White House Pool Reports: Postcard from Rome

stylinOur absence from normal Wonkette duties on Friday prohibited us from posting these (unusually lengthy) WH pool reports as they arrived. We present them here as a single post (though with three different authors), a kind of epistolary portrait of the president's visit to Rome and his meeting with the Pope. Highlights:

"Also tending us was an efficient nun who warned us to turn off our cell phones before entering the library. If they ring in the pope's presence, she said, 'The pope thinks that the Lord is calling him.'"

"Best line of the night goes to SecState Colin Powell, who, walking in with NSA Condoleezza Rice, wearing a stylin' shawl-like thing (male here, sorry) over her dark dress, said: 'Isn't she cute.' Photogs captured Rice in hearty laughter."

"Your pooler will not tell you about the fart machine one NBC stick man has deployed throughout this holy city. . . or about the sickmaking pool-only motorcade to the villa (one photog noted that on international trips, the traffic-jamming jaunts that, in this case, caused motorists to thumb their teeth at us, the White House is 'making friends around the world.' Back in the states, it's just called 'making Democrats')."

Full reports after the jump.

[REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi]

Pool report #2

June 4, 2004

Visit with Pope, wreath-laying at Fosse Ardeatine.

Motorcade departed the ambassador's residence at 10:55 a.m. Pool spotted Karl Rove, the president's senior adviser, and Jim Nicholson, U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, as we boarded the vans. En route Quirinale Palace, the streets at first seemed oddly empty of pedestrians. There were plenty of police, though, and we spotted one group of them standing shoulder to shoulder blocking a street. We saw no protesters en route. A helicopter hovered overheard as we pulled into the courtyard of Quirinale. This pool went into hold there; we saw nothing.

The motorcade left Quirinale at 11:52 a.m., a few minutes behind the scheduled 11:35 a.m. departure. Staff said later that President Bush just stayed longer than planned and offered no further explanation for our tardy arrival at the Vatican. During the drive to the Vatican, we saw more people, although most of them were deadpan. Rainbow-hued "Pace" banners were visible on several balconies. Security did not seem overly intense; pedestrians were unhindered on sidewalks and a couple of vehicles intruded on the motorcade. Inside the gates of Vatican City, a big crowd was sequestered behind metal barricades to our right. Hundreds of folding chairs were set up in the middle of the square. The motorcade passed two saluting Swiss Guards, in their multi-colored uniforms and plumed hats, carrying tall staffs. It then wound around behind St. Peter's, through increasingly narrow corridors, into a courtyard, pulling to a stop at 12:11 p.m. The Courtyard of San Damaso, where heads of state are traditionally greeted by the prefect of the papal household, was built between 1503 and 1534.

More Swiss Guards were in the courtyard. We saw White House chief of staff Andy Card and Secretary of State Colin Powell before we rushed up several flights of stairs to position for the president's arrival inside. We went first to the Sala Clementina, which was built in 1596 by Giovanni Fontana and Giocomo della Porta. It's a spectacular room with a mosaic floor of different colors of marble and every other surface covered by paintings (by Giovanni, Cherubino Alberti and Baldassare dal Bologna). A patterned carpet covered part of the floor (I have a color photo of the room if anyone wants a look). Seven Swiss Guards were moving in formation from the front of the room to the back as we walked in. President Bush and other members of his party, accompanied by Vatican dignitaries, walked through Sala Clementina and quickly out of sight.

Then some members of the official parties came back in. In the front were two high-backed chairs, one slightly larger than the other, with a small table between them. Behind those chairs was a large fireplace topped with garlands of fresh flowers. In the middle of the room were two rows of chairs with a middle aisle (sort of like church) and on either side, toward the front, a single row of chairs facing the middle of the room. In those chairs on the left side of the room, Nicholson, Rove, Powell, press secretary Scott McClellan, communications director Dan Bartlett, Brett Kavanaugh would take their seats for the formal remarks and gift exchange. Vatican officials lined up behind them. In the right row were other Vatican officials. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice was absent; McClellan told us later that she had stayed behind at the U.S. Embassy to do some work. He would not be more specific, but said he may provide more details later.

