The White House has been keeping details of the pope’s visit under wraps, but last week a few officials from the president’s and First Lady’s staff briefed reporters on some of lighter touches of their pontiff-planning. George and Laura Bush will meet Benedict at Andrews Air Force Base when he arrives on April 15 — something they have not done for any other head of state. Usually, world leaders are greeted with pomp and circumstance on the South Lawn, something Benedict will be treated to as well. But Joe Hagin, White House deputy chief of staff, said the president thought the tarmac greeting showed an extra level of respect the pope deserved. The White House has also arranged for about 5,000 military family members to witness the arrival.
The South Lawn greeting will also depart from the norm because the White House has practically thrown open the gates. About 10,000 regular folks have been invited to watch the welcome up close. Hagin called it a hot ticket and said volunteer and community groups have been given priority for the event that will include speeches, a twenty-one gun salute, a fife and drum corps performance, and some “patriotic and religious music” from a still to be announced “vocalist” [according to this morning’s Washington Post, it will be American soprano Kathleen Battle].
The crowd, some of whom will need to be at the White House for vetting three hours before Benedict is expected, shouldn’t expect much intimacy with the Holy Father. There are no plans for John Paul II-esque crowd wading during either the South Lawn welcome or the Andrews arrival.
Anita McBride, chief of staff to the First Lady, said the Bushes are also well aware they’ll be hosting Benedict on his 81st birthday (April 16). She said they plan to give him a “small” birthday gift and suggested the surprise might appeal to Benedict’s love of music (so probably not a keepsake bobble-head).
Later on Wednesday, Benedict will meet Bush in private. No aides are even expected to be in the room. At the same time, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will meet nearby with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone and will likely tackle heavy topics, perhaps Iraq and the status of Christian minorities. But there is no agenda for the Benedict-Bush one-on-one. Hagin said there isn’t even a timetable, despite the 45-minute entry on the official schedule. “The president and the pope can talk as long as they want,” he said. “Nobody’s going to go in and say, ‘Time’s up.'”
— Janice D’Arcy, religion news associate producer, Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly