Jim Nicholson, a former Republican congressman, Republican National Committee chairman and U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, had never actually met former President Bill Clinton before. But there they were on the same plane, headed to Rome for the funeral of Pope John Paul II in April 2005.
Nicholson had, though, spent plenty of time skewering the president when both were actively on opposite sides of the political fence. So how to break the ice for the first face-to-face meeting proved a tough chore to think through, Nicholson recalled May 6 at a conference sponsored by Trinity Washington University and the National Catholic Reporter.
Eventually, someone brought up common acquaintances, and introductions were made. Nicholson said Clinton, hoping to leverage Nicholson’s insider status at the Vatican, asked him, “Who’s going to be the next pope?”
Nicholson said he didn’t really know, since he was not privy to that kind of information; about the best that happened, he said, was an occasional heads-up on an episcopal appointment yet to be announced,
But when Clinton pressed, Nicholson gave an opinion. “I think it’s going to be Cardinal (Joseph) Ratzinger,” he recalled saying, then launching into an encapsulated summary of the German cardinal’s career, and topping it off with “and he doesn’t want to be pope” as another qualification.
Clinton “spun on his heels” without saying a word, Nicholson said, leaving the former ambassador wondering if it was something he had said or done that might have irritated the former commander in chief. Instead, as Nicholson found out before the flight landed, Clinton was “telling the boys in the media who’s going to be the next pope” — a prediction that proved true in the days to come.