McBride is Catholic. But non-Catholic staffers give similar reports. Ari Fleischer, Bush’s first press secretary, was present for two meetings with Pope John Paul II. He laughingly acknowledged he had not given much thought to popes when he was a boy growing up Jewish in New York. “But this is special stuff—even if you’re not Catholic,” he said. “There is an other-worldliness to it. Unlike a summit meeting or other routine visit, even with the most important head of state, the papacy is unique. The trappings of office are different from anywhere else.”
Because John Paul was ailing and nearing death, his last meeting with Bush was “mostly ceremonial,” recalled Fleischer, with the president doing most of the talking. “But it had such an important air and feel to it. … Just to meet him was special. Popes have an air and a grace about them that sets them apart and makes them special even for those who aren’t Catholic.”
Fleischer still treasures a coin given him by the pope, just as McBride retains a rosary given her by Benedict. She recalled that Bush arranged for the pope to meet with the Catholics on his senior staff as well as some Bush family members who are Catholic.
That meeting made an impact on her. But even more, she said, she remembers how non-Catholics were affected. “There was not one person who was not moved by meeting the Holy Father. It doesn’t matter what faith you are, there is something extraordinarily moving and special about someone who is leading so many people. It is just on such a different level from other world leaders.”
There have, though, been some tensions in the past summits. President Woodrow Wilson, intending to keep the pope out of the postwar peace talks in Paris, initially refused to visit Benedict XV. He relented only when Joseph Tumulty, a Catholic and Wilson’s closest aide, insisted. The meeting, on January 9, 1919, did not go well.
According to a report in the National Catholic Review, Wilson was very much a “prickly Presbyterian” in the meeting, balking when the pope offered a traditional papal blessing. Wilson demanded an explanation. When the pope said the blessing was for everyone, Catholic and non-Catholic, the president turned to his staff and asked, “Are there any Catholics here?” The Catholics knelt and Wilson bowed his head for the blessing. He then rejected Benedict’s 10-point peace plan and refused to intervene to give control of Vatican City to the church instead of the anti-clerical Italian government.
More recent meetings have gone better but still have had moments of friction or embarrassment. John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president, was watched carefully to see if he would kiss Paul VI’s ring. He didn’t, instead shaking his hand. Jimmy Carter had what was officially billed as a productive and friendly meeting with John Paul II in 1979. Twenty-five years later—just months after the pope’s death—a fuller picture emerged when Carter wrote Our Endangered Values. In the book, he described the pope as a “fundamentalist” and gave more details of their meeting, the first-ever visit by a pope to the White House.