Return to Transcripts main page

The Situation Room

Pope Begins Six-Day Journey in U.S.

Aired April 15, 2008 - 16:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks very much, guys.
And we're continuing our live coverage happening now, history in the making. Pope Benedict the XVI lands in the United States for his first visit as pope. President Bush does something he's never done as president. We're watching this.

As we follow this visit, what do many people hope to hear from the pope? He now says the church's sex abuse scandal leaves him, and I'm quoting now, "deeply ashamed." We're going to talk about that and all the other issues with Father David O'Connell, he's the president of Catholic University, one of the hosts for the pope's visit to Washington this week.

You're looking at these live pictures of Shepherd One. The pope's plane has just touched down at Andrews Air Force Base outside of Washington and we're going to be watching it every step of the way this hour.

In presidential politics, by the way, Hillary Clinton is slamming Barack Obama again, suggesting a vote for him will mean another President Bush and John McCain reveals a major plan for savings regarding issue No. 1, the economy and your money. All sorts of coverage coming up.

I'm Wolf Blitzer, you're in "THE SITUATION ROOM."

But right now, all eyes on Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, D.C., the nation's capital. Many of the one billion Catholics worldwide and about 70 million right here in the United States are watching Pope Benedict the XVI's arrival in the United States. This is history.

Also with us is Father David O'Connell. He's the president of Catholic University.

Moments ago, Benedict landed for this, his first visit as pope to the United States. President Bush is already out at Andrews Air Force Base getting ready to welcome the pontiff. It's the first time any American president has greeted any foreign leader at Andrews Air Force Base. Usually, other officials do so. The president deciding this is so important, he was going to drive from the White House with the First Lady, drive over to Andrews Air Force Base.

So, over the course of next six days, the pope will meet, will pray, and speak with many people, with the president, with lots of dignitaries, church leaders and everyday people on hand as well. Our Brian Todd is over at Andrews Air Force Base right now. He's been watching this scene unfold.

Brian, set the stage as we see this Alitalia plane, this huge plane dubbed Shepherd One, now getting ready to taxi to a stop, and the pope eventually will walk down those stairs -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is a real event here. The pope's plane landed just a few moments ago. It's been taxiing for about five minutes, coming to a stop right behind me.

It's going to sit there for a couple of minutes, then they're going to wheel out these three truck staircases to the plane. Three doors will open. The pope will not exit immediately.

What will happen is that there will be two representatives who will go up the plane to greet him. They will be the Papal Nuncio, the Vatican ambassador to the U.S., and the head of protocol to the U.S., a lady by the name of Nancy Brinker (ph).

I talked to her just a few moments ago and she told me that basically every fine point has been finally tuned here for this visit. You're prepared for something to go wrong, but everything is really planned down to the second. They're going to open the doors here in just a few minutes, and then those two representatives will go in.

At the same time, President and Mrs. Bush are going to be coming out. They're going to be rolling up a red carpet to the staircase.

Mr. and Mrs. Bush will wait for the pope to come out and wave. Then he will go down the stairs. They will be at the bottom of the stairs to meet him.

As you mentioned, Wolf, very historic here. No president has ever come to the Andrews Air Force base to greet any visiting dignitary.

President and Mrs. Bush had to be coached quite a lot on what to do and how to kind of greet the pope, and where to go then. So this is a very, very carefully planned event.

You will see the doors open here shortly, Wolf. And you guys are going to be talking over these pictures, as will I. It's a very special event here, and you really get a charge just from being here.

Hundreds of people cheered when the plane landed just a few moments ago.

BLITZER: And they'll be cheering a lot louder once they actually see the pope.

Our own John Allen, our analyst, has been flying with the pope aboard Shepherd One. He's on the phone with us right now.

John, set the scene over, what, these past seven or eight hours. This flight has gone across the Atlantic to the nation's capital, and I take it the pope has actually spoken, spoken before his takeoff. And did he speak on the plane as well?

JOHN ALLEN, CNN SR. VATICAN ANALYST: He did, Wolf. About an hour after takeoff, Benedict XVI came back to the press compartment on the plane, gave a few brief remarks, basically setting the stage for his own sort of approach to this visit, and then he took four questions from the press.

Certainly the top note there would be his very hard-hitting comments on the sex abuse crisis, talking about how he is ashamed for what has happened, determined that pedophiles will have no room in the priesthood, that justice be done to victims. Also spoke about immigration, about the role of religion in the United States, and about his looming April 18th address to the United Nations -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And did he do this in English and Italian, in German? What -- I know he spokes, what, about 10 languages. What language was this question-and-answer session conducted in?

ALLEN: Well, Wolf, the pope actually speaks in seven languages comfortably. The Vatican spokesperson came back this morning immediately after takeoff and told us that the Holy Father would be speaking exclusively in Italian.

But I actually had the first question, and I asked the pope if he would be willing to give us at least a couple of lines in English for the benefit of American television. He proceeded to give his entire response to the sex abuse question in English, impromptu fashion. So it was certainly impressive to watch.

BLITZER: And was this on camera? Will there be video that we will see of this?

ALLEN: Yes, Wolf, all of this was live and captured on camera. So, it will be coming downstream fairly quickly.

BLITZER: Well, we see the doors of this Alitalia airliner have now opened. And the stairs are getting ready for the pope to eventually walk down those stairs.

Also -- stand by for a moment, John and Brian.

Father David O'Connell, the president of the Catholic University, is here with us as well.

And you must be extremely, extremely excited about what we're seeing. But describe what we're seeing right now, Father.

REV. DAVID O'CONNELL, PRESIDENT, CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY: What we have here is the papal entourage departing the plane. These are the official companions of the pope. There are about 35 or 38 of them who are traveling and who will be with the pope on all the different sites that he will visit during his time here.

BLITZER: And as president of the Catholic University, I just want to alert our viewers in the United States and around the world, Catholic University here in Washington, D.C., has a very distinct, unique relationship with the Vatican.

O'CONNELL: That's correct. It's a pontifical university. It's the only university that's papally chartered and sponsored by the bishops of the United States. So it makes a great deal of sense as the national university, it will be the site that the Holy Father visits to speak to educators.

