Feeling the Bern at the Vatican

Press crush around Democratic candidate for President Bernie Sanders as he speaks outside the Perugino Gate at the Vatican. Note on the left hand side you can see my arm in a light blue shirt holding up our boom microphone and feeling the "bern". You can also see the top of my head and the head of the policeman pushing me back. April 15, 2016. Photo by AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

Press crush around Democratic candidate for President Bernie Sanders as he speaks outside the Perugino Gate at the Vatican. Note on the left hand side you can see my arm in a light blue shirt holding up our boom microphone and feeling the “bern”. You can also see the top of my head and the head of the policeman pushing me back. April 15, 2016. Photo by AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

Let me tell all you blog readers where I was feeling the “Bern” – all up and down my right arm as I desperately tried to keep our boom microphone high in the air above Democratic Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders as he gave a statement nearly squashed by dozens of journalists, photographers and camerapersons against the Vatican wall.  My arm muscle was burning as I struggled to keep the microphone in the air so we could get proper audio of Bernie Sanders speaking. But my arm muscle was burning. Meanwhile I was being pushed back by a burly Italian policemen.

Bernie Sanders announced last week he would be coming for a quick trip to the Vatican to take part in a conference to mark the 25th Anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus, written at the end of the Cold War, which delves into questions of economic and social justice.

For many it seemed an odd time for the candidate to leave the United States with the New York primary looming around the corner on Tuesday, April 19th. Sanders could really use the 291 democratic delegates that are up for grabs in New York if he wants to catch up to Hillary Clinton.

The two of them had their most heated debate last Wednesday night going at each other on questions from gun control to Wall Street. After the debate he hopped on his campaign plane and headed for the Eternal City.

Before his arrival there was a lot of head-scratching going on at the Vatican. Who had invited him, and would he meet the Pope? The Pope already took the unusual step of entering in the US Presidential election with a powerful swipe at Donald Trump over his idea to build a wall between the US and Mexico, but would he really meet with a candidate in person before an important primary? The day before Sanders’ arrival the Pope’s spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told the press that there were no plans for the Pope to meet Sanders. The Pope was preparing for his visit to the Greek island of Lesbos and was not participating in the conference.

The afternoon before his visit, we learned from the Sanders campaign that he was planning to arrive at the Vatican in a car, give a speech and then walk outside the Perugino gate to speak to the press. Those of us who cover the Vatican knew that it would be crazy. The Perugino gate is Vatican property and controlled by Vatican Gendarmes but once you step outside it is Italian territory.

If you want to see what a Gendarme looks like, check out the photos in one on my earlier blog post “A Woman Locked up at the Vatican.”

After the terror attacks in Paris and Brussels, the Italian government has assigned two young Italian soldiers to stand across the street with automatic rifles just in case. They spend their days looking bored.

Hours before Sanders was to arrive AP Television Cameraman Luigi Navarra got to the position with News Assistant Sarah Chiarello and set up three barriers behind which the press could stand and put down tape on the ground for a spot for Sanders to make a statement. A little while later I got there and then a Sanders’ campaign aide arrived. Unfortunately, he did not like our little set up with the barriers and the tape. He said Sanders wanted to get out of his car and walk up the road from inside the Vatican with the Dome of St. Peter’s behind him. Sanders obviously needed the visual to show he was at the Vatican. The problem was if he was going to do that, all of us had to stand in front of the gate and the Gendarme was not hearing any of that. He furiously told him that no one would block his gate and he had no instructions whatsoever to stop the traffic. I was trying to help the Sanders flack with translation but the Gendarme was so furious that it was all very clear without any translation. Sanders’ aide had me attempt to explain that the Secret Service had worked it out with the head of the Gendarmerie, but that didn’t go down to well.

Sign in hands of a Bernie Sanders supporter in Rome. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Luigi Navarra, April 15, 2016

Sign in hands of a Bernie Sanders supporter in Rome. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Luigi Navarra, April 15, 2016

So we decided to move the barriers across the road and the press would go behind the barriers and Sanders would walk out the gate and across the street and we would have our nice photo-opportunity and maybe even a comment. In the meantime about 15 cheerful Sanders supporters arrived with Bernie t-shirts and “Rome is Berning” posters. A team of Italian police on motorcycles arrived as well. We then began negotiating with the supporters trying to get them to be in a position where they would not block our view and access to Sanders. We were quite sure Sanders would want to greet them and didn’t want to lose our chance.   The supporters were great and agreed to help.

