Over the weekend, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton both decamped from New York, just days before the Tuesday New York Democratic primary they both view as must-win. Sanders went to the Vatican on Friday to speak about "moral" economics at a conference hosted by the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, and Clinton attended a big-money fundraiser at George Clooney's house on Saturday. If you stop reading here, that alone seems to reinforce everything Sanders has been saying about Clinton and her dependence on the almighty dollar.
That is certainly the impression the Sanders side of the Democratic nomination brawl wanted to focus on. But like many things in this presidential campaign, if you did a little deeper, things start getting a little weird.
On Saturday, outside the Studio City home of a wealthy Sanders backer, a group of Sanders supporters threw 1,000 $1 bills at Clinton's motorcade as she approached Clooney's house for the Clinton-Democratic Party fundraiser. ("The overwhelming amount of the money that we're raising is not going to Hillary to run for president," Clooney told NBC's Meet the Press. "It's going to the congