In the hours between the pope’s meeting with the president and the president’s press conference a little before noon on the East Coast, the White House totally lost the narrative they had hoped for. Earlier in the day the media was on the same page as the White House — the meeting would be understood as a meeting of the minds on economic inequality. But to the president’s credit, when he was at the Vatican, he appeared a bit of a pilgrim. He asked for prayers. He seemed to drink the history and the beauty in. His posture appeared to be as listener, approaching a pastor. As I noted yesterday morning, the Vatican official release on the meeting talked about religious freedom and human dignity — hinting at the inviolability of human life. Early press reports echoed this. That doesn’t work, however, if you are a White House in need of a p.r. boost, hoping to benefit from papal popularity and to distract from the ongoing religious-freedom fight that had a hearing at the Supreme Court this week. And so as the day went on, the White House downplayed any differences, the president explained that Pope Francis really lives in a different world, and press reports went from mentioning religious freedom to contraception to income inequality. In the end, the White House may have recovered the script a bit. They certainly must be pleased with USA Today’s cover:
But that misses the story. As I pointed out yesterday, other images from the meeting tell a story different than the USA Today above-the-fold treatment. A pope known for exuberant embraces was not going to be used as a prop by politicos.
The president at one point during his press conference yesterday said, “I don’t think that His Holiness envisions entering into a partnership or a coalition with any political figure on any issue. His job is a little more elevated. We’re down on the ground dealing with the often profane, and he is dealing with higher powers.” As Lauren Green reminded the audience during that brief Fox segment on Gretchen Carlson’s show: Some significant history has been made and lives saved and changed when political leaders have worked with popes in the past. (John O’Sullivan wrote a book – The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister – perhaps the president might like to read it.) And the often profane can even be made holy and elevated. That is if secularization doesn’t become a mandated national religion, as that disputed HHS mandate moves toward.