April 6, 2005
WASHINGTON - President Bush and his wife Laura left the White House early today to head to Vatican City for the funeral of Pope John Paul II.
Bush and two of his predecessors are joining other world leaders in paying a final tribute to the pope, whose papacy spanned the terms of five American presidents.
Bush led a small U.S. delegation that included former President Clinton and Bush's father, the first President Bush, the president's wife Laura, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
"What a great man," Bush, the first sitting president to attend papal burial rites, said of John Paul II ahead of his visit.
"It will be my honor to represent our country in a ceremony marking a remarkable life, a person who stood for freedom and human dignity," he told reporters after a Cabinet meeting Tuesday.
Former President Carter had hoped to go as well, but backed off when told the Vatican had limited the official delegation to five "and there were also others who were eager to attend," said Jon Moore, a spokesman for the Carter Center in Atlanta. Moore said the Carters "always relish memories" of the pope's 1979 visit to Washington, the only time a pope has been to the White House.
The only other living former president, Gerald Ford, who lives in California, is 91 and in frail health.
All five U.S. presidents who served during the pope's tenure met with him: Carter, Reagan, the first Bush, Clinton and the current president.
Bush waved and smiled but did not say anything to reporters as he and wife Laura left the White House early Wednesday for Rome. The president was to have meetings Thursday with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi.
Relations between the United States and Italy were strained last month when U.S. troops in Iraq fired on a car rushing an Italian journalist to freedom, killing the Italian intelligence officer who helped negotiate her release and wounding the reporter.
Berlusconi denounced the attack and announced plans to start to draw down his country's 3,000-strong contingent in Iraq in September.
The younger Bush met with John Paul three times - twice at the Vatican and once at the pope's summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, Italy.
Although Bush and the pope shared some conservative social views, they disagreed sharply over the death penalty and the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
When they last met in June 2004, Bush gave the pope the Presidential Medal of Freedom, this country's highest civilian award.
At the time, the pope told Bush of his concerns about conditions in Iraq, including, indirectly, the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. troops.
The pope, who died Saturday, visited the United States five times. In addition to the 1979 visit with Carter at the White House, he met with President Reagan in 1987 in Miami, and he met three times with Clinton: in Denver in 1993, in Newark, N.J., in 1995, and in St. Louis in 1999. The pope did not visit the United States during either Bush presidency, but he met with the elder Bush in the Vatican in 1991.
Clinton spokesman Jim Kennedy said the former president had been given clearance by his doctors to fly to Rome. Clinton had surgery a month ago in New York to deal with a rare complication from a heart bypass operation six months earlier.
When Pope John Paul I died in 1978 after serving only 34 days, Carter's wife Rosalynn led the delegation that included his mother, Lillian Carter.
President Bush planned to leave Italy immediately after the funeral to spend the weekend at his ranch in Texas.