Pool was then led from the Sala Clementina through a narrow corridor to the pope's private library. While we waited, we chatted with Dr. Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the pope's spokesman. He said only the president and the pope were in the room. He told us the pope intended to express his concerns about the Middle East and Iraq but predicted that the meeting would be "extremely cordial." We asked if the pope has met Sen. John Kerry; he said he thought not. Also tending us was an efficient nun who warned us to turn off our cell phones before entering the library. If they ring in the pope's presence, she said, "The pope thinks that the Lord is calling him."

At 12:33 p.m. a bell rang twice to indicate that the private meeting had ended. It lasted for about 15 minutes, officials said later. The pool was permitted in the room very briefly. The pope raised his arm to acknowledge the throng. The president, wearing a blue suit, white shirt and blue tie, and Laura Bush, wearing a black suit and shoulder-length black lace veil, were seated together with the pope. We overheard no conversation. The very ornate room had white brocade walls, a large multicolored carpet and shelves of books. Behind the three chairs was a large book - presumably a Bible - on a table. Behind that was a huge painting of the Virgin Mary on a throne painted by Antoniazzo Romano. We then were led back to the Sala Clementina. As noted above, U.S. and Vatican officials were in the room. At 12:35 p.m., everyone stood and Laura Bush, followed by her husband, walked in. Escorting them was Angelo Cardinal Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state. The Bushes sat down and Sodano hovered for a few moments at his left. On display at the right on an easel was the bronze engraved plaque of St. John the Baptist that the pope would present to the president as a gift. Pool could not get close enough to it to provide a detailed description of the image. Navarro-Valls told us earlier that the image was chosen because of its "relevance" to the Middle East.

The pope was wheeled in and sat at the president's right. There seemed to be a tremor in his right leg. He held his prepared text and, as you heard, spoke haltingly in English. The papers he held shook in his hands. As he finished a page, an aide stepped forward and took it from him. The pope skipped the paragraph in the prepared text that referred to Ronald Reagan. As the pope spoke, the president sat with his arms on the chair's arms, nodding slightly occasionally and paying close attention. The pope's accent, the weakness of his voice and the room's acoustics made it difficult for us to hear, even though he spoke into a microphone. Between words, he occasionally took great intakes of breath that were clearly audible. The tips of his brown shoes were visible beneath his white robes.

As the pope spoke, the president shifted his hands to his lap, where the lay clasped. Mrs. Bush sat without moving, her legs crossed at the ankle. When the pope finished, there was applause. "God bless America," he said. The pope's aide pivoted the microphone over toward Bush, who then gave his remarks; you have the text. He remained seated as he spoke. The pope seemed to be listening intently but did not look directly at the president. The pope held a folded white handkerchief in his right hand and several times he wiped his mouth with it. The president stood to present the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award, to the pope. It was in a small square box that appeared to be made of wood and Bush struggled momentarily with the clasp. There was more applause the pope lifted his right hand in a gesture of gratitude, then read his prepared thank-you text. Two papal aides in suits then presented the St. John the Baptist plaque to Bush, who stood briefly to look at it. Laura Bush then stood and walked over to shake the pope's hand. The pope gave her a silver medal commemorating the 25th anniversary of his pontificate, which he celebrated last year. Then the official party stood up and formed a line to approach the pope. As U.S. officials greeted the pope, the president leaned over and appeared to be identifying them to the pope. The official party, including Secret Service agents, were given bronze versions of the medallion Laura Bush received. Women - women reporters, at least - were given pearl rosaries. The Vatican officials who were directing people forward indicated initially that the pool and Italian press should not join the line, but Navarro-Valls asked your pooler if we'd like to meet the pope. We said yes, of course.

After the president and the pope left the room, the pool spoke briefly with Navarro-Valls. He was reluctant to elaborate on reporters' characterization of the pope's reference to the Iraqi prison abuse scandal as a rebuke, saying the pope's speech was "eloquent enough." He called it "significant" that the pope addressed the Middle East and Iraq as a single issue. "The two things are very much connected in his mind," he said. He also said the Vatican may release a statement later today after he debriefed the pope on the private meeting. He said the pope had not intended to dwell on Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq, but was instead focused on what happens there in the future. "Today we are discussing a new situation," he said.

