American leaders on Saturday said Pope John Paul II (search) inspired them in public life, and recalled his talent for touching those of all backgrounds and faiths.
"The Catholic Church has lost its shepherd. The world has lost a champion of human freedom, and a good and faithful servant of God has been called home," President Bush (search) said in a televised statement after the pope's death was announced.
The president, a devout born-again Christian, appeared with first lady Laura Bush at his side. They later attended a special Mass at St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington, D.C.
President Bush ordered flags at all federal and military buildings lowered to half-staff until the pope's burial. He was expected to attend the funeral in Rome.
The former first lady said the pontiff's "unmatched intellect, his infinite heart, and his boundless faith carried forth his message of love and hope through even the bleakest of circumstances and the darkest of days."
President Clinton said: "In speaking powerfully and eloquently for mercy and reconciliation to people divided by old hatreds and persecuted by abuse of power, the Holy Father was a beacon of light not just for Catholics, but for all people."
Clinton met with John Paul on five occasions, memorably during the most trying time of his presidency, the Monica Lewinsky scandal. A White House spokesman said the two did not discuss the affair, though the pope did criticize Clinton's order to raid Iraqi weapons facilities.
But upon welcoming the pontiff to St. Louis on that January 1999 visit, Clinton told the pope he hoped he found "an America working harder to be what you have asked us to be."
The pontiff often criticized Washington for the death penalty, abortion and exercise of military force. Recent presidents have sought out the pope's approval, not just to avoid alienating 23 percent of their constituents, but out of seemingly genuine admiration for a man so widely revered and untouched by corruption.
President Bush has been especially vocal about his admiration for the Holy Father. The two were at odds over the U.S.-led war in Iraq, but the pope unforgettably offered much-needed comfort to grieving Americans after the Sept. 11 attacks.
"To all the children of this great nation, I direct my heartbroken and shared thoughts," John Paul said at a service near Rome that honored Americans in 2001.
Later, he urged compassion as it became clear Muslim extremists were responsible for the attacks.
"We must not let what has happened lead to a deepening of divisions," he said on a Sept. 23, 2001, visit to Kazakhstan. "Religion must never be used as a reason for conflict."
The first American president to greet the pope was a fellow noted humanitarian, former President Jimmy Carter. "His was a constant voice for justice, nonviolence, and reconciliation for both individuals and nations," Carter said on Saturday. "His advocacy for the poor and oppressed will prevail as a source of hope and inspiration for others to follow."
Most political observers agree the American leader the pope was most fond of was the late Ronald Reagan, who was president when Washington established diplomatic relations with The Holy See.
The two were credited with helping topple communism in Eastern Europe, and in recent years historians have speculated theirs was a much closer political collaboration than previously thought.
But Reagan and the pope also shared many personal connections, not the least of which was having both been shot in 1981 by would-be assassins.
"They both loved the outdoors, loved sports. They both adored young people. They both had great senses of humor," first lady Nancy Reagan said in a televised interview on Saturday.
Other notable Americans paid tribute to the pope after his death:
"The pope's strength, determination and leadership will be sorely missed in this troubled world. On a very personal basis, I feel so fortunate to have known this man. He enriched my life and the lives of so many of the faithful." — Former President George H.W. Bush
"The pontiff was a world statesman whose leadership played a key role in the fall of communism and the democratic transformation that swept Europe in its wake. ... The wisdom and universality of his teaching will continue to guide all of us who, like Pope John Paul II, believe in freedom and faith." — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
"In many ways John Paul II was a study in opposites. Having lived through dehumanizing communism at home, he bravely stood up for the rights of individuals. As the most powerful man in the world's largest church, he bent humbly each year to wash the feet of 12 priests. Reflecting daily on the divine, he had an astonishing humanity that led him to forgive even his would-be assassin. And as the first Polish pope in history, he was both a patriot who loved his homeland and a citizen of the world." — Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
"I join my fellow Catholics and people everywhere in grieving the passing of the Holy Father. He was a devout and beloved spiritual leader for the Church who inspired people of all faiths and brought us closer to the great goal of peace on earth. Even in his last days when he could not speak, he still was a strong moral voice heeded across the globe." — Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.
"I had the high honor of meeting Pope John Paul II in January 2001 when I led a Congressional Delegation to the Vatican to present him with the Congressional Gold Medal. ... We were told the Pope would only be available for fifteen minutes. We limited our remarks and listened to his from a prepared text. Then he went off text and talked for quite a while in a very heartfelt way. As he was leaving — after nearly an hour — he turned back around and said, 'God bless America.' I was truly moved." — House Speaker Dennis Hastert
"I am not of the Catholic faith, but I have watched Pope John Paul II these past 26 years travel the globe. He not only spread the Good News of the Lord, but the Pope also served as a voice for freedom and a champion of the poor." — Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va.
"We will never forget the example he set by forgiving the man who tried to take his life, and by praying at the Western Wall to ask Jews for their forgiveness. He traveled to places forgotten by all but God to pray for the sick and the poor, and millions turned out to hear his voice, even when strained. In death, as in life, his incredible spirit provides every Catholic with strength and his memory provides us with wisdom." — Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.
"Karol Wojtyla lived and died a warrior-saint, and we remember with joy and gratitude his service to mankind. At the news of his death, we mourn, we pray, and we bow our heads in thanks that such men ever live. He was more than a good and holy man: he was a lion. May God receive His humble servant." — Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas