President Bush had a successful trip to Italy earlier this month, but no one in America would know it based on the news coverage. Headlines all focused on the same two themes: Pope John Paul II scolded the president about prison abuse in Iraq, and Italian mobs thronged the streets to protest Mr. Bush. Neither story accurately portrays what were positive meetings at the Vatican and with Italian government officials.
While the pope did briefly refer to the Iraq war in his meeting with Mr. Bush, he did so vaguely and in the context of the need for all nations to respect human rights. He only used one sentence to refer to “deplorable events” but did not specifically discuss Abu Ghraib prison or any other aspect of the operations. In a classic example of Vatican diplomacy, John Paul II carefully avoided embarrassing Mr. Bush and did not even reiterate the pontiff’s opposition to the war. He merely noted that the president is “very familiar with the position of the Holy See” — and left it at that.
John Paul II even applauded the “encouraging steps” underway in the governmental organization and reconstruction of Iraq. After the president presented the pope with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian award, John Paul II exclaimed, “God bless America.”
The media ignored developments that could have an impact on this year’s presidential election. For example, the pope strongly endorsed Mr. Bush’s “commitment to the promotion of moral values in American society, particularly with regard to respect for life and the family.” This is important given that abortion and same-sex marriage are issues in the 2004 campaign. John Paul II’s praise is relevant because John Kerry, a Catholic, is opposed to the church’s positions against abortion and same-sex marriage. It can also be seen to correct liberal U.S. Catholic bishops, who have ignored the Vatican’s order that Catholic politicians such as Mr. Kerry who support abortion should not receive sacraments in the Catholic Church.
Mr. Bush’s state visit with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi similarly was misreported. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators were predicted, but the Italian police stated that significantly less than 10,000 actually showed up. A plan to plaster Rome with peace signs flopped, and even leftist politicians came out against the protesters after they chanted in support of a massacre of Italians in Iraq. After Mr. Bush detailed Mr. Berlusconi’s leadership and commitment to the Iraq mission, the prime minister’s poll numbers improved. This is an impressive sign of the president’s prestige. It is not a surprise that the U.S. media failed to report it.