Pool did not see any portion of the president's meeting with Sodano. In the courtyard, Rove snapped photos of the Swiss Guard. Pool asked McClellan and Bartlett, who had not seen the prepared text of the pope's remarks, about their tone. "Nothing we'd disagree with," Bartlett said. McClellan said no briefings are planned for later today.

At 1:45 p.m., the motorcade left Vatican City. Again, most people we saw as we headed to the suburbs were impassive. But one man held a U.S. flag and a woman held a small banner that read "peace and love." In an area with several signs directing visitors to catacombs, we pulled up at the Fosse Ardeatine Memorial. On March 24, 1944, the Nazis massacred 335 Italians who were hiding in a cave here. Bush went inside to the mausoleum while we positioned outside in a gravel-covered courtyard. The entrance to the cave was in front of us. Beside us was a huge sculpture of the martyrs by Francesco coccia. It shows huddled together. Italian soldiers in dress uniform, including red and blue plumed hats and white epaulettes, stood in a line along the entry walk. An Italian military honor guard was near the entrance to the caves. There was a small group of dignitaries and what appeared to be Italian war veterans.

A huge wreath, perhaps five feet in diameter, was awaiting Bush on a stand. It was composed of large leaves and was festooned with what appeared to be gold metal balls. There was a blue banner with white writing. We were not close enough to read the inscription. The troops snapped to attention and a trumpet fanfare announced bush's arrival. He walked in slowly with Mrs. Bush and Prime Minister Berlusconi. Two of the Italian troops in full dress positioned the wreath. Bush moved forward alone, straighted the ribbon with his left hand and then his right, took a step back and bowed his head. A trumpeter played Silenzio, the Italian version of Taps. Bush then shook hands with some members of the official delegation and at the point the pool was instructed to head to the motorcade.

We left Fosse Ardeatine at 2:18 p.m. and made our way, partly by freeway, back to the ambassador's residence. Motorcade security was a little lax; several times motorists meandered into our formation. Arrival at ambassador's residence 2:54 p.m.

I apologize for the length of this report. If you have questions, call me at XXX-XXX-XXX.

Judy Keen, USA Today



Your drowsy pool, languishing in a makeshift conference room on the perimeter of the U.S. embassy compound on the Via Veneto, was called to action--mysteriously-- at about 6:30 pm Rome time. No reason was given as your pool was led to the cobblestone driveway at Villa Taverna in between the swimming pool and the residence. Sun had broken through the clouds, and a U.S. flag and unidentified blue flag were being put in place as your pool arrived. There were vines covering the Renaissance structure, bushes with pink flowers and pots of purple flowers. The band at the embassy reception was playing the West Side Story number, "Maria." Preceding Potus were Ambassador Mel Sembler, Ambassador Jim Nicholson, Powell and others. McClellan told pool that Condi, MIA at Vatican today, was working on matters including Iraq. You have transcript, but Potus took a few steps into the courtyard and said, among other things, that the economy is "strong and getting stronger," and that "I'm pleased that the American workers is doing their job."

Dana Milbank

Washington Post



Your pooler writes to you from an upper floor of Villa Madama, on a hillside high above Rome. Somewhere below us, the prime minister and the president dine. We are told that we will not be invited in for a peek, so this will be the last report this evening unless something eventful occurs. Your pool is being served a bountiful feast of risotto, eggplant rollatini, mozzarella, ricotta, baked pasta with pesto, and an Umbrian red, which is disappearing at an alarming rate.

Though CNN International is reporting police estimates of 500,000 demonstrators in Rome today, the motorcade route here from Villa Taverna, through residential neighborhoods, was almost entirely empty except for a small number of expressionless onlookers. In part this is because police were restricting access to the route to local residents only. But even in areas that did not appear restricted, there was no sign of protest or celebration. Motorcade passed several campaign-style posters, including one showing a crazed American soldier firing his machine gun, and another, from Berlusconi's Forza Italia, welcoming Potus to Italy. Police lined the entire route, in some places shoulder-to-shoulder.

Villa Madama, our press kit informs us, was built in the 16th century, one of the first villas of the Renaissance. It was purchased by the government in 1941, when you-know-who was in charge. From his perch, your pooler can view Rome's Olympic stadium and gardens with hedge mazes, fountains, candles, statues and armed men.

Dana Milbank

Washington Post

Pre-Position Pool Report

June 4, 2002

Villa Madama -- Rome

No news.

Just as President Bush arrived at 8:03 p.m., Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who had arrived at 7:20, talked to his press for about a minute as POTUS and FLOTUS climbed out of their limo. Your pool got two translations from Italian reporters that vary slightly, but the following sentence was the same from each: "I think the protests were a flop." Both said Berlusconi used the English word "flop." He went on to say: "The city of Rome welcomes President Bush with the spirit of hospitality as I asked," although another reporter said the quote was: "The city of Rome welcomes President Bush and has shown one more time to be a city of hospitality." Your pool was whisked away before he could get the right quote (or at least a third version).

Berlusconi also said that Rome police told him there were 6,000 protesters, but that 4,000 had come from outside of the city.

Upon arrival, POTUS and FLOTUS, both in dark blue suits, only Mrs. Bush's had a matching skirt instead of trousers, smiled broadly. Berlusconi, dark blue suit, and his beautiful wife, who was decked out in a sparkly dark blue dress, stood by the villa's entrance as the First Couple approached. Bush hugged Berlusconi and greetings were exchanged all around. The foursome then walked to the door, but stopped just shy, got in a chorus line and smiled away for a good 30 seconds. The great clicking beast satisfied, they went in.

As your pool was rushed off, a quick glance back to the top of the villa found Berlusconi and Bush at the railing of a veranda at the top. The PM was pointing, first here, then there and there, perhaps pointing out the seven hills (although only a few were visible from the pool's perspective, the vista from atop was no doubt better).

Best line of the night goes to SecState Colin Powell, who, walking in with NSA Condoleezza Rice, wearing a stylin' shawl-like thing (male here, sorry) over her dark dress, said: "Isn't she cute." Photogs captured Rice in hearty laughter. COS Card was also spotted.

The Villa Madama, as you no doubt remember from grade school, is named for Madame Margherita of Austria, daughter of Emperor Charles V, who lived there during the reign of Pope Paul III Farnese (1534-1549). Raphael was in charge of the design, but left the hard work to his disciples. Raphael died before its completion; the villa as it stands now is only thenorthern wing of the planned building.

It serves, our guide said, as a kind of Blair House for Berlusconi. Atop a hill with a grand vista, it is a relatively modest, yellow-orange stone villa, which was purchased by the Italian government in 1941 after Count Carlo Dentice di Frasso and his American wife, the former Dorothea Cadwell Taylor, restored the building and gardens. Your pool was pressed up against one corner of the 40-foot or so high villa and so had a very poor perspective of its grandeur.

Your pooler will not tell you about the fart machine one NBC stick man has deployed throughout this holy city, or about the hourlong sweep in which one blonde Italian woman ejected the black-pinned Secret Service agents near the mag and spat that on their next visit to Washington, she'll bring her own security "just to observe," or about the sickmaking pool-only motorcade to the villa (one photog noted that on international trips, the traffic-jamming jaunts that, in this case, caused motorists to thumb their teeth at us, the White House is "making friends around the world." Back in the states, it's just called "making Democrats").

In addition, your pooler will not tell you that "Ocean's 12" is currently being filmed in Rome, meaning Brad and Julia and the whole scat pack are in town (Forget Iraq -- JULIA COULD DROP TWINS ANY DAY, DAMMIT!!) Or that one of the two fancypants guards by the entrance at the villa was tooth-thumbing mad when another guard replaced him just before the president arrived (normally no big deal, but each was holding a three-foot sword, which made for a few tense seconds).

But your pooler will tell you that tomorrow morning is going to be a fustercluck -- 400 Italian press, one mag. Early word is that departure may be moved up 30 minutes to jump the U.S press in front of the Italians, who, a lovely people, become mini-Mussolinis when wielding a camera or a notebook.

Joseph Curl

The Washington Times


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