WASHINGTON - President Bush arrived in Rome last night for Pope John Paul II's funeral, bringing with him a delegation of American dignitaries - as well as a public relations headache over the absence of former President Jimmy Carter.
It will be a tableau of American leadership at the pontiff's funeral tomorrow as Bush appears with former Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton. But Carter, the first president to invite a pope to the White House, will not be there.
Neither the White House nor the former president's staff in Georgia can agree on exactly why Carter - who made history with a sun-splashed reception for Pope John Paul II on the South Lawn of the White House in 1979 - won't be attending. The White House says Carter refused its invitation. Carter allies explain his absence as the result of either a miscommunication or a White House snub.
"I'm very disappointed he isn't going," said Mary Hoyt, Rosalynn Carter's former press secretary, recalling the Carters' warmth for the pope. "I think he belongs there."
A statement from Carter's office this week said the former president had asked the White House whether he could join the U.S. delegation at the funeral but was told that space was limited and that other American dignitaries were eager to attend.
The White House countered that it had extended an invitation and noted that the Vatican, not the White House, limited the U.S. delegation to five people. First lady Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will round out the U.S. delegation.
Carter's absence is striking when set alongside the long list of American politicians who will attend (though those lesser stars won't get the same prime seats as the official U.S. delegation). Congress is sending 40 lawmakers, while other local groups, like one assembled by New York's Cardinal Edward Egan, will include local politicians such as New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.
Carter tried to end the flap in a statement yesterday: "There has been no dissension between me and the White House concerning the pope's funeral," he said.
But some see Carter, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and an outspoken opponent of the Iraq war, as deliberately excluded by the Bush administration. Though the White House extended the invitation in a letter, they argue, the Republicans did not offer it in spirit.
"The White House is making a blunder by not having Jimmy Carter come with them," said Douglas Brinkley, author of the Carter biography, The Unfinished Presidency. "Carter has taken a real tilt leftwards. He's the most credible anti-war, anti-Iraq critic globally, and I just don't think Bush and Rice really feel like being in his company."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan rejected claims that Carter had been rebuffed and said the White House specifically asked him to join the delegation.
"We did reach out to him to invite him to participate in the delegation," he said yesterday aboard Air Force One as the president was en route to Italy. "We would have been more than happy to have him be a part of the delegation to Rome."
But one Carter aide who asked not to be named so as not to "make a fuss" over the episode called the White House version of events "the truth, but not the whole truth."
The aide said that the White House indeed called Carter asking whether he'd like to join the U.S. delegation and that Carter replied that he would. But, according to the aide, the White House soon called back saying the small group did not include former presidents. So Carter backed out, figuring the seat was needed for someone else, the aide said.
The White House called once more, saying the first President Bush would in fact attend, the aide said. But the aide said Carter declined once more, thinking it was understandable that the president's father would go and assuming the guest list was essentially closed. The aide said that when Carter learned Clinton was going, too, it was too late, and thus the former president became visibly absent from the group.
"It could be seen as payback time," said the aide. But the aide offered another possibility as well: Carter was just trying to be polite and got left out as a result.
Gerald Ford is the only other living former president not attending the funeral. The 91-year-old's health is fragile, and his doctors have told him to limit his travel.
Carter made history when he invited Pope John Paul II to the White House at the end of the first U.S. tour by a pope. Carter introduced him on a long receiving line, in a reception that had to be held outdoors after thousands tried to get an invitation. Opera star Leontyne Price sang the Lord's Prayer, and the sun appeared after days of rain.
"Jimmy made his remarks, and when the pope began his reply, a sudden breeze lifted his cape up around his face," Rosalynn Carter wrote in First Lady from Plains. "Jimmy reached over and gently held it down while we listened intently to the pope's clear, slow English, challenging us to be the kinds of leaders the world needs."