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Interview of the President by the Travel Pool while Returning from Rome.

Aboard Air Force One

En route Waco, Texas

Note: Edited to comments concerning Pope John Paul II

8:29 A.M. EDT

THE PRESIDENT: Listen, were you there in person?


THE PRESIDENT: One, I'm really glad I came. There was never any question I would come. Last night we hosted a reception at the embassy for many of the leaders of the Catholic Church at home, and they were very grateful that I came, and Laura came, and Dad came, and President Clinton came, and Condi came, as well as others. And I told them, to a person, that it's such an honor to represent our country at a ceremony honoring a truly great man who is and will always be a great historical figure.

I knew the ceremony today would be majestic, but I didn't realize how moved I would be by the service, itself; by the beautiful music. I was struck -- as an aside -- struck by the fact that the sound was so clear in this huge facility. It was as if we were inside the cathedral listening; and the voices were so pure. I thought the homily was really good. We were given an English version, fortunately -- if you haven't read it, maybe you've seen it? Yes. Beautiful. Beautiful. Beautifully done.

I was struck by the response of the crowd. And I think it's interesting to note the moments where the crowd responded. One in particular is when His Eminence spoke to His Holiness's relationship to the young of the world, and there was a great outpouring of enthusiasm for that line. And then I think the thing that struck all our delegation most intensely was the final scene of the plain-looking casket -- one of three, by the way; lead, wood and wood -- being carried and held up for the seal to be seen, and then the sun pouring out. This will be one of the highlights of my presidency, to have been at this great ceremony.

So off we go to home, now.

Q Your predecessor suggested that the Pope would leave a mixed legacy, even though he was a great man. Since you differed with him on the war to such a great degree, do you also think it will be a mixed legacy?

THE PRESIDENT: I think Pope John Paul II will have a clear legacy of peace, compassion, and a strong legacy of setting a clear moral tone.

Let me make sure I go back to the first answer on His Holiness. I said -- I think my answer was, is that -- what did I say?

Q I asked if you thought it was a mixed message, and you said, "I think John Paul II will have a clear legacy of peace" --

THE PRESIDENT: A clear and excellent legacy, if you don't mind adding the word "excellent."

Q Clear and excellent.

THE PRESIDENT: Yes. In other words, a strong legacy. I wanted to make sure there was a proper adjective to the legacy I thought he left behind. It was more than just "clear."

MR. McCLELLAN: You said "strong," too, in that answer.


Q Yes, you said, "strong legacy of setting a clear moral tone."

Q When you sat there surrounded by that incredibly array of world leaders and looked forward to the kind of spread of democracy you're talking about, is there something about just that assemblage there? Who did you talk to? Who did you see? And did it strike you that this was a remarkable ability to pull together such disparate people?

THE PRESIDENT: I was most attentive to the ceremony, itself. And was amazed by the size of the crowd. We came walking out of the grand stairway and it was a very inspiring sight.

Q And the flags.

THE PRESIDENT: And the flags and the statues and just -- yes, the bishops and the archbishops and different leaders of the churches right across the way from me. Of course, the cardinals -- you know, a handful of whom I know, have gotten to know quite well and admire greatly, by the way. So that was pretty well my focus there.

When I first got there -- when Laura and I first got there, we shook hands with the folks around us. Obviously, Jacques and Madam Chirac were right next door; I spent some time visiting with them. But everybody there was - there wasn't much chitchat. There was intense focus on the ceremony.

Q But what it represented, to have that many people --

THE PRESIDENT: No, I understand. I believe that is part of the power of Pope John Paul II. And he was such a believer in freedom. I saw Lech Walesa, for example. I was struck by the number of Polish flags that were in the crowd.

You know, what was really interesting, there were some signs urging that His Holiness be made a saint.

Q Now!

THE PRESIDENT: "Now," yes -- "subito." You know, I really didn't reflect that much on the politics of the moment during the ceremony. I was more -- I thought a lot about Pope John Paul II. I mean, here's a person who has shown that a single individual can make a big difference in history and that, in my judgment, he received his great power and strength from the Almighty.

Q Just to follow up on that, Mr. President, a couple questions about the Pope. One, I noticed at one point you had your glasses on and you were following along -- I'm not sure if you were looking at the homily at that point or maybe, did you have one of those guides that --

THE PRESIDENT: I did. It's hard to follow -- my Spanish is not very good -- (laughter) -- nevertheless, it is decent enough to pick up sounds that then can help me follow the Italian.

Q Had you ever been to a Latin mass before; I imagine you've been to an English mass?

THE PRESIDENT: No, never been to a Latin mass.

Q The other question was, we never had a chance to -- you talked about a lot about what struck you from this ceremony. We never got a chance to talk to you about, by contrast, how you were struck by the wake, if you will, when you went through the other night. How do the two ceremonies -- you know, different kinds of emotions in the two?

THE PRESIDENT: I felt -- I mean, obviously, we were surrounded by a crowd at the wake, but I felt -- when I was kneeling there, I felt -- I'm trying to think of the right word

-- "alone" isn't the right word, because I was aware of people, but felt much more in touch with a spirit. I really did. I was very much -- felt at peace there, and was prayerful. And at the other ceremony, it was probably just because of all the sights and sounds and majesty and colors that, you know, I felt more like a spectator than a participant, but more of a spectator.

Q You knew him personally, I mean, to kneel there and see his body after you've met with him so many times and had -- I mean, that must have been quite powerful and --

THE PRESIDENT: My relationship with Pope John Paul II was a very good relationship. He was such a gentle man and at the end of his life he made his points to me with his eyes. The last visit, as you know, he was pretty physically -- he was struggling; and, yet, his eyes twinkled, just real clear. Much of the communications was done by paperwork, which --

Q Did he speak English?

THE PRESIDENT: Some, but it was hard to really understand him, because he was struggling. That's why it's really interesting for people to note that there was a lot of testimony -- and in my remarks I tried to witness that, as well -- that his struggle at the end of his life and the dignity with which he struggled was a clear example of Christ's influence in his life.

I was honored to see that firsthand. He's one of the great vigorous leaders -- mountain climber, educator, instructor -- who then had to struggle using the very tools that enabled him to be a vigorous teacher, outdoorsman, freedom fighter, and, yet, nevertheless, he still could communicate clearly through eyes which were, you know, crystal clear. And I remember the Castel Gandolfo, when Laura and I went to visit him. And he took us out on the balcony -- the Castel overlooks this fantastic lake, it's a spectacular lake -- and he was much more conversant then. I think it might have been my first trip?

Q It was 2001.

THE PRESIDENT: Yes. Right before or after Genoa, the G8 in Genoa. And he had a sparkle, he really wanted to show us this beautiful setting. I would define Pope John Paul II as a clear thinker who was like a rock. And tides of moral relativism kind of washed around him, but he stood strong as a rock. And that's why millions -- one of the reasons why millions came to admire and love him.

I was asked by some of the leadership of the Church, was I surprised at the turnout? I said, not at all -- because millions, from all religions -- millions of Catholics and millions of others admired his strength and his purpose and his moral clarity.

Q How did the Pope struggle with his health at the end of his life and his example throughout his life strengthen your own faith?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, you know, it is as clear example of Christ's influence in a person's life that he maintained such a kind of hopeful, optimistic, clear point of view amidst struggles -- in his case, physical struggles. And that's -- a lot of Christians gain great strength and confidence from seeing His Holiness in the last stages of life.

Q Do you think that will help you in the months and years ahead, in your own life?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think all of us get touched in different ways if you're on a faith journey -- we're all affected differently. But, yes, I think my relationship with -- and Pope John Paul II's example will serve -- will be a moment in my life that will strengthen my faith and my belief. Not just me, more significantly, millions of people whose life he touched. I think we might have witnessed -- I don't know -- perhaps the largest funeral in the history of mankind. I'm not sure if that's true or not, somebody said that might be true.

But there's a reason why the largest crowd ever to come and pay homage to a human happened, and it's because of the man's character, his views, his positions, his leadership capacity, his ability to relate to all people; his deep compassion, his love of peace. There's a reason why. Again, I repeat, I was honored to be one of many there, and I know you all were, as well.

Besides the pomp and the majesty and the colors, there was a spirit that was an integral part of the ceremony. For me, the spirit was also at the wake, but more personal at the wake, that was a personal moment.

Q If there was ever a moment where you ever had any doubts in your own faith, what out of the past public things would strengthen your resolve and firm up your relationship with your God?

THE PRESIDENT: I think a walk in faith constantly confronts doubt, as faith becomes more mature. And you constantly confront, you know, questions. My faith is strong. The Bible talks about, you've got to constantly stay in touch with the Word of God in order to help you on the walk. But the Lord works in mysterious ways, and during all our life's journeys we're enabled to see the Lord at work if our eyes are open and our hearts are open. And today -- you can analyze and you can look at the coffin being held, with the sun shining on it, anyway you want. I happen to feel it was a special moment that was part of a special ceremony for a special person. And it helped strengthen my faith. And you can have your faith strengthened on -- you can have your faith strengthened when you stand up at a faith-based initiative and see someone standing up and testify to what their love has done to help a child, or how a child's life has been helped.

My faith gets strengthened when I went to the school the other day and saw the mentoring relationship between a young professional woman and a young kid who's going to go to the seed school where there's a 95 percent chance that kid is going to go to college. And that helps strengthen my faith. So there's, you know, ways -- whether the moment be majestical or whether the moment be a part of just an average -- your average moment in life, you can find ways to strengthen your faith. And it's necessary to do so, in my judgment. There is a -- it's called a "walk," it's not called a "moment" or a "respite," it's a walk. It's a constant maturing of an understanding of a -- and today's ceremony, I bet you, for millions of people was a reaffirmation for many and a way to make sure doubts don't seep into your soul.

Q Given that, how difficult do you think that it will be finding a successor to fill his shoes?

THE PRESIDENT: Look, I'm interested in working with whoever the successor is. And I think that, as Cardinal McCarrick said at the ceremony on Saturday, the day His Holiness died, asked for prayers as he began his journey as one of the electors, as a cardinal. You know, I'm not going to pre-judge the selection process.

Q Are there any qualities that you're specifically looking for?

THE PRESIDENT: I'm not a part of the selection process. I will be a President representing a great nation in dealing with a great institution with which we have diplomatic relations.

END 9:16 A.M. EDT



Copyright 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved