Even though he is officially a head of state, to the faithful a pope is a much bigger deal than a president. That said, Pope Francis is the Bill Clinton of the Vatican. By word and by deed he is inspiring the faithful and causing outsiders to view the Catholic Church differently, much the way Bill Clinton changed the image of the Democratic Party 20 years ago.
Democrats have been so competitive at the national level for so long now, it is hard to remember how broken down the party's image was in the early 1990s. Republicans and independents thought Democrats were woefully out of step with modernity, and even true blue Dems didn't think winning a national election was in the cards for 1992. Long before Barack Obama's rising sun logo became the standard-bearer of Democratic dreams, Bill Clinton rode in from Arkansas on a message of "hope" and "change."
Pope Francis evokes that same spirit every time he steps down from the Chair of St. Peter to embrace the faithful.
Pope Francis reportedly loves to be around people and that seemed clear on his recent trip to Rio de Janeiro. He had a small dinner with young Catholics, and on Copacabana Beach he worked rope lines of young people the way Clinton did while "rocking the vote" in the early 90's.
Watching the Pope walk through the favelas in Rio reminded me of the day in November 1993 that President Bill Clinton gave what many remember as one of the most stirring speeches of his presidency, and the car ride after that is mostly forgotten. After a stirring speech challenging African-Americans to do better, given from the same pulpit where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I've been to the Mountaintop" speech the night before his death, Clinton's motorcade started to pass through a street with housing projects on both sides. Many of the residents, mostly African-American, came to the sidewalks to wave at the new president. A light rain fell. Without warning, the cars stopped. A voice crackled through from the radio in my hand. "He's out!"
The President of the United States had hopped out of his bulletproof limousine and begun shaking hands. Reporters jumped out of the press vans to get footage. There were no rope lines or barricades and black people streamed from the buildings when they saw him. A nearby Secret Service agent worked frantically to gain some level of control over the situation. "Don't worry," I said to him, "he's safe in this crowd."
Clinton was beloved by the people in the projects the way Pope Frances was by those in the favelas. They knew he saw them the way few other people in power did. They knew he truly cared.
In an 80 minute long press conference on the plane ride back to the Vatican, the Pope talked about many issues, but his answer to a question about gay priests is making the most news in the United States. "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?" he asked.
Bill Clinton got Democrats to go along with tax cuts and welfare reform, changing the way moderate voters thought about his party. This trip to Rio and his answer on gays may singlehandedly change the way those of us who are not Catholics see the Pope and the church, if Pope Francis can convince the rest of the Catholic clergy to make the downtrodden a higher priority and take a more welcoming stance to gays and lesbians.
The government in Washington today is in need of leaders like Pope Francis. Citizens are exhausted by the acrimony between the parties and hungry for action on important issues. President Obama is trying. Today, he is venturing into red state America with a trip to Chattanooga, Tenn., to focus on increasing jobs. He should keep stumping through red states and talk directly to those who are most wary of his leadership. Next on his list should be Utah, where state leaders have launched an innovative education program immersing school children in nearly half of their elementary schools in foreign languages for half of each day.
Speaker of the House John Boehner has the opportunity to do this for the Republicans. If he throws out the Hastert Rule requiring a majority of the majority of Republicans to vote for important legislation, the House might pass more bills. This change might cost him his speakership in the end, but it would cement his place in history. It's not like he's getting anything else done anyway.