ROME – Pope Benedict XVI gave U.S. President George W. Bush a rare peek on Friday of the Vatican Gardens, a spot where popes pray privately and only special guests are allowed to stroll.
Normally, VIPS are received in the pope's library in the Apostolic Palace. That's where Bush had his first meeting with Benedict in June 2007.
But in an apparent gesture of appreciation for the warm welcome Bush gave him in Washington in April, Benedict welcomed the president and first lady Laura Bush near St. John's Tower in the lush Vatican Gardens. After their meeting, scheduled to last a half hour, Bush and the pope were to walk through the gardens to see the Lourdes Grotto, which was donated to Pope Leo XIII at the turn of the century by French Catholics.
As the presidential motorcade drove through downtown Rome, people leaned out of their balconies and popped out of their businesses to watch.
Bush's limousine pulled into St. Peter's Square and continued on to St. John's Tower, where he and Mrs. Bush were greeted by the pope. The two leaders were to take an elevator to the second floor for their private meeting. At the end, they were to pose for official photographs and exchange gifts.
The president was to give the pontiff a photograph of the two of them in a sterling silver frame. Benedict was giving Bush a framed photograph and four volumes on St. Peter's Basilica. Members of the presidential entourage received rosaries and medals of the pontificate.
Bush and Benedict share much common ground, particularly in opposing abortion, gay marriage and embryonic stem cell research. But they disagree on other issues, including the war in Iraq, the death penalty and the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.
Benedict's journey to the United States will be best remembered for his repeated comments about the shame of the church's clergy sexual abuse crisis. He held a dramatic private meeting with five abuse victims from the scandal-scarred Boston Archdiocese. In Washington and New York, Benedict sounded themes about truth trumping moral relativism, rich nations' responsibility to care for poor ones, and Catholics' call to live out their faith.
Bush, after his visit to the Vatican, was flying to France where he was giving a speech in Paris to highlight a rebound in trans-Atlantic relations, which were fractured over the war in Iraq. He is also commemorating the 60th anniversary of the start of the Marshall Plan, the massive U.S. aid program to rebuild Europe after World War II.
Bush's vision of a new era of trans-Atlantic relations will last at least seven more months.
The next U.S. president will determine the tenor of future U.S.-European relations, but until then Bush will continue to capitalize on the election of Europe's newest powerbrokers, some of whom are less critical of the war in Iraq than their predecessors.
Bush said he is seeing the outlines of a "new era of trans-Atlantic unity" in the faces of Europe's current leaders like Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
"I see a commitment to a powerful and purposeful Europe that advances the values of liberty within its borders and beyond," Bush was to say in the speech Friday in Paris. "And when the time comes to welcome a new American president next January, I will be pleased to report to him that the relationship between the United States and Europe is the broadest and most vibrant it has ever been."
A few years ago that wasn't the case. Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and former French President Jacques Chirac clashed with Bush over the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Two of Bush's allies, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and ex-Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, paid a political price for backing Bush on the war, which fractured trans-Atlantic ties.
Bush has spent his second term successfully mending them. But while the Bush administration has linked arms with nations across the globe to try to solve a host of international challenges and threats, including North Korea and Iran's nuclear programs, the president's initial go-it-alone reputation set the tone of his presidency.
It's been difficult to live down, and Europeans are keenly interested in who will be the next occupant of the Oval Office.
People in Western Europe continue to harbor strongly negative or at best mixed views of the U.S., impressions that remain generally worse than they were before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, according to a global Pew Research Center poll released Thursday.
Only a third of the people in Germany and Spain, four in 10 in France and half in Britain have favorable opinions of the U.S. In addition, most in all four countries think the American economy hurts them, with each having among the most negative views of all two dozen nations polled. In the four countries, those expressing confidence in Bush ranged from 16 percent in Britain to 8 percent in Spain.
Having a common enemy helps unite allies. That happened against the Nazis in World War II, and in the rebuilding effort that followed, as Bush's speech recalls.
"We must go forward with unity," Bush said, according to excerpts of the speech released by the White House. "Dividing democracies is one of our enemies' goals and they must not be allowed to succeed."