Poor Timing?

This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," April 7, 2005, that has been edited for clarity.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: Former President Bill Clinton was back on Air Force One and he wasted no time getting down to business. Talking to reporters, he compared himself to the pope saying, "Like all of us, he, the pope, may have a mixed legacy."

Clinton also questioned the pontiff's centralized authority and ultraconservative views. I'm joined now by Rick Lazio, a former Republican congressman from New York, who by the way, lost to Mrs. Clinton. Today's big question: Is this the right time for Bill Clinton to be criticizing the pope?

RICK LAZIO, FORMER REPUBLICAN CONGRESSMAN, NEW YORK: My mom wouldn't like him talking about that, I tell you that much, and on the eve of the pope's funeral — it truly flies in the face, John, of the millions of pilgrims and other people that are flocking to Rome to pay respects.

These are not necessarily well-heeled people, although you're going to have over 70 heads of state that will be in Rome, including people that we don't ordinarily think of as sympathetic to the church: the head of state of Iran, of Syria. We have Turkey and Armenia, who don't even recognize one another, who are being brought together to pay homage to somebody that they looked upon as a spiritual leader, a person who's a healer and a peacemaker.

And, I think, for a lot of politicians that are used to putting their finger up in the air and worrying about how the next poll is going to come out, it is a bit of an anomaly to look at somebody who, for 26 years, stood steadfast in support of what he believed was his rock foundation of the state.

GIBSON: OK. Now, we know Bill is smart. He doesn't just kind of pop off. Does this sound like maybe just a little bit of elbow for the pope's snubbing him?

LAZIO: Who can get into Bill Clinton's mind?

I think the reality here is that whatever he was trying to express was probably regrettable, and it's absolutely inconsistent with what I think that most of the outpouring, even on the left if you listen to people — I talked to people who are my more liberal friends — even they would say [about the pope], "Great intellectual, great peacemaker, apologized to Jews and Muslims and women. Was a healer, went to Canterbury, went to Greece. First Catholic pope who went to Greece in 1,200 years to try and heal."

That's the kind of symbolism and leadership that I think people are looking for.

GIBSON: OK. But just to take Mr. Clinton's side of it for a moment — maybe he's expressing what a lot of Americans feel, even a lot of American Catholics? American Catholic Church hasn't always been completely embracing all of the pope's teachings. This is a church that deviates in some ways.

For instance, could Catholics support the death penalty? Some good Catholics, or they call themselves good Catholics, support abortion or birth control, which the pope didn't. So, maybe Bill Clinton was talking about, at least how he might be viewed in America, by American Catholics who don't agree with everything that he held dear and held fast to?

LAZIO: There are five billion people throughout the world; there are many hundreds of millions of Catholics throughout the world...

GIBSON: One-point-one billion, I think.

LAZIO: ... and in the U.S. So, of course, you're going to have some people that will have a different view.

The point is, is the day before the funeral the right time to express it? Number one. And number two, does it really reflect the overwhelming view of Catholics and non-Catholics? And I think that the record is already established that the perception of this pope is that he was an important spiritual leader in a way that transcended just Catholicism.

GIBSON: OK. So, Rick, what happened? You get it. You've been in this business for a long time. You know Bill Clinton: He's not in the habit of inserting both feet in the mouth. So, what happened here?

LAZIO: I think it's impossible to try and guess what the former president was thinking about as he was flying over as part of the U.S. delegation to pay respects.

GIBSON: You think it was an accident, not calculated?

LAZIO: I'm not sure. I can't imagine that he really gave any serious thought to how people would perceive those comments.

And I think again, I think that it flies fundamentally in the face of what we have been seeing on television, and reading in the newspapers, or seeing on the internet over the last few years, few days, rather, which is that people have this sense of loss, and of gratitude for what the pope has meant, in terms of bringing peace and healing to the world.

GIBSON: So, for a former president who's famous for taking his mulligans, this is one that you'd advise him to do over?

LAZIO: Yes. Oh, yes.

GIBSON: Rick Lazio, former congressman from New York. Rick, thanks very much.

LAZIO: Thank you, John.

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