The President, the Pope and the Media

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First I read Mike Allen’s Politico Playbook, in which Laura Bush’s chief of staff revealed that the elaborate reception at the White House for Pope Benedict XVI was “a sign of the President and Mrs. Bush’s respect and love and friendship with the Holy Father.”

I cringed.

Then I heard Ed Henry on CNN inform viewers that President Bush and the Pope share “a special bond.”

I groaned.

Finally, Henry paraphrased an unnamed White House official explaining why no one could be sure how long the closed-door session between Bush and Benedict would last: “When you’re meeting with the Holy Father, a schedule is just a suggestion.”

At that point I wanted to gag.

Please. This is silly. According to this morning’s USA Today, President Bush has met this pope exactly once — last June at the Vatican. According to the transcript of yesterday’s White House press briefing with Dana Perino, it’s quite possible that they’ve never once spoken on the phone. So from what shared experience springs all that love and affection? How exactly was their special bond developed? And why is it that the leader of the Catholic Church has more sway over the President’s schedule than any other head of state? If Bush were Catholic, I’d understand. But he is not.

I have no doubt that Pope Benedict XVI is a wise and decent man and a compelling spiritual leader. He may also become a great temporal leader, like his predecessor. And I think it’s an important and wonderful thing when the Pope visits the United States, meets with the President and performs mass in America. It’s a big deal.

But hyping the relationship between the President and the Pope is pure political exploitation, a play for the electoral affection of American Catholics. The Pope is no doubt aware of this, but he is blameless in his complicity. The more attention he gets, the more broadly he is able to spread his message.

As Chris Matthews has rightly said, the battle for the Catholic vote in America is really the battle for swing voters. The coming election, like so many before it, could well hinge on how Catholics break — this time in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado and New Mexico.

Forgive me for being so cynical as to believe that the special bond Bush feels for the Pope springs from the pivotal role Catholics will play in deciding whether his eight years in office are repudiated or validated on Election Day.

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