President Bush arrived in Rome on Wednesday night for Pope John Paul II's funeral, bringing with him a delegation of U.S. dignitaries -- as well as a public-relations headache over a botched invitation to former President Jimmy Carter.
Bush will appear at the pontiff's funeral Friday with former Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton. But Carter, the first president to invite a pope to the White House, will not be there.
Neither the White House nor the former president's staff in Georgia can agree on exactly why Carter -- who made history with a reception for Pope John Paul II at the White House in 1979 -- won't be attending. The White House says Carter refused its invitation. Carter allies explain his absence as the result of either a miscommunication or a White House snub.
"I'm very disappointed he isn't going," said Mary Hoyt, former first lady Rosalynn Carter's former press secretary, recalling the Carters' warmth for the pope. "I think he belongs there."
A statement from Carter's office earlier this week said the former president had asked the White House if he could join the U.S. delegation at the funeral but was told that space was limited and other U.S. dignitaries were eager to attend.
The White House countered that it had extended an invitation and noted that the Vatican, not the White House, limited the U.S. delegation to five people. First lady Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will round out the U.S. delegation.
Carter's absence is striking when set alongside the long list of American politicians who will attend, though those lesser stars won't get the same prime seats as the official U.S. delegation. Congress is sending 40 lawmakers while other local groups, like one assembled by New York's Cardinal Edward Egan, will include New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.
Carter tried to end the flap in a statement Wednesday: "There has been no dissension between me and the White House concerning the pope's funeral."
But some see Carter, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and an outspoken opponent of the Iraq war, as deliberately excluded by the Bush administration. Although the White House extended the invitation in a letter, they argue, the Republicans did not offer it in spirit.
"The White House is making a blunder by not having Jimmy Carter come with them," said Douglas Brinkley, author of the Carter biography, "The Unfinished Presidency." "Carter has taken a real tilt leftwards. He's the most credible antiwar, anti-Iraq critic globally, and I just don't think Bush and Rice really feel like being in his company."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan rejected claims that Carter had been rebuffed and said the White House specifically asked him to join the delegation.
But one Carter aide who asked not to be named so as not to "make a fuss" over the episode called the White House version of events "the truth, but not the whole truth."
The aide said the White House indeed called Carter asking if he'd like to join the U.S. delegation, and Carter replied that he would. But, according to the aide, the White House soon called back saying the small group did not include former presidents. So Carter backed out, figuring the seat was needed for someone else, the aide said.
The White House called once more, saying the first President Bush would in fact attend, the aide said. But the aide said Carter declined once more, thinking it was understandable that the president's father would go and assuming the guest list was essentially closed. The aide said that when Carter learned Clinton was going, too, it was too late.
Gerald Ford is the only other living former president not attending the funeral. The 91-year-old's health is fragile, and doctors have told him to limit his travel.