ROME - President Bush and his two White House predecessors paid their respects to Pope John Paul II on Wednesday, viewing his remains and kneeling to pray in St. Peter's Basilica.
Immediately after arriving in Rome, Bush and other members of the U.S. delegation went to the basilica to view the remains.
Bush and his wife, Laura, were accompanied by Bush's father, former President Clinton and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
The knelt in a pew in front of the remains, bowing their heads in prayer. They spent about five minutes and then left without any comment. Hundreds of thousands of people have viewed the pope's remains since Monday. The line of mourners was stopped during Bush's visit.
The former President Bush told reporters traveling with the delegation aboard Air Force One that the pope "was unforgettable."
He said he had met the pope for the first time when he was vice president, bringing his son, Jeb, a converted Catholic, along for the visit. Though he and the pope had disagreed sharply on the Persian Gulf War, with the pope sending him a cable opposing the invasion of Kuwait, the elder Bush said he wished he had had time to discuss with the pope the notion of a "just war" which the pope had supported.
Clinton, talking separately with reporters on the plane, said the pope had demonstrated support for NATO actions to end genocide in Bosnia and Kosovo.
He said he had met "two great popes" in his lifetime, John Paul II and John XXIII. Clinton said he recognized that John Paul "may have had a mixed legacy," but he called him a man with a great feel for human dignity.
And, Clinton said, noting the throngs the pope would consistently draw, said, "The man knows how to build a crowd."
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.
Some of Congress' best known Catholics also will attend, although not as part of the official U.S. delegation. Among them are Sens. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., and Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California.
A Senate delegation of 14 will be led by Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. A House delegation of about two dozen members also was going. It was to be led by Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., but he underwent surgery for kidney stones and didn't make the trip.
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 was to have meetings Thursday with Italian Premier 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 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.