after 1960 might not know was official U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union – an attack anywhere meant we would launch nuclear war.

Who knew that John McCain will be seen as the liberal if Clinton wins the Democratic nomination?

Darth Lightens Up

Vice President Cheney was the best the television and radio correspondents in Washington could do for a speaker this year. He did have one telling moment: He joked, I think, that he asked his wife if it bothered her that people call him Darth Vader. She said, “No, it humanizes you.”

Which leads to this question for people like Cheney, Clinton and Obama who feel the need to humanize themselves: What is it about you that is not human? The answer brings to mind the aphorism that in politics or in Hollywood, you have to be sincere -- and when you can fake it, you’ve got it made.

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