BLITZER: So, the entourage has now basically -- it looks like most of them have descended. They will stand by over there on that carpet. The president of the United States, the first lady, will come -- will come to that scene as well. And the pope will then walk down the stairs.

Is that your understanding?

O'CONNELL: Yes, it is. You know, these events are very carefully scripted events. I know even for Catholic University, we received the text of what has to have been done. The protocol office has been here several times. And so this is a very carefully choreographed event.

BLITZER: And Brian Todd is our man on the scene over at Andrews Air Force Base.

Walk us through the next, what, half hour, 40 minutes or so. What is about to unfold?

TODD: Well, Wolf, right now you'll see members of the media coming down that last door, the most aft door of the plane. They are still streaming out. There are more than 70 of them.

Some of the papal staff has already disembarked there. They came from that middle door.

Then the head of protocol of the U.S., Nancy Brinker (ph) and the Papal Nuncio, the Vatican ambassador to the U.S., will ascend that first door, the foremost door next to the cockpit, and go into the plane and greet the pope. At that point -- that will take just a couple of minutes.

They've already rolled the red carpet out, as you saw. But at the point that they're in there greeting the pope, the military honor cordon will file on either side of that carpet, about 20 members on each with flags, et cetera.

Then the pope will come out and wave. He'll descend the stairs.

At that point, Mr. and Mrs. Bush will be at the bottom of the stairs. Again, a historic moment for the president and first lady to be even here, but to be at the foot of the stairs greeting a dignitary is really extraordinary. At that point, they'll do a short meet and greet.

He will then -- the pope will then meet members of a receiving line that are just to the side of the red carpet. And then only the pope and the president and first lady are going to be allowed to walk on that red carpet.

They will then walk into a distinguished visitors' area here at Andrews Air Force Base and meet for about five minutes or so we're told. Maybe more than that. It's just kind of, again, a welcome to America type thing. Maybe some refreshments. That's really also, we're told, kind of a logistical thing, where they have to use that time to get all the cars ready to take the pope to the Vatican embassy here where he will be staying.

Interestingly enough, although the pope mobile has already been flown to the U.S., he will not be traveling from here to the Vatican embassy in the pope mobile. It will be, I guess, a regular limousine -- if you can call it regular, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, we're waiting. We should be seeing the pope very, very soon emerge from that aircraft and begin the process of walking down those stairs. We're not going to leave this picture. You're going to see it every step of the way.

Ed Henry is our White House correspondent. He's been watching it very carefully.

Ed, explain how significant it is that the president and the first lady have driven to Andrews Air Force Base to personally be on hand when the pope touches U.S. soil.

ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, as you know, this is something that a U.S. president never does. In fact, White House officials have not been able to find a record for this president or any previous U.S. president to actually go out, drive out to Andrews, and greet a visiting head of state of any kind, not just the pope.

It shows the commitment this president has. He developed some chemistry with this pope when they sat down together.

I was there in Rome last year, right around the G-8 summit. The president sat down with this pope.

They're in concert on some issues obviously, like abortion. Something the Roman Catholic Church is vehemently opposed to, as is this president, many conservatives in the United States. But there are many other issues, as you know, like the death penalty, like the war in Iraq, where the president is not on the same side as the Catholic Church. And so, there's a very delicate political balancing act, if you will.

But in terms of the stage craft, in addition to going out to Andrews Air Force Base, you have the fact that the president and the first lady will be honoring the pope at a dinner tomorrow night at the White House, even though he, himself, will not be there. The pope does not go to all the dinners that are thrown in his honor. It's also his 81st birthday, as you know, tomorrow night.

So he is not actually going to be at the white house for that. But in the morning, tomorrow, the pope will be on the south lawn for an official arrival ceremony. More pomp and circumstance.

And what's fascinating about that, Wolf, is that originally white house aides told us they expected about 6,000 visitors. Now it's soaring up between 9,000 and 12,000 people who will be greeting the pope tomorrow on the south lawn -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And it looks like the chief of protocol, Nancy Brinker (ph), and the Vatican's ambassador to the United States are now walking up those stairs, Father O'Connell, to receive the pope and to then escort him down those stairs.

You know the Vatican's ambassador to the United States.

O'CONNELL: Yes. That's Dr. Gasparia (ph) who is standing at the top of the stairs. He's the gentleman with whom we all worked to prepare and plan the papal visit.

That's the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Sandi (ph), who an extraordinary leader and a wonderful nuncio. And Nancy (ph), of course, the chief of protocol. And they'll go in and greet the pope and they'll come out with the pope when he is ready to leave the plane

BLITZER: And as we say, we've been hearing he turns 81 years old tomorrow.

And it looks like the flight attendants are there. They're obviously very excited as well.

He turns 81 tomorrow. Was this trip designed to coincide with that birthday?

O'CONNELL: No. It was a great coincidence though, and I know the president of the United States told me on St. Patrick's Day how happy he was.

BLITZER: There's Nancy Brinker (ph) and the ambassador. They're walking down those stairs right now, and presumably it will not be very long before we actually see Benedict XVI.

But go ahead and tell us about this coincidence that this is taking place on his birthday.

O'CONNELL: It's a great coincidence, and the president himself is very excited and happy about it. But we still don't know whether there's going to be a birthday cake at the White House. The dinner tomorrow night which I'm privileged to attend will be a wonderful assembly of Catholics who are in Washington specifically for this trip.

BLITZER: And the dinner -- there's the president and the first lady and one of his daughters that they're now walking over. There's a few hundred people that have been invited to come out and to watch this historic moment unfold. And I'm sure they are all excited.

How difficult was to it get an invitation to get out to Andrews Air Force Base? O'CONNELL: This was a very difficult one. The tickets for all of the events have been extremely hard to come by. But it's interesting to see Jenna here. I know that the pope was very interested in meeting the president's family, especially Jenna, since she's going to be married soon.

BLITZER: So he presumably will offer a blessing for that occasion as well, right?

