Bush's closed door

Posted: Dec 13, 2004 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Rocco Buttiglione, the internationally esteemed Italian philosopher and statesman, visited Washington last week. Doors were opened to this Italian cabinet member and devout Catholic as a courageous exemplar of conservative Western ideals against the European Union's leftist ruling establishment. But one door was closed to Buttiglione. It was George W. Bush's door.

 Displaying arrogance, ignorance or both, the Bush White House refused to grant one of America's best friends in hostile Western Europe an appointment with President Bush or a senior aide. There was no pretense of an overly tight schedule. It was just plain "no!" Tim Goeglein, Bush's staff liaison with Catholics, told Buttiglione's entourage there was nothing he could do. Father Robert A. Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, based in Grand Rapids, Mich. (sponsoring the visit), informed the White House the snub was "politically imprudent" and "morally revolting."

 While this conduct contradicts Bush's campaign posture, there is no mystery about what is going on. The re-elected president is offering a hand in friendship to "Old Europe," at the cost of alienating the traditional Catholic constituency so avidly courted the past four years. Never having to worry about running again, Bush can give the back of his hand to Buttiglione, just as the leftist-dominated, anti-American EU refused to seat him as a commissioner.

 For an old reporter, this incident brings back memories of nearly 30 years ago, when President Gerald R. Ford snubbed Russian novelist and dissenter Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the symbol of resistance to Soviet tyranny. Then, as now, the White House did not deign to explain itself, but everyone knew Ford stayed away from Solzhenitsyn because Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev warned that detente was at risk. In cases separated by three decades, a Republican president was downgrading values and upgrading realpolitik.

 The usually helpful Goeglein told me brusquely he could say nothing. Press secretary Scott McClellan said the Italian's treatment "should not be viewed as a sign of disrespect. The president had a heavy schedule, and it is rare when he meets with a minister separate from a prime minister." Sen. Rick Santorum, chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, is seen as a rock by fellow Catholics. An Acton Institute award to Buttiglione was presented in Santorum's Capitol Hill office last week with the senator present. But when I sought Santorum's comment about the White House snub, he apparently disappeared, because a staffer said he could not be reached.

 The guess among well-placed administration sources is that Bush has no idea who Rocco Buttiglione is. The decision to shut him out appears likely to have come not from the White House political office, but from the National Security Council staff and the State Department, where the warmth toward the EU approaches John Kerry's.

  Although Bush likely could plead ignorance of Buttiglione (a defense denied Ford in explaining his treatment of Solzhenitsyn), that would not be an appealing posture for the president. Catholics all over the world know Buttiglione and recognize him as a figure of towering rectitude, whose treatment by the dominant European left is a global outrage. The EU parliament refused to accept him as justice minister on the 25-member European Commission, and his name was withdrawn.

 The only constitutional reasons for rejecting Buttiglione would have been incompetence or immorality, and neither charge applied. He told me last week that he failed the EU test on four grounds: He serves in the cabinet of conservative Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi; he is a traditional Catholic; he follows the course of conservative Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger; he is a friend of the United States (called a "crypto-American" inside the EU). "Any one of these would be enough to reject me," he said.

 It is hard to tell whether anti-Americanism or anti-Catholicism runs deeper in Europe's corridors of power. In The Weekly Standard, Christopher Caldwell wrote that what was done to Buttiglione looked "like a bunch of progressives gathering round the dead horse that is European Christianity and giving it a few joyous kicks." At the Vatican, Cardinal Renato Martino called the EU parliament's interrogation of Buttiglione a "secular inquisition." The White House last week gave its tacit approval.