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― There were gaffes and there were laughs, but U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Rome clearly served its purpose, if the hope was to bask in the glow of the popular Pope Francis.
The day began with a stiff handshake between Obama and the pope, but the mood quickly lightened when the president quipped, “His Holiness is probably the only person who has to undergo more protocol than me,” after observing the whimsically dressed Swiss Guards and row of tuxedoed papal attendants when he was on his way to the pontifical library.
They shared a giggle when the lid to a box of coins the U.S. delegation gifted the pope came loose and the coins spilled and bounced loudly on the ornate marble floor, sending several clerics scrambling. When it happened a second time, no one could keep a straight face.
The president then presented Pope Francis with a box of seeds from the White House garden, showing off his agriculture acumen by pointing out which were carrots. He then invited the head of the Roman Catholic Church to stop by. “If you have a chance to come to the White House, we can show you our garden as well,” he said to Pope Francis, to which the pontiff replied, “Why not?”
The pope presented the president with a bound copy of his Evangelii Gaudium, which outlines the goals of his pontificate, many of which are in stark contrast to American policies. The president said he would read it in the White House library when he was frustrated to “calm me down.”
The two met for 50 minutes behind closed doors, after which two versions of events emerged. The president’s press staff highlighted areas where the two mens' minds met, reporting that they talked about their shared commitment to the issues of poverty and social justice. The Vatican, however, took the moral high ground, and reported that the discussion focused on areas of divergence, and issues concerning the Catholic Church in “that country, such as the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life and conscientious objection, as well as the issue of immigration reform.”
The men spoke in English and Spanish, with the president’s female translator wearing a black lace mantilla, adhering to Vatican protocol that mandates all women must wear a hat or veil to meet the pontiff; non-Catholics are required to wear black. The pope reportedly expressed a desire to abolish the traditional practice, but apparently not in time for the American delegation visit.
Neither man made a statement after the meeting. But Obama had given an extensive interview to one of Italy’s leading newspapers, Corriere della Sera, that ran on Thursday, in which he called Francis “an inspiration to people around the world, including me.” He complimented the pope for his “commitment to social justice and his message of love and compassion, especially for the poor and the vulnerable among us.” Obama told the Italian newspaper, “He doesn’t just proclaim the Gospel, he lives it.”
After leaving the Vatican, Obama’s 26-plus car motorcade wound through Rome to the Quirinale Palace for a working lunch and more photos with the president of Italy, Giorgio Napolitano, whom Obama has met four times before. He called Napolitano, Italy's 11th president and the longest-serving in its history, “a rock of stability” and “a friend.”
Obama’s motorcade blocked traffic, but the route was lined with flag-waving Italians who cheered him as he passed, waving from the inside of his massively reinforced SUV. Near the American Embassy, a baker from Salento passed out 5,000 free chocolate “Obama biscuits” from a van with the president’s face painted on the side. “I love Obama. These cookies are in his honor.” The baker, Angelo Bisconti, had put aside a tray for the president, but it wasn’t clear if he was able to deliver it.
Obama and his massive entourage then crossed town again to visit Italy’s new prime minister, Matteo Renzi ― the fifth prime minister Obama has met, due to Italy’s ephemeral governments ― for a quick, bilateral, and surprisingly long press conference. The two had met in the Netherlands earlier in the week, so they spent their time fielding questions from the Italian and American presses. Obama focused on issues of national and global defense. Renzi focused on Italy’s perceived economic weakness, telling the president Italy may not be an economic superpower, but “we are a cultural superpower.”
At one point during the joint press conference, Obama incorrectly referred to Italy’s currency as the lira, out of circulation since 2002 and replaced by the euro. “When it comes to defense spending, all of us have to make sure that our defense forces are efficient, effective -– that for every dollar or lira that we’re spending, that we’re getting the most defense for our money,” the president said when asked about defense spending cuts.
The president then took off his tie and crossed town once more for a private tour of the Roman Coliseum, escorted by an archeologist who walked him around the ancient amphitheater. The monument, one of the city's most popular, was closed to the public most of the afternoon, much to the ire of tourists. The president didn’t seem to notice.
He will fly to Saudi Arabia on Friday morning.