WASHINGTON - Well, which one will he listen to - Nancy Reagan or the Pope?
President Bush now has been lobbied from the Pacific Palisades and Castel Gandolfo on opposite sides of the stem cell controversy. Whichever way he decides on federal money for the embryo research, one of these icons will give him political cover, and one will cast a shadow of disapproval over his action.
Several weeks ago, the wife of the terminally ailing Ronald Reagan wrote Mr. Bush urging him to support federal funding of further exploration of the use of the remarkable stem cells from embryos in what amounts to the development of human spare parts for the seriously ill. The appeal was poignant and political, with the suggestion that it could save others from the ordeal her husband is now enduring with the dreaded Alzheimer's disease.
Now Mr. Bush, in a visit to Pope John Paul II at his summer residence outside Rome, has heard from the other side of the issue in a ringing condemnation of the embryo research.
Il Papa argued that "a tragic coarsening of consciences accompanies the assault on innocent human life in the womb" and specifically criticized "proposals for the creation for research purposes of human embryos, destined to destruction in the process." He called on America to "show a world path to a truly humane future in which man remains the master, not the product of his technology."
Some proponents of the research are suggesting that the pope's words provide Mr. Bush with some wiggle room to accept the approach suggested by Republican Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, the Senate's only physician, to limit research to certain laboratory-created embryos already slated for discard. But staunch anti-abortion and Catholic clergy opponents disagree.
Talk about being between a rock and a hard place.
In strictly political terms, Mrs. Reagan's plea to Mr. Bush to fund the research would make her a valuable ally in convincing fellow Republicans in Congress and voters around the country should he decide to go that route. At the same time, however, rejecting the pope's plea could imperil the president not only with the so-called pro-life constituency but also with millions of Catholic voters, who supported him over Al Gore last fall.
In what apparently was meant to assuage all sides, Mr. Bush said he was going to take his time deciding what to do on the issue, observing that "my process has been, frankly, unusually deliberative for my administration." Everyone should be reassured from his suggestion that unlike the case on other matters, he is really going to think this one out before jumping.
If ever there were an issue that should be decided outside the political considerations, this one certainly is it. Mr. Bush will be praised and damned from different quarters no matter which way he comes down, so he might as well listen to his head as well as his heart.
Politically, he already is being perceived as a captive of his party's most conservative wing in remaining staunchly anti-abortion and making his faith-based initiative - federal aid to do-good church groups - an early centerpiece of his agenda.
For all his strong avowal of compassion and support for "the unborn," he is open to Democratic criticism about his commitment to children already born, particularly in the field of health care. Democratic Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts likes to chide conservative Republicans by saying they are defenders of children "from conception to birth" but don't care that much about what happens to them thereafter.
The whole stem cell issue greatly expands the scope of the dispute over reverence and compassion for human life.
The proponents of increased research using stem cells from both fetus and adult sources argue that with the cells' apparently miraculous applications, a whole range of physical diseases and illnesses can be effectively addressed and treated. An argument can be made that their use can be as much "pro-life" as the defense of an unborn child.
It's wise for Mr. Bush to take an "unusually deliberative" course in deciding his position of federal funding of stem cell research. For a man who has prided himself in the ability to make quick decisions, this is one time that haste could indeed make waste.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau. His latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).