Kim Lawton: With the Pope at the White House

Producer Patti Hanley and I were on the press list to cover Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the White House this morning.

The massive security surrounding the pope’s visit meant we had to arrive at the White House more than two hours before the 10:30 a.m. event began. We waited in a long line at the press entrance on the northwest side. After being cleared through the security, we made our way up the circular driveway in front of the White House, past all the TV cameras set up to do live reports. We waited again in the briefing room, where all the White House press conferences take place. It’s not a big place to begin with, and it was mobbed with reporters from all over the world. Tim Russert and Matt Lauer of NBC were hanging out nearby, as were several religion reporters we see frequently at big faith-related news events.

White House photo by Shealah Craighead

It was a beautifully sunny day, so we eventually wandered outside to wait in the driveway. As the time for the ceremony got closer, VIP participants were escorted past us in waves, like a parade. First came the U.S. cardinals, then the bishops. After them were the boy scouts and girl scouts, the Knights of Columbus in their full regalia. and then Catholic students in their school uniforms. After that came a wave of interfaith representatives. Among those I saw were Archbishop Demetrious, head of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, Imam Talal Eid from the Muslim community in Boston, Protestant mainline denominational leaders, and several Jewish representatives. I was particularly interested to see a Sikh man wearing the traditional turban. Sikhs will not be attending an interfaith meeting with Pope Benedict on Thursday, April 17, because as a matter of religious conscience they refused to remove their ceremonial daggers, called kirpans. The Secret Service had demanded they do so, saying that no weapons can be so close to a visiting head of state. I wonder how they got around it for this event?

Finally, the reporters were escorted into a White House hallway and on through to the South Lawn, past some beautiful tulips in full bloom. We walked past the military honor guard and bands, then around to front and center on the lawn. It was a great position, except that it was so crowded we couldn’t really see the pope or the president unless we stood on our tiptoes.

The crowd was very excited, at times yelling “Viva el Papa.” Just before soprano Kathleen Battle came out to sing the Lord’s Prayer, the audience spontaneously broke out singing a rendition of “Happy Birthday” to the pope. Today is his 81st birthday.

You can read the president’s and the pope’s remarks here.

The ceremony was brief, just about a half hour, although that was probably too long for the three girl scouts who fainted and had to be carried out of the ceremony.

After both speeches, a military choir sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” From my spot, I could see Senator Joe Lieberman waving a small U.S. flag and a small Vatican flag in time to the music. Then Kathleen Battle led the crowd in an official version of “Happy Birthday” to the pope.

Benedict and Bush went into the Oval Office for a private meeting. Their joint statement released after the meeting is here:

We fought the crowds to get out of the White House grounds and meet up with our crew, stationed along the popemobile route.