O'CONNELL: Well, I understand the gift that he's going to give is going to be designed for Jenna.

BLITZER: For Jenna? That's very nice. Jenna's getting married in a few weeks, down at the Crawford -- at the Crawford ranch in Texas.

All right, there they go. They're walking down that red carpet right now, the three of them.

And there he is. Pope Benedict XVI arriving in the United States, walking down those stairs.

He looked like he was smiling as he was waving. This is an exciting moment. But let's see if we can hear any of what he and the president and first lady might say.

Well, obviously we can't hear anything that they are saying. But there's no doubt that this is an historic moment.

What's the protocol in shaking hands with the pope, Father?

O'CONNELL: Well, President Bush is not a Catholic. Ordinarily when you meet the Holy Father as a Catholic, you would either genuflect and kiss his ring or bow and kiss his ring. If you noticed, the president did bow and shake his hand.

BLITZER: And now they're beginning to go through the receiving line right now. And we hear obviously some people excited in the background.

Let's just listen in briefly for a second. I don't think we're going to hear any of the words, but we'll hear some of the reaction from the crowd.

Well, you can see, we're not hearing much, if anything, at all.

But tell us who these individuals are, Father.

O'CONNELL: That's Archbishop Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, and the chancellor of Catholic University. He's greeting the pope.

He initially was greeted by Mary Ann Glendon, who is the ambassador of the United States to the Vatican. And then after that greeted by Cardinal George, who is the president of the Conference of Bishops, and then Monsignor Malloy, who is the general secretary of that Conference of Bishops.

So this is really the officialdom of American Catholic...

BLITZER: And there you can hear the crowd beginning to sound off. They're obviously very, very excited.

What's next as we watch this, Father?

O'CONNELL: I think it will just be some waving. There are going to be no speeches given. So it will just be an opportunity for the pope really to greet folks and for folks to greet him.

And then what they'll do after this is they'll walk together into the hangar there, and they'll have an opportunity to exchange some conversation. But it will be brief.

And after this, the president will return to the White House. The pope will go to the nuncio -- the papal embassy, and that's where he'll have dinner and retire this evening.

BLITZER: John Allen, our analyst, has been on that plane. He's now off the plane. Help us better understand some of the context, some of what's going on, John.

ALLEN: Well, of course you can see at the moment that Benedict XVI is now being escorted by President and Mrs. Bush.

Basically speaking, this is a sort of informal meet and greet. The pope is not going to be giving a formal speech on this occasion. But it is clearly -- the level of symbolism enormously important.

The Catholic Church is unique among world religions in that it has its own diplomatic corps. The Vatican is also a sovereign state (INAUDIBLE) nations.

And so the pope is (INAUDIBLE) moving in a dual capacity. On the one hand, a pastor and a spiritual leader, but also a voice of conscience in global affairs. And the president's showing up here this afternoon indicates how seriously he takes...

BLITZER: All right.

ALLEN: We should say that while it is rare, it's not unprecedented. President Ronald Reagan greeted John Paul II at an airport in Fairbanks, Alaska, in 1984. President Clinton greeted John Paul at two airports, one in Denver in '93 and one in St. Louis in '99.

So, while we're saying this sort of thing doesn't happen very often, there is precedence for it, Wolf.

BLITZER: Well, I think this is the first time that this has ever happened at Andrews Air Force Base outside of Washington, D.C. I was in Denver when Pope John Paul II was there, and I remember President Clinton receiving him at that time.

They're walking into a VIP lounge right now, where they'll have a few moments to rest and to exchange some words and relax.

Brian Todd, you're there on the scene for us. Describe the crowd that has -- that has gathered there, invited guests all.

TODD: Well, Wolf, I wouldn't quite describe it as like a rock concert, but it's not too many rungs below that. It was a really enthusiastic crowd at various side on either side of us cheering him as he got off the plane and waved, as he came down the stairs.

He clearly looks like a very healthy man for 81 years old. Has no trouble getting around. And, you know, he's got a very, very ambitious schedule when he's here.

The crowd very, very enthusiastic. Two bands played, a high school band -- Bishop McNamara High School, a Catholic school here in Forestville, Maryland. They played along with the Air Force band just ahead of the touchdown.

The touchdown was flawless. It was really -- it just had the look and feel of just a monumental and historic event which, of course, it is, as you and everybody there have been talking about. But there is just a great, great buzz of excitement around here right now.

And, you know, it seemed to come off perfectly according to plan. Nothing really out of the ordinary that we saw that we didn't expect. So, I think the protocol people here will be quite happy with this.

BLITZER: I think everyone is going to be very happy. I know that literally every minute of the pope's visit to the United States has been very, very carefully planned and detailed between U.S. government officials, representatives of the Vatican, certainly the Secret Service, law enforcement. A lot of people have been involved in working out all of this.

As they are inside the VIP area right now at Andrews Air Force Base, I want to bring in our analyst, Bill Bennett, who has been watching all of this for some historic context as well.

As you watch this, Bill, what goes through your mind?

BILL BENNETT, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, you know, you were just talking about Denver, Wolf, and I was there, too. I remember the reaction of the young people.

I remember the reaction of commentators. I remember that a lot of people were shocked at how young the crowds were and how many young people went to see pope John Paul. But it does have something of that atmosphere.

This is -- this is to many people the most important figure in the world. The most important human being in the world, the vicar of Christ on Earth. And, you know, you don't get a lot of attention to it because you see people at rock concerts and other things.

But look at that crowd. Look how excited they are. This matters a great deal, especially to Catholics.

BLITZER: And this is a U.S. military base, Andrews Air Force Base.


BLITZER: So there are military personnel obviously out there as well. And we can see as the crowd is waving, and they're clearly, very, very excited by this moment.

Father O'Connell, for an American Catholic, give us your sense of this visit right now coming at this particular time.

O'CONNELL: Well, this is coming -- it couldn't come at a better time. The pope is coming to bring -- as he said in his speech to us, "I'm coming to bring you his word of life," and I think his idea here and taking the motto, "Christ our hope," the idea here is to try to provide some encouragement to a church that, unfortunately in recent years, has suffered greatly, has been wounded. And he even made some remarks on the plane today about -- some very strong remarks. Actually, it took me by surprise...

