By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
WASHINGTON, D.C.By inviting Bill Clinton to go to the pope's funeral, and cutting Jimmy Carter out, President Bush probably had politics on his mind. The trip gave Clinton a chance to see his admiring European masses, and when Bush also included him in a CIA briefing, Clinton got a chance to offer his ideas.
"These CIA briefings a lot of time prompt policy discussions," Bush told reporters on the flight back from Rome. "It's interesting to get their points of view about their experiences in particular countries."
There was another reason for taking Clinton along. Like Bush, Clinton favored altering Social Security by allowing people to set up individual savings accounts. "I was telling President Clinton I remember watching one of his town hall meetings in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on this very subject," Bill Sammon of The Washington Timesquotes Bush as saying, recounting the president's airborne chat with reporters. "And I thought it was a very impressive presentation. By the way, a lot of the language happens to be pretty close to some of the town hall meetings we've had."
Bush is looking for leverage among Democrats to get his changes passed by Congress. Right now they face tough sledding, but already the Republicans have won the fight to persuade the citizenry this is an important enough topic to debate. Now Bush needs the votes. During the Clinton era, some Democratic policy wonks and politicians backed the idea of changing Social Security by establishing savings accounts.
What the Bush strategists have in mind is to soften up Democrats of the right-center, often gathered under the auspices of the Democratic Leadership Council, which was an important ally when Clinton was president and remains today a sanctuary of middle-of-the-road technocratic Clintonistas.
Ranting about Clinton has gone a long way among conservatives, especially on the Christian right, who find Monica's blowjob beyond reprehensible. Bush often ingratiates himself with this constituency by promising to "restore honor and dignity to the White House." But recently Bush has embraced Clinton, lining him up with Bush Sr. to tour South Asia after the tsunami, and taking him along on last week's trip to Rome. It gives Dubya a chance to draw closer to his father, from whom he often distanced himself during his first term.
In those days, Bush Jr. stressed his own independence, and the younger Bush's position on Iraq was different from some of the older Reagan-era advisers who had worked for his father.
With Reagan-era conservatives like John Danforth up in arms about Bush's lovefest with the Christian right and neoconservative barbarians, the reappearance of the father, who argued against going into Baghdad in the first war, might reassure them.
It was no surprise that left off the plane was Carter, the only president who actually welcomed the pope to the White House. Devoutly religious, Carter has spent his years since the presidency helping others. He may be the real Christian among the living presidents, but he was nasty to Bush in the election.
'My faith is strong'
Pope John Paul II's funeral was the perfect occasion for the president to do what he does best, and that is to reassert his faith and help people interpret the Scriptures. Calling the service "majestic," Bush said, "Today's ceremony, I bet you, for millions of people, was a reaffirmation . . . and a way to make sure doubts don't seep into your soul."
According to The Washington Post, he went on to discuss the meaning of religion: There is "no doubt in my mind that Lord Christ was sent by the Almighty. No doubt in my mind about that." Bush said he had had "a very good relationship" with the pope, who on their last visit, in June 2004, "made his points to me with his eyes." Perhaps thinking about his own travails with critics who accuse him of clinging too fervently to conservative values, Bush said of the pope, "Tides of moral relativism kind of washed around him, but he stood strong as a rock."
Talking like an evangelical, Bush said, "I think a walk in faith constantly confronts doubt, as faith becomes more mature." He added, "And you constantly confront, you know, questions. My faith is strong. The Bible talks about, you've got to constantly stay in touch with the word of God in order to help you on the walk."
Stalin to the rescue
Playing politics with religion is a hot-button issue here, but a tricky one. To some of those gathered under the Republican big tent, Bush has gone too far into the religious camp, but to others in his key religious base, the president doesn't go far enough.
At a gathering of religious conservatives to discuss "Remedies to Judicial Tyranny" here late last week, there were strident demands to do something about the "radical secularist relativist judiciary" which "upholds Marxist, Leninist, satanic principles drawn from foreign law." Attacks on "activist" judges were replaced by rants against "supremacist" judges. Phyllis Schlafly, founder of the Eagle Forum and depicted in The Washington Post as the "doyenne of American conservatism," said, "The Constitution is not what the Supreme Court says it is." William Dannemeyer, a former Republican congressman from California, said our "principal problem" isn't Iraq or the federal budget, but whether "we as a people acknowledge that God exists." There was talk of the "Politburo" of five people on the Supreme Court and their "revolutionary" agenda. There was a shrill attack on Justice Anthony Kennedy as a "poster boy for impeachment," and when it came to deciding what to do with him, an approving reference to Joseph Stalin, which if taken literally might be construed as a threat. Stalin had said, "Death solves all problems: no man, no problem."