It is exactly 4:00 p.m. when the door of the Alitalia Boeing 777 swings open following its 10-hour flight over the Atlantic from Rome. Pope Benedict XVI steps out of the plane and extends his arms skywards -- and immediately, a crowd begins cheering and waving Vatican flags from their spot on bleachers set up for the occasion.
But it is not only pope fans who are on hand to welcome Benedict upon his arrival to Andrews Air Force Base, located 20 kilometers outside Washington D.C. As the pope waves to the crowd, US President George W. Bush strides along the red carpet, past the honor guard, to the gangway. Behind him, his wife Laura and daughter Jenny struggle to keep up. As he reaches the base of the steps he raises his hands in applause for the pope -- it is about as warm as a welcome can get.
The scene is also a first -- never before has Bush personally received a visitor at the airport.
The two leaders like each other. Bush has never been reticent about voicing his admiration for Benedict, almost to the point of fawning over him. After a June, 2007 visit, the president referred to the pope as a "very smart, loving man" and went on to say, "after six-and-a-half years of being president I've been to some unusual places and met some interesting people, and I was in awe."
And Benedict, for his part, has the highest respect for Bush -- as the highest representative of a thoroughly religious country who is against abortion, gay marriage and the use of embryos in stem cell research.
Bush -- who has identified himself as a born-again Christian since he gave up alcohol at the age of 40 and who reads the Bible and prays regularly -- has himself profited from Benedict's praise of the US. The pope is fond of saying that the "dictatorship of relevatism" hasn't yet taken hold in the US to the extent it has in nihilistic Europe. In God's own country, values are still worth something.
Indeed, Benedict is visiting a country where religion belongs to the basic pillars of society. At the same time, the shepherd from Rome and the rancher from Texas are two entirely different characters: On the one side, you have a subtle intellect, who likes to write witty books and listen to Mozart; and on the other you have a roughneck who prefers to wear cowboy- boots, hats and blue jeans held up with a belt and an oversized buckle.
But those character differences mean little -- it's the alignments and the politics behind them that count. In America he sees an ally he believes shares his set of values that will support him in what he perceives as the real battle for the future. In his view, this battle will not result in the much-feared clash of cultures. The real front is not between world religions. Rather, it is a standoff between the real believers, whatever faith they adhere to, on the one side, and the worldly relativists -- or even the violent fanatics -- on the other.
Partly in order to prepare himself for this conflict, Benedict likes to surrounds himself with conservative politicians. He meets with Italy's Berlusconi rather than with Spain's Zapatero, with Bush rather than with Brazil's Lula.
He pays little heed to the business of day-to-day politics in his choice of who to meet. For example, two years ago he invited leading center-right politicians to meet him during the middle of a heated phase of the Italian election campaign -- much to the displeasure of many Italians. In addition to Silvio Berlusconi, he met with the Senate president and leading member of the conservative Forza Italia party Marcello Pera, with whom he had earlier published the book "Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam." In the recent Italian election campaign, Benedict did not shy away from upbraiding the (unsuccessful) center-left candidate Walter Veltroni. The pope publicly reprimanded Veltroni, a former mayor of Rome, over problems in the city.
During his six-day US visit -- his eighth trip abroad since being named pope in April 2005 -- Benedict will also be pursuing a political agenda, even if it the Vatican is trying to sell the trip as a purely pastoral visit. With this visit, the Holy See is breaking with a tradition of steering clear of the US during election years. Admittedly the pope is not directly intervening in the election campaign: no meetings are planned with the presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain. However Benedict will, just through his mere presence in Washington and New York, be subtly promoting the Republican McCain, who has a record of opposing abortion. Both Clinton and Obama have taken pro-choice positions in the abortion debate -- a position Benedict finds unacceptable.
Benedict's predilection for conservative politicians is echoed by Bush's affection for the pontiff. It's a sympathy which is partially based on personal reasons -- after all, Bush owes the pope nothing less than his second term. The Pulitzer Prize winner Jack Miles ("God: A Biography") wrote in 2005 that "arguably Ratzinger won the election for Bush." In the last presidential election, the Methodist Bush ran against the Catholic John Kerry. But Joseph Ratzinger, who at the time was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, attacked the Catholic candidate, not the Protestant one.
During the election campaign, Ratzinger sent a letter to the American bishops, in which he said that all Catholic candidates who were not in favor of a ban on abortion should be denied Communion. In addition, anyone who voted for Kerrry "would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion."
The effect, Miles wrote in the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, was a "minor shift in public opinion" with "enormous consequences." It may even have decided the election.
"Without this shift, Kerry would have had a popular majority of a million votes," wrote Sidney Blumenthal, a political commentator and former Bill Clinton advisor, for the online magazine Salon.com in April, 2005. "Three states -- Ohio, Iowa and New Mexico -- moved into Bush's column on the votes of the Catholic 'faithful.'"
As such, the gigantic birthday party Bush is throwing for the pope on Wednesday can be seen as a gesture of thanks. Benedict will be turning 81, and at least 9,000 guests will gather on the South Lawn of the White House to celebrate. And even the differences between Bush and the pope -- disagreement on the Iraq war, on the death penalty, and on how to help the world's poor -- will not be enough to spoil the festive mood.