Sanders’ aide then asked me if I would translate for him with the police. There was a little parking area which had been blocked off with plastic police barricade tape. Sanders’ aide asked me to explain to the police that he wanted to remove that tape because the press bus following Sanders was supposed to park there. I asked an Italian policemen with a large girth standing beside his motorcycle if that might be done. “Are you kidding,” he told me, “the traffic cops put that stuff up and they do it under orders and even if they were standing here right now and you asked them to do it, they would not remove it. I cannot touch it.”

I explained that the bus with the press people in Sanders motorcade was supposed to park there. “What’s the problem then,” he said, “it’ll be a battle between the bus and the tape. I think the bus will win.”

That resolved, I tried to convince the aide to get Sanders to take a walk around Rome in the evening, throw a coin into the Trevi Fountain, eat a plate of pasta at an outdoor restaurant at Piazza Navona. I really wanted a visual to show Sanders in Rome. I started suggesting some good restaurants. Senator John Kerry always goes to Tullio, other US dignitaries prefer Pier Luigi’s. When the large-girthed policeman heard me recommending restaurants he and his colleague interrupted, “What are you telling him? You Americans always go to the same restaurants….now you translate for us, tell this guy that they should go to Rosanna’s on the Salaria.”

Shortly thereafter Bernie arrived and whipped into the Vatican in his car. The bus pulled in and indeed broke through the police tape and no one said a word.

Then a new set of negotiations began. The travelling press team for Sanders told the police that they wanted all the Italian and international press in Italy standing behind the metal barriers on the other side of the road and the travelling press would be lined up along the Vatican wall, closer to Bernie than us. We did not like that one bit. I was in the middle of complicated negotiations talking to the police, the Bernie’s press people trying to explain to everyone that if Bernie stopped to talk to his travelling press then the rest of us behind the barriers would break free and run up to join them. Several other journalists and I explained that the travelling press should stay behind the barrier with the rest of us and we could all work together.

Then before we knew it, Bernie was coming back out from inside the Vatican and the police shoved us behind the barrier and the travelling press got their backs against the wall and Bernie was walking towards us. And then it all went wacko. Bernie turned and walked over to greet the supporters on one side, the travelling press pulled off the wall and went towards him and we all broke free from behind the barriers – to hell with gendarmes, soldiers, police, secret service, campaign officials and the rest of them.

The situation was spinning out of control. The secret service guys were trying to surround Bernie and his wife and I thought he was going to get crushed by all of us. AP television was live so Gigi was holding the camera up in the air and had the LiveU backpack on his back. I was in the middle of the mess with the boom microphone. There was a lot of pushing and shoving and Bernie looked red-faced, tense and nervous. (His wife Jane seemed calm as a cucumber).     The mass moved over to the other side of the entrance towards a corner in the wall. The Bernie Campaign people started yelling “back behind the barrier, get back behind the barrier, someone please translate that in Italian, get back behind the barrier!!” No one was going back behind the barrier. A big secret service guy said, “Ok guys, were going to make a wedge here.” So they made a “wedge” around Bernie at the corner of the wall and we all squashed in and around him and that is when my arm started burning.

Bernie Sanders speaks to press outside the Vatican. April 15, 2016 - Photo by AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

Bernie Sanders speaks to press outside the Vatican. April 15, 2016 – Photo by AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

He briefly sang the praises of Pope Francis both for his vision of a fairer economic system and for his views on climate change. He also said he was so “moved” by the invitation to come to the Vatican to participate in the conference that he could not refuse even though it was taking him away from the campaign trail for a day. When he stopped talking I yelled out a question: “do you think this visit is going to help you with the Catholic vote?” But Bernie just said “thank you” and left.

And then he turned and walked back into the Vatican with dozens of journalists, photographers and camerapersons running behind him, only to be blocked by angry gendarmes at the Vatican gate.

Press pack blocked by Gendarmes at Perugino gate as Bernie Sanders heads back inside. April 15, 2016. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Cameraman Gigi Navarra

Press pack blocked by Gendarmes at Perugino gate as Bernie Sanders heads back inside. April 15, 2016. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Cameraman Gigi Navarra

I obviously was not the only one with that question in mind because I noticed later in an AP story that someone had asked Reverend Matt Malone, editor of the Jesuit Magazine “America” the same question. Malone responded, “I don’t think that Bernie Sanders going to the Vatican is going to help Bernie with Catholics any more than Ted Cruz going to a matzo factory is going to help him with the Jewish vote.”