BLITZER: The fact that he said he was ashamed by the reports of sexual abuse by priests. And he spoke in English, as we heard from our John Allen. It was all on camera.

We're going to get that video and play it for our viewers as soon as we get it. But those were very strong words, and he's going to be addressing that issue head-on at some point over the next few days, is that right?

O'CONNELL: Yes. We heard from Cardinal Bertoni, the secretary of state, that the pope would be addressing this. We were told that it probably will be two points. When he meets with the bishops of the United States, and also when he meets with the clergy, the priests in...

BLITZER: When will that be?

O'CONNELL: He's meeting with the bishops on April 16th, Wednesday evening.

BLITZER: Here in Washington.

O'CONNELL: At the Basilica over by Catholic University. And then again when he goes to New York and has mass with the priests at St. Patrick's.

But you know what was interesting to me, Wolf? Was the fact that he did speak in English and he did speak at some length.

He could have said, well, I'm going to address this later. So this is something that weighs heavy on his heart as he comes among us in America.

BLITZER: What significance, other than the fact that he's coming to an English-speaking country, namely the United States, should we attach to the fact that he volunteered to speak in English? He could have spoken, as we say, in Italian or German or any of the other languages, several of which he speaks.

O'CONNELL: Well, you know, the United States probably got the most notoriety with this terrible problem, and that probably is the reason that it is seen or perceived as an American problem or a problem for the church in America.

BLITZER: How do you see this fact, Bill Bennett, the fact that the pope on this flight, about an hour into the flight, over the Atlantic, on Shepherd One, the Alitalia airliner, that the pope decided to say he was ashamed by the sexual abuse of young people by the -- by the -- by the priests?

BENNETT: Well, I think this is the candor of the Holy Father to bring it up before it's brought up by someone else. And I agree with Father O'Connell that speaking in English is a way of him saying, I'm going to speak directly to the American people about this.

They have suffered for this. I think many of us hope we can get closure on this issue.

A billion dollars has been paid out or more. It's been a horrible and painful experience for American Catholics, some Catholic schools have suffered.

And with this pope arriving, Wolf, and speaking directly to this, I think a lot of us feel that maybe we can put -- maybe we can put an end to it. And that would be a very, very, very good thing.

You know, when that bishops' group of laymen visited Rome, a number of them reported that then Cardinal Ratzinger, now the pope, was the one who got it, who understood it, who grasped the moral significance of it and what a terrible thing it was. So, this is a guy who, not comfortable with the facts, but understands the issues. He has spent his whole life addressing these kinds of moral issues, and I don't think there's anyone better qualified to address it and address it the way he's going to do it.

BLITZER: And as we heard from Father O'Connell, he'll be addressing it publicly, at least once, maybe twice over the course of the next few days.


BLITZER: Father O'Connell, a lot of our viewers really don't know that much about Benedict. But this is not the first time he's come to the United States by any means. And this is video of his arrival that we just saw a few moment ago. But go head ahead, tell us about his history with out country.

O'CONNELL: He's been here several times. I know he's been in Washington. He came in Washington in 1990 to give an address at the Dominican House of Studies across from Catholic University. He is familiar with the country. He has many associates who are American. He has associates who work with him in the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith.

One of his secretaries, Monsignor Brown (ph), is from New York. Father Augustine Denoya (ph) of Dominican came from the Dominican House of Studies here in Washington. So he's very familiar with the states. And because he is a voracious reader and because he does understand and reads so much, he has got a good sense of our culture and our American society.

BLITZER: So, he will feel at home here.

Bill Bennett, as you well know, this is not the first time that Benedict has met with President Bush. Last June, the president was at the Vatican for that meeting which included a wide range of issues on the agenda.

BENNETT: Yes, President Bush met with Pope Benedict before. He met with John Paul.

He seems to have a great comfort level with these popes, which is, of course, very reassuring to American Catholics. I know we don't want to get into politics here, but it was Catholic votes that helped George Bush a great deal in the last -- in his second term. I'm not suggesting his visits were politically motivated, but Catholics have -- have felt a certain bond with George Bush on a number of issues.

BLITZER: Well, let's bring in our White House correspondent, Ed Henry, because he's been looking at this and he's covered this president for a long time.

The president, no doubt, does feel very, very close to the Catholic Church, even though he's not a Catholic, as Bill Bennett points out, but he likes a lot of what the pope has to say.

HENRY: Absolutely. And the president did not win the Catholic vote in 2000 against Al Gore.


HENRY: He did win it, though, in 2004 over a Catholic, in John Kerry.


HENRY: In large part because of stressing a lot of the family values kinds of issues that Republicans like to stress, abortion in particular. He is in concert with the pope, obviously.

But on the Iraq war, the Vatican has opposed that war. What White House officials talk about now, though, is that in recent months the pope has been talking about his concern about the U.S. pulling out of Iraq too quickly, the potential for a humanitarian crisis, which could make the matter worse. And also, the fact that the pope has spoken out against extremism among Muslims. That has gotten the pope obviously into some hot water for some of his comments.

But what White House officials are trying to stress, as this visit begins, is that while the pope has not been in concert on the invasion of Iraq, the beginning of the war, et cetera, the pope, though, shares the president's philosophy about pushing back against terrorism, of course, pushing back against Islamic extremism -- Wolf.

BENNETT: You know -- excuse me.

BLITZER: Bill Bennett, you wanted to weigh in?

BENNETT: I was just going to say, yes, I don't mean to suggest that there's -- you know, there's a political template here. The pope gives comfort and discomfort to all sides here, you know? His realm is that of transcendent truth, and he speaks truth to power wherever -- wherever he go.

Yes, you can do a shading and say, you know, on some issue, you know, he may seem more liberal, on some more conservative. But he's not a superdelegate or a super superdelegate. He speaks the realm of eternal truth, moral truth...


BLITZER: There he is, Bill Bennett, as the pope and the president there emerging with Laura Bush behind him, walking out of the VIP lounge area at Andrews Air Force Base outside of Washington, D.C. They spent a few moments inside. You see behind the pope, Jenna Bush as well, the daughter.

As they're walking towards the limousines they'll be driving into the city, I just want to listen in very, very briefly to see if we can hear some of the reaction from the invited guests.

All right. Well, there they are.

They will be getting into separate limousines, Father O'Connell, and going to two very different locations, although not very far away. The pope will be heading where?

O'CONNELL: The pope is going to the Nunciature, the papal embassy on Massachusetts Avenue.

BLITZER: Here in Washington, D.C.?

O'CONNELL: Here in Washington.

BLITZER: The president will be driving back to the White House with the first lady and Jenna Bush, their daughter. I don't know if we're going to be able to hear anything that they're saying right now, but our microphones are I guess pretty far away from them. But there they are.

The pope is obviously pleased to be on ground right now after, what, about an eight-hour flight from Rome?

O'CONNELL: Sure. The Nunciature is actually directly across from the Naval Observatory where the vice president lives.

BLITZER: Right. And that's where the Vatican has its official diplomatic residence here in Washington.

Brian Todd is there on the scene at Andrews Air Force Base.

What are you seeing that maybe we're not seeing, Brian?

TODD: Well, Wolf, it's an immense security detail. I'm counting about 13 or 14 vehicles here that are going to be escorting the pope off the tarmac and towards Washington, D.C. You know, we're just a few miles outside the city.

Roads are going to be closed off all along the route. Traffic is going to be snarled, and starting right about now. Two limousines carrying the pope and some key members of his staff along with, as I mentioned, several security vehicles.

We are some distance away from his limousine. He just got in, and we're probably 30 feet away, but just a real buzz of security around here. And the president, we're told, is going to be leaving separately, in a separate vehicle that we may not be able to see from our vantage point.

So, some real traffic nightmares may be ahead in the next few minutes in the district.

BLITZER: I'm sure there will be traffic problems throughout Washington over the next few days, and then in New York City as well. When the pope travels it's obviously a major, major logistical problem for a lot of people out there. But everybody wants him to have an excellent visit here in the United States.

And there he is, inside that limousine.

Brian, why is he in a regular sort of limousine as opposed to the pole mobile?

TODD: Well, I think there might be some last-minute preparations for the pope mobile. It's going to get a lot of wear on this visit.

As we know all about this vehicle, it's heavily outfitted with protective equipment. It's got bulletproof glass. It's a Mercedes- Benz. It's got a lot of capability there.

And I think, you know, it was carried here separately from this plane and arrived ahead of the pope's visit. They are probably doing some fine-tuning.

If you wanted to say that maybe they wanted to not be obtrusive here, I don't think that would be the case. Because, again, you can see at least 12, 13, 14 vehicles here that are going to be part of this entourage heading back into the district. And... BLITZER: There they are.

TODD: ... they've got quite a ways to go to get to the papal embassy here.

BLITZER: Father O'Connell, who is sitting with the pope in the limousine?

O'CONNELL: Sitting on the pope's left is Archbishop Sambi (ph), the papal nuncio. And I think I saw Archbishop Wuerl also get into that car.

You know, we've gone back and forth preparing for this event, whether the pope would use the pope mobile or whether -- this is one of the president's limousines. And the Secret Service told me as we made our plans that the pope is receiving the highest possible security, the same as would be given to the president of the United States.

BLITZER: Yes, I'm sure that security will be rather intense.

Was there ever any serious consideration to just having him fly aboard, for example, Marine One from Andrews Air Force Base to -- to an area close to where he'll be staying on Massachusetts Avenue?

O'CONNELL: No. From the very beginning when we first started working with the committee, the idea here was to have some sort of motorcade or procession. Again, we want to try to give as much exposure of the pope to American people and the American people to the Holy Father.

BLITZER: And so there you see this motorcade and there he is.

And talk about the -- we obviously see the U.S. flag. The other flag, talk about that.

O'CONNELL: The other flag is the flag of the Vatican. The Vatican colors are gold and white. And crested on the white portion of the flag is the papal tiara, the symbol of the papacy.

Actually, the flag is supposed to be square, not rectangular. But in our country flags are rectangular in shape. So that's a little bit different than what you would see in the Vatican.

BLITZER: We see the motorcade carrying the pope outside -- leaving Andrews Air Force Base, leaving the tarmac there. And they'll be driving through Maryland, into the District of Columbia, eventually winding its way to Massachusetts Avenue, near the Naval Observatory, which is the residence also for the vice president of the United States, on Massachusetts Avenue, as we said.

Brian Todd, the president and the first lady, Jenna Bush, they're still there, right?

TODD: They are still here, Wolf. They are expected to leave momentarily. And, interestingly enough, the president, you know, normally, he flies out here, as you know, on Marine One from the South Lawn of the White House. But they are preparing the South Lawn now for the pope's visit tomorrow morning, when thousands of people are expected to be there.

And they basically could not use the South Lawn of the White House for the president to use Marine One to get out here. So, he had drive out here, I guess could you say, like the rest of us. And that's another reason why traffic is going to be a real problem from here on in this afternoon, because you have got the presidential motorcade, plus the papal motorcade that just left.

So, yes, the president will be leaving momentarily. Things are starting to wrap up here. And, you know, get ready for the -- for the traffic in the streets to be blocked off.


I want to bring in Donna Brazile. She's been watching this, our analyst, as well.

Donna, give us your thoughts on this historic day.

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Wolf, this is a very special moment for Washingtonians.

As I prepared to leave my home on Capitol Hill a few hours ago, people were lined up against the route, hoping to get a glimpse of the pope. We have some historic parishes on the hill. And, of course, some of the local schools let out early today to allow young people, who really love the pope, to also get a glimpse of this pope.

This is a very special visit. Members of Capitol Hill, they're also preparing to go to the public ceremony on Thursday. And, you know, we -- we conducted a -- somewhat of a lottery in our parish to see who could get tickets to go and sit at the new Washington National Stadium.

So, this is something that we're all excited about. People are just -- they know that the traffic will be a little bit tough. But everyone's taken metros -- the Metro. And we're just delighted to have the pope here to visit us and to welcome him to Washington, D.C., and, more importantly, to bless our new stadium, baseball park.


BLITZER: He will be there Thursday morning for a mass at the new Washington Nationals' baseball stadium. And on Sunday afternoon, he will be at Yankees Stadium for another huge mass.

Father O'Connell, what, about 40,000, 45,000 people will be at the Nationals' park, and then, what, 60,000 or so will be at Yankees Stadium?

O'CONNELL: It's going to be incredible. You know, if you were to use secular terms, it's a sellout. The pope almost changed his trip so he could throw out the first ball of the season, but couldn't work it out.


BLITZER: I don't think that necessarily would have happened, but he's got other things on his agenda as well.


BLITZER: All right, we're going to continue to watch. We're obviously not going to be going very far away over the next several days, as we continue to watch Pope Benedict XVI here in the United States. As we have been saying, this is history. And we will be showing a lot of it to you live right here on CNN.

Jack Cafferty's going to be joining us in just a bit.

Also coming up, the president's beliefs and the pope's positions -- on some topics, they're in full agreement, but they do not see eye to eye on other issues, especially one that many Americans are themselves deeply divided over.

And Catholic voters have successfully picked the winner of the presidential race in eight of the last nine races. So, all the candidates are courting Catholics for their votes.

And John McCain wants to help struggling Americans save their homes and all Americans save money on gas and taxes. But how? He's just put out his plan.

We have a lot of coverage coming up on a lot of issues -- right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: We're following Pope Benedict XVI's historic visit to the United States.

We're also looking back at some memorable meetings between a president and a pope. Pope Paul VI was the first the United States in October 1965. President Johnson met him in New York and gave him an interesting gift, an autographed photo of himself. The first pope ever to visit the White House was Pope John Paul II in October 1979.

President Reagan went on his first Vatican visit in 1982, but he had a bit of a problem keeping his eyes open while meeting Pope John Paul. In 2004, President Bush met with John Paul at the Vatican, giving him America's Medal of Freedom, but, afterwards, the pope expressed his grave concern about the war in Iraq.

The current pope also has concerns about some of President Bush's policies. And many of the roughly 70 million American Catholics surely will be listening to Benedict as they ponder how to vote for the next president.

Ed Henry's going to have more on that. That's coming up.

But let's go to the White House.

Our correspondent Elaine Quijano is over there. She is watching this story for us, history unfolding. As we all know, there's been some agreements between the president and the pope, and there's also been some disagreements between the White House and the Vatican.

Elaine, explain.

ELAINE QUIJANO, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, you're absolutely right, Wolf. There have been some strong disagreements between the president and the Vatican.

But the White House insists their common beliefs outweigh any differences.


QUIJANO (voice-over): President Bush may be Protestant, but, on some policy issues, the president has looked to Catholic doctrine to help stake out his views.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We must continue to work for a culture of life.

QUIJANO: On issues like abortion and euthanasia, there is no daylight between the president and the Vatican, agreement also on illegal immigration. Both President Bush and the Catholic Church have called for finding a compassionate solution to the problem.

BUSH: America does not have to choose between being a compassionate society and a society of law.


QUIJANO: In a recent interview, the president explained his appreciation of the Catholic Church and of Pope Benedict's unwavering beliefs.

BUSH: I so subscribe to his notion that there's right and wrong in life, that moral relativism has the danger of undermining the capacity to have more hopeful and free societies.

QUIJANO: But where they do part ways, the differences are striking. The Vatican remains firmly opposed to the death penalty, calling it an affront to human dignity.

Yet, as governor of Texas, the president presided over 152 executions.

DANA PERINO, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: And the president does believe that the death penalty, when carried out through a system of justice, can help protect innocent life.

QUIJANO: The most glaring difference, Iraq. Despite Vatican opposition to the invasion, the White House says there's now an understanding between the Vatican and the president about the need to protect Iraq's remaining Christians from further violence.

DAVID GIBSON, BELIEFNET.COM: They're seeing just, you know, a terrible, terrible human toll. They want to focus on that human toll, rather than focusing on military strategy, which is what they see the Bush administration's priority as being.


QUIJANO: Tomorrow, the president will meet one-on-one with the pope in the Oval Office. A senior Bush aide involved in planning the pope's visit says their meeting is slated to last 30 to 40 minutes, but added, when it comes to a meeting with the Holy Father, a schedule is only a suggestion -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Fair point. Elaine, thank you.

There's also the issue of Catholic voters in the United States, and the president -- the presidential candidates are certainly going after their votes.

Let's go to our other White House correspondent, Ed Henry. He's here watching this story for us.

Clearly, a very important bloc right now, always an important bloc, in fact, Ed.

HENRY: That's right, Wolf. Catholics make up about 20 percent of the electorate. So, in a close election, they clearly can tip the balance.

And the most fascinating part is that, right now, nobody has a clear idea of which way they're leaning.


HENRY (voice-over): Catholics are critical in November. There are 70 million of them in America. And they picked the winner in eight of the last nine presidential elections.


HENRY: Catholic voters up for grabs will be listening to the pope very closely for any divine guidance.

ALLEN: Benedict XVI is not a superdelegate riding into town to deliver a key endorsement. On the other hand, I think it would also be terribly naive to think there's no political subtext to the pope's presence in the United States.

HENRY: The Democrats, both in favor of abortion rights, are trying to highlight other subjects where they agree with the pope.

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He's been a strong voice on behalf of what we must do to deal with poverty and deal with injustice.

HENRY: Hillary Clinton has an edge among Catholics in the primaries. But Barack Obama is trying to shake that up in heavily Catholic Pennsylvania with the endorsement of anti-abortion Catholic Democrat Bob Casey Jr.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Ironically, the first school I went to in Indonesia was a Catholic school.

HENRY: Republican John McCain could run into trouble over the Vatican's opposition to the Iraq war. But the pope has recently expressed concern that a quick U.S. pullout from Iraq could cause a humanitarian crisis.

PETER WEHNER, FORMER WHITE HOUSE AIDE: I think that McCain's view of the nature and threat of Islamic terrorism is very consistent with what the -- the pope has -- has said.

HENRY: McCain is also in sync with the pope on abortions. But a recent Pew poll found 51 percent of American Catholics believe abortion should be legal. So, the Catholic vote is not monolithic, making it hard to decipher which way they will go.

LUIS LUGO, PEW FORUM ON RELIGION AND PUBLIC LIFE: The Catholic vote as a whole is -- is a fascinating study, because it is -- it is the quintessential swing vote in American elections.


HENRY: Now, strategists in both parties privately say that Catholics could swing to John McCain if he does a couple things, if he stresses social issues, like abortion, a lot more and if he also wears his religion on sleeve a bit more.

But, as you know, those are two things that John McCain has not been comfortable with so far. So, you have to pay close attention to that -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And we certainly will. We will be paying close attention to all of this.

Ed, thank you very much.

BLITZER: Pope Benedict XVI's schedule, as we all know, has been very, very carefully mapped out. Tomorrow, as you know also, is his 81st birthday.

He will spend the morning meeting with President Bush over at the White House. He will later attend a prayer service with American bishops. On Thursday, the pope holds a mass at the new Washington Nationals' baseball stadium. He will address the United Nations in New York on Friday. And, also, he will also visit on that same day the Park East Synagogue, meeting with Jewish leaders.

On Saturday, there will be a mass for priests and clergy at Saint Patrick's Cathedral in New York and a meeting with young Catholics at Saint Joseph's -- Saint Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers. On Sunday, the pope will visit ground zero in the morning. He will hold afternoon mass at Yankee Stadium. He then leaves for New York for the return trip to Rome.

Stay with CNN for complete coverage of the pope's visit every step of the way.

With hundreds of thousands of people requesting free tickets to see the pope this week, some ticket holders are actually trying to cash in on Web sites like eBay and craigslist.

Let's go to our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton. She's watching this story for us.

What are they trying to do? Are they trying to sell their free tickets, Abbi?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Yes, Wolf, in this case, this ad right here on craigslist, they want $100 for what should be a free ticket. And that's just to catch a glimpse of the pope from a viewing area tomorrow.

For one of the actual masses happening this week, the price that people are asking, a lot more, $500 in this example on eBay for two tickets to the mass at Nationals Stadium. The Archdiocese of Washington has said they have been sending out cease and desist letters to some of these online sellers.

Spokeswoman Susan Gibbs says that they gave out 46,000 of these tickets. They are the property of the archdiocese, and selling them is fraud. Well, there's also the laws of the church to think about, as Gibbs explained to me. The mass is considered a sacrament. Selling a sacrament is prohibited by the Catholic Church.

Just look around online, and you will see the intense interest in this visit -- all these people trying to get ahold of tickets. There is an official wait list here in Washington, but if you join it, there are 10,000 people ahead of you -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Chances are pretty good you're not going to get that -- that free ticket. All right, Abbi, thanks very much. We will watch this story. As I say, we're going to watch the pope's visit here in the United States every step of the way.

Coming up in our "Strategy Session," we're going to turn to politics.

John McCain hitting Barack Obama today on the issue of trade.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Senator Obama recently suggested that Americans are protectionists because they're bitter about being left behind in the global economy. Well, maybe that's his excuse for embracing the false premises and promises of protectionism. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: But is being a free trader a winning message in this year's election?

And former President Jimmy Carter sets off a furor by meeting with Hamas. Should world leaders be recognizing a group the U.S. government labels a terror organization? We will discuss that and more. Donna Brazile and Bill Bennett, they're here in THE SITUATION ROOM for our "Strategy Session."

Stay with us. We will be right back.


BLITZER: As the excitement of Pope Benedict XVI's arrival in the United States is continuing, we also want to turn to some more secular issues, for one, Senator John McCain's economic revival plan.

The presumed Republican presidential nominee unveiled it earlier today.

Let's discuss that and more in our "Strategy Session" with our Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and Bill Bennett, the Washington fellow with the Claremont Institute.

And thanks to both of you for helping us better appreciate what's going on with this historic visit to the United States.

Before we discuss John McCain's economic proposals and politics, anything else you want to add on what we just saw, the arrival of the pope at Andrews Air Force Base?

BRAZILE: You know, a week ago, the pope talked about hope, how the world needs hope in order to achieve peace and justice and freedom.

This has been a pope who has been working with debt relief in Africa, a pope who has taken a strong stance on global warming. In fact, the Vatican might become green pretty soon. So, I admire him for his leadership on many issues. Of course, as a practicing Catholic, there are areas of disagreement, but this is really a good moment for Catholics in this country.

BLITZER: We have another practicing Catholic in Bill Bennett.

It was really, I thought, a nice gesture that the president of the United States and the first lady and their daughter Jenna, they drove out there today to do what they have never done before, actually, welcome the pope on U.S. soil.


BENNETT: An enormous gesture of respect. I mean, heads of state come and go. The president waits for them, greets them at the White House. He goes out to Andrews -- at rush hour, too. You know... BLITZER: Well, but he doesn't have to worry about rush hour.




BLITZER: He's got those streets -- when he drives, he is zipping along.


BRAZILE: ... rest of us.

BENNETT: Real tough, I'm telling you.

BLITZER: You and I have to worry about rush hour. When you're president, that's one of the perks. You don't have to worry about rush hour.


BENNETT: No, but, again, he's here not to give comfort -- you know, we talk about politics -- to any political party or persuasion, but to speak the truth, as he knows it. And he will cause comfort and discomfort on all sides.

BLITZER: You have had a chance to digest John McCain's economic platform that he unveiled earlier today. What did you think?

BRAZILE: More of the same.

Look, the American people -- we saw it in the polls today -- 70 percent of the American people disapprove of the way the president is handling the economy. What John McCain said today, George Bush said four years ago, George Bush said eight years ago. I don't believe he has a formula for success.

The American people are concerned about rising fuel costs. He didn't really address that, didn't really address the rising food costs in this country, the record number of Americans that are now relying on food stamps. I don't think this speech will get him...


BLITZER: He did recommend a sort of holiday for the federal gas tax, 18 cents a gallon, at least during the peak driving season -- season from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

BRAZILE: But he didn't say anything about the strategic oil preserve. So, I think that John McCain still has a long way of finding his voice on the economy.

BLITZER: He doesn't want to add to the Strategic Oil Reserve right now, because he thinks that -- is that right? Did he recommend that?


BENNETT: Yes. Yes, that's right, not right now. But he does have other plans for oil.

I think 17 cents a gallon, the tax, getting rid of that through the summer, is a great idea. Twenty-five cents for truckers, I think that's terrific. And his proposal, I think, on extending the tax cuts is right.

Most important thing, he is able to move the ball, advance the ball, talk about a substantive issue in the campaign, while the two Democrats are both playing defense.


BLITZER: When he says that the president's tax cuts, especially for the wealthy, should be made permanent, do you believe he really believes that? Because he voted against those twice in 2001 and 2003.

BENNETT: Well, he says he voted against them because they weren't accompanied by reductions in spending as well.

BLITZER: Well, that's not -- if you read his...

BENNETT: I know. I know.

BLITZER: ... if you read his statement on the floor, he also said he didn't think it was a good time for the wealthy to get those kind of tax breaks. He did make that class warfare argument, among his other arguments as well.

BENNETT: What does he really believe? You know, they say the devil himself doesn't know the mind of the man. Maybe the pope does. But whatever. I appreciate the conversion, if it's a conversion.

Look, what he said -- and I understand Donna doesn't like it, but what he said is -- laid out a plan. And now, if the Democrats want to come back and say, we will get the economy going by raising taxes on people, they are welcome to do so. On a big part of the speech, the spending, he's, I think, extremely credible, because no one has been more of a hawk on spending than John McCain.

BLITZER: And he strongly opposes, you know, the earmarks, the so-called pork-barrel spending...

BENNETT: Absolutely.

BLITZER: ... as we all know. He's made that one of his central issues.

What do you think?

BRAZILE: Well, we also know That the tax cuts have added to the deficit, and John McCain is calling for extending tax cuts to the wealthy. Fifty-eight percent of the people who will benefit from the tax cuts are the top 1 percent of the American people. That's not helping the middle class. The middle class is looking for relief.

BENNETT: Well, we will have this debate, I think, all summer. And I welcome the debate.

BLITZER: The tax-and-spend debate will be there. It's in every campaign between Democrats and Republicans. I'm sure it will be around in this one as well.

BENNETT: You bet.

BLITZER: I want to play a little clip of the former President Jimmy Carter.


BLITZER: He's making the case, defending his decision to go ahead and meet with the leaders of Hamas, even though the State Department and the U.S. government considers that to be a terrorist organization.


JIMMY CARTER, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm not a negotiator. I'm just trying to understand different opinions and communicate, provide communications between people that won't communicate with each other.


BLITZER: He's out in the Middle East right now. What do you think?

BENNETT: Horrible, odious, reprehensible. I noticed Barack Obama at first was in favor of it. And now he has separated himself, if I understand it...


BLITZER: I don't know if he ever said he was in favor of meeting with the...


BENNETT: I didn't -- I note, when he was asked, he did not criticize Carter, and he said, well, I will have to take a look at it. He did not immediately criticize it.


BRAZILE: He was strong...


BENNETT: All right, then. I stand corrected. (CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: He and -- and Susan Rice, who is one of his top foreign policy advisers, said that they wouldn't -- that they -- they differ between meeting with leaders of other countries, like Iran, for example, and Venezuela or North Korea, and Barack Obama would do that, but wouldn't meet with leaders of terrorist organizations.


BENNETT: All right. Well, that's absolutely right.

BLITZER: But you're right. He didn't necessarily condemn Jimmy Carter for going ahead and do that.


BLITZER: But what do you think?

BENNETT: He should condemn it. It's categorical. There's no way you can do...

BRAZILE: Well...

BENNETT: There are political repercussions to this that are huge as well.

BRAZILE: Well, Barack has his hands full right now.

BENNETT: He sure does.

BRAZILE: And condemning -- and, of course, I think what President Carter is doing is not the right thing at this time, given what Hamas is doing and killing innocent civilians, those -- lobbing those rockets across Israel's border. There's no reason to bring comfort to the leaders of that organizations. It's a terrorist organization. It has not renounced violence. And I don't see any reason to meet with them.

BLITZER: On that note, we will leave it there.

Donna and Bill, thanks to both of you for double duty today...

BENNETT: You bet.

BLITZER: ... as we all saw.


BLITZER: Appreciate it very much.

BENNETT: Thank you.

BLITZER: The Pennsylvania primary is inching closer and closer, one week from today. As it does, the Clinton campaign may have something to smile about. We will tell you what that is. And we will also look past the primaries and on to November. A strong new voting bloc is emerging that could possibly decide the presidential election.

We will tell you what it is -- right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: In today's Political Ticker: Hillary Clinton appears to have gained some ground on Barack Obama in Pennsylvania.

In our latest average of polls, our so-called poll of polls, Clinton now leads Obama by six points. That's two points higher than it was late last week. But Clinton's lead still was half of what it was only two weeks earlier. Pennsylvania's critical primary is scheduled one week from today.

Remember, for the latest political news any time, check out That's also where you can read my latest blog post. Wrote one on the pope's visit to the United States just before we went on the air.

And, to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now: Pope Benedict XVI arrives in the United States. This is an historic visit. It's wrapped in heavy security. There will be prayer, diplomacy, and, quite likely, even some politics.

A day before a critical debate in Pennsylvania, the Clinton campaign is keeping up the pressure on all fronts, trying to keep Barack Obama on the defensive.

And a high-tech tool for fighting terror: a camera that can now look right through you. You're going to see what the camera sees.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Pope Benedict XVI makes history with his first trip to the United States.