5 Rules for Covering a Vatican Visit

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First Lady Laura Bush and her daughter Barbara are greeted by Pope Benedict XVI

Being a member of the White House Press Pool, especially when you are subject to the strict rules of the Vatican, is not nearly as glamorous as some may imagine. As the print pool reporter for the First Lady's five-day trip to Italy, responsible for sharing my reporting with my fellow journalists in the Fourth Estate, I experienced that firsthand during Mrs. Bush's visit to the Pope Thursday morning and learned the 5 Rules of the Press Pool when you're visiting the Pope.

1) Don't mess with the nuns
The press pool was in the charge of a nun, attired in blue, who could not conceive of ABC's Ann Compton taking a laptop into the palace. The reporters had been told to bring their stuff with them because they would be running to catch the motorcade as Mrs. Bush departed. "Leave it to a colleague outside," the nun said insistently. "You don't need a computer." Finally, the nun did away with diplomacy and said, "There is no way." An Associated Press reporter from Rome asked about a tape recorder. "Absolutely no recorder in the library of the pope," the nun replied, then clicked her tongue reprovingly, as if in a movie. The nun hurried reporters along one of the narrow, back corridors of the Vatican, which have marble floors and art hanging on the wall, saying, "That's the way." At one point, I was scolded for an unintentional and mysterious infraction. She said, "You understand English? Do you prefer me to use Latin? Spanish? Italian? No more 'Yes, ma'am'! I will call a Swiss Guard and have you removed" Apparently deciding the sin only was a venial one, she granted absolution by reaching in her black bag and handing over a color map and a fact sheet, with a businesslike smile.

2) Plan for everything to be meticulously planned
Press arrangements for such a visit are the product of delicate and exhausting negotiations by the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See and the White House advance staff. The Vatican, with a couple thousand years of history on its side, does not respond to urgency or pushiness. Speed, "necessity," tension — all are anathema. It's one of the few places the President or First Lady goes that the White House doesn't basically get what it wants. Vatican officials don't like e-mail — everything has to be faxed or hand-delivered, with many of the details spelled out in diplomatic notes, known locally as "dip notes." The Vatican still moves at its ancient rhythm. But one legacy of Pope John Paul II's well-known attention to the news media was evident: a Vatican satellite truck was parked out back as Mrs. Bush's motorcade arrived.

3) Be prepared to be awed
The First Lady, accompanied by her daughter Miss Barbara Bush, met His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI in the ultimate inner sanctum — the ornate, sun-splashed Papal Library in the Apostolic Palace, just off St. Peter's Square. The half-hour audience, all in the library, was so quick it was a blur for both participants and onlookers. It began with a greeting for the cameras among the Pope, Mrs. Bush, Miss Bush and Francis Rooney, the seventh U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See. The Pope, in a characteristic gesture, held both hands out and said, in English, "Welcome." Then the three visitors took white chairs in front of the Pope's desk for brief private audience. As the press was ushered out, Mrs. Bush was remarking on the unseasonably warm weather. Cameras were brought back in for an exchange of gifts, followed by quick handshakes and blessings for five members of the White House staff and a Secret Service agent. Some of these aides, frequent visitors to the Oval Office, were struck literally speechless with respect, so communication was mostly by body language. All were concerned about the protocol of this once-in-a-lifetime moment. One of them said it was so surreal she was unsure if she was supposed to clasp the Pope's hand the way she usually does because she didn't know if she should touch his ring. While the Pope and First Lady exchanged gifts of silver platters and boxes of rosaries, the press pool was given rosaries in vinyl cases.

4) Try to talk about the news
After her audience, the First Lady spoke to reporters at the Hotel Eden about her papal audience, but was soon peppered with questions about rioting over cartoon depictions of Muhammad. "I know that Muslims are offended with these cartoons, and I understand their offense," she began. "On the other hand, I don't think violence is the answer. I think that everyone around the world needs to speak out and say, 'Let's stop the violence.' It's really not necessary to get the point across that they were offended by those cartoons." She said she and the Pope had discussed the matter "just briefly." Then she added, "But we talked about religion, and we talked about the separation of church and state and religion. I talked about how many, many people in the United States are religious. But, of course, we're diverse, a lot of different religions, and that we respect the freedom of religion or the freedom not to worship if people choose not to." Later in the day, after a stop at the U.S. Embassy and changing into a pink suit, the First Lady went in her black Cadillac limousine — with District of Columbia plates, but not the hood flags that adorn the President's limousine — to the 16th Century Villa Madama for a leisurely lunch with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. During the photo session, the notably bronzed Berlusconi sucked in his midriff. Then he and Mrs. Bush went into lunch and the press milled about before being taken to a room with casserole, Coke and a few electrical outlets.

5) Get a driver who knows shortcuts
The First Lady missed the second-most-exciting part of the day, which came as the press was leaving the U.S. Embassy and heading toward the Prime Minister's residence. The driver of the bus designated Press 2 was nowhere to be found, so the whole pool piled into a Press 1, a Mercedes bus. It turned out that driver was also snoozing. When the First Lady's motorcade took off, we all screamed at him to step on it, but he had trouble navigating the narrow car-bomb barriers at the embassy gate, and the motorcade was nowhere to be found. Even worse, as it turned out the tail-end of the motorcade, including the ambulance and some police cars, was now behind us. Once we got predictably stuck in Roman traffic, the Secret Service press agent on board our bus told the driver to let the police take the lead. The unmarked white Taurus, siren wailing, jumped in front and led us on a wild ride through the narrow, ancient streets of Rome. A second officer opened the backseat door on the driver's side and gestured frantically at traffic and pedestrians to get out of the way. Peter Watkins of Mrs. Bush's staff pointed out: "This is like the movie 'The Italian Job,' only in a bus!" In the end, the genius in the Taurus had taken us on a shortcut and actually beat Mrs. Bush to the Villa Madama. And the Olympics don't even open until tomorrow.