Inside the Vatican, Sanders delivered what I think is an excellent speech. I am not sure if it is straight from his stump speech, but it is good stuff and helps me understand why my son Nico is such a Bernie fan. Here are a few quotes:

“In the year 2016, the top one percent of the people on this planet own more wealth than the bottom 99 percent, while the wealthiest 60 people – 60 people – own more than the bottom half – 3 1/2 billion people.

I am told time and time again by the rich and powerful, and the mainstream media that represent them, that we should be “practical,” that we should accept the status quo; that a truly moral economy is beyond our reach.

Yet Pope Francis himself is surely the world’s greatest demonstration against such a surrender to despair and cynicism.

He has opened the eyes of the world once again to the claims of mercy, justice and the possibilities of a better world.

He is inspiring the world to find a new global consensus for our common home.

I see that hope and sense of possibility every day among America’s young people. Our youth are no longer satisfied with corrupt and broken politics and an economy of stark inequality and injustice.

They are not satisfied with the destruction of our environment by a fossil fuel industry whose greed has put short-term profits ahead of climate change and the future of our planet. They want to live in harmony with nature, not destroy it.

They are calling out for a return to fairness; for an economy that defends the common good by ensuring that every person, rich or poor, has access to quality health care, nutrition and education.”

Pope Francis did not attend the conference and was surely planning for his one-day trip to Lesbos, Greece to visit migrants on Saturday (more on that below). But perhaps he did have a chance to read the speech and maybe that convinced him to allow for a brief meeting with Sanders. Did the Pope feel the Bern?

Sanders slept inside the Vatican residence/hotel Santa Marta – where the Pope has a room. (For more on Pope Francis’ decision to live in Santa Marta rather than the Papal Apartment in the Apostolic Palace see blog post “Francesco Frenzy“)

Saturday morning AP political correspondent Ken Thomas, who was travelling with Sanders, had a brief (5 minutes) interview on the roof of the Paul VI residence near the Vatican. AP cameraman Paolo Lucariello and photographer Alessandra Tarantino and I joined him. Sanders arrived clearly feeling cheerful, had his wife Jane adjust his tie, and launched into his “news”. He had had a five-minute meeting with Pope Francis that morning at 6am in the lobby of the Santa Marta Residence.

Bernie Sanders speaks to the Associated Press about his meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican. April 16, 2016. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Bernie Sanders speaks to the Associated Press about his meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican. April 16, 2016. Photo by Trisha Thomas

“It was a real honor for me, my wife and I, to spend some time with him,” he told us. “I think he is one of the extraordinary figures, not only in the world but in modern world history in talking and enlightening the world about the massive levels of income and wealth inequality, about a culture which rewards greed and ignores people who are hurting, about climate change.  So it was an honor to meet with him.”

And that was that.  A bit later Bernie left the residence and got in a car headed for the airport and back to New York and the crazy 2016 campaign.

Bernie Sanders gets in a car to head to the airport after his visit to Rome and the Vatican. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Cameraman Paolo Lucariello. April 16, 2016

Bernie Sanders gets in a car to head to the airport after his visit to Rome and the Vatican. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Cameraman Paolo Lucariello. April 16, 2016

I rushed back to the office eager to edit my story. As I walked in, AP Rome Bureau Chief Nicole Winfield called out to me telling me there were reports that Pope Francis was going to be bringing 12 migrants with him on the Papal Plane back from Lesbos. Groan. Some days the news never stops.

12 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Kay
    2016/04/17

    Ever the cynic when it comes to politicians (no matter what the party – find them all rather self-serving and in the end hypocritical), I shake my head at what I see is a media driven move by this candidate. Sanders has never been in line with the teachings of the Catholic Church, so why is he trying now when the race with Clinton is so close, is he trying to pony up to the Pope. I find this highly disingenuous – especially when he wasn’t invited to attend this invitation-only event – but just announced he was coming on his own. All of these presidential candidates are supreme knuckleheads and have no business leading the United States.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2016/04/18

      I have to admit I agree with you a bit Kay. Although I found his speech at the conference pretty inspirational, here he was railing on the rich and the powerful and the “mainstream media that represent them” — and yet all the mainstream media was traveling with him on his plane — the New York Times, CBS, CNN, ABC, and AP, and he was so eager to give all of us interviews to say he has met with the Pope. So the mainstream media was coming in pretty handy for him after all. He said he was so moved by this invitation to the Vatican — but I think he was also motivated by the need to reel in some more votes in New York tomorrow. Yes, I am pretty cynical too.

      Reply
  2. Avatar
    Kelly
    2016/04/18

    I love the behind the scene descriptions of the negotiations with the various police/secret service etc. It’s all so comical and funny.

    I have questions about the families he brought back with him. I didn’t realize two families were already there. Where do they all stay? Are they given paperwork from Italy or from the Vatican for their residency? Do they actually stay on Vatican property or in Rome? Have any of your colleagues spoken to these families? I find it fascinating that he did this and appreciate that he is practicing what he preaches.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2016/04/18

      Hi Kelly,
      Here are a couple answers to your questions:
      As far as I can tell the decision by the Pope to bring back the families from Lesbos was very last minute and he relied completely on a Catholic organization that is deeply involved in helping migrants called Sant’Edigio. Sant’Egidio officials told me they only had 24 hours notice from the Vatican. Their point person on migrants, Daniela Pompei, found the families and chose who would go. Daniella Pompei came with them on the Papal plane. The Vatican is covering all the expenses for the family but they are being housed at a center run by Sant’ Egidio in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome. We have spoken to these families, in particularly one couple, a mother, father and young child who described a harrowing tale of travelling from Damascus,through Isis Territory, through Turkey and on a boat to Greece. All along the way they were paying smugglers for the next leg of their journey. It sounded truly harrowing. They say they would like to go back to Syria as soon as the war ends, but they are not optimistic that that will be any time soon.

      Reply
  3. Avatar
    Liz
    2016/04/18

    Wow Trisha you’re really having a busy time eh? I’d love to have been a fly on the wall when Bernie and Francesco met wouldn’t you? Pity they didn’t have longer to chat as I think they could go a long way to solving some of the world’s problems! Keep the great posts coming!

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2016/04/18

      Thank you Liz. Yes, I am definitely having a busy time…but then again I always seem to be busy. It seems like all the big shots from around the world want to go to Rome. I certainly hope that the Pope and Bernie Sanders can contribute to making the world a better place.

      Reply
  4. Avatar
    John
    2016/04/18

    Glad you weren’t trampled to death in those milling crowds. You provide a good illustration of what the press goes through to get the news back to us. It also gives you a sense of what it is like being a luminary and always haveing the press, the public, personal staff and security guards all pressing to see you and get a quote.

    Stay safe!!L/D

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2016/04/18

      I was glad I didn’t get squashed in that mess. I suppose it does provide a good view of what luminaries go through, but I must admit it all seems rather silly. Was it really necessary to struggle for that photo-op with the Vatican dome in the background. I am not so sure — but images are certainly important for getting out a candidate’s message. The image of Sanders at the Vatican I believe was worth a lot to his campaign.

      Reply
  5. Avatar
    Joan Schmelzle
    2016/04/18

    Really great reading. Certainly more here than in any newspaper or on line story that I have read. Your description of “crazy” for the campaign here is certainly right on the mark. I don’t watch the debates for either party nor do I watch TV news. I have heard lots about the Pope bringing the refugees back with him. Also read in the English version of “The Local” about the actions of Austria and the numbers of refugees Italy has taken in. Wonder if any of the EU countries will take the hint and do more for refugees. I think you wrote about this once in a blog post. Thanks for writing.
    A presto,
    Joan

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2016/04/18

      Thank you Joan — well, from what he hear over here it does seem like a crazy campaign year. I really need to do another post on the whole migrant situation. I was not on the papal plane on the trip to Lesbos so I did not write about it (because I did not have any insights to offer) but it was certainly a fascinating trip and I wish I had been there.

      Reply
  6. Avatar
    Laurel Barton
    2016/04/19

    Trisha, This post is so much more interesting than the mainstream coverage. Thanks for sharing your insider’s view. I certainly do not miss the campaigning we are bombarded with in the U.S. It is nice to be choosy about my news sources with regards to the election. I share your cynicism, but then I am cynical about most politics. I think I will miss having Obama in the White House. It seems my Italian friends do not understand term limits and think we should just keep President Obama.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2016/04/21

      Thank you Laurel. It is funny that you are also getting questions from Italian friends about term-limits. I was also asked by a well-educated Italian friend the other day if Donald Trump could be blocked from entering the White House if he actually won and Obama could stay. I said that would be called a “Coup D’Etat”. I think both Americans and the rest of the world are becoming increasingly anxious about a Trump victory.

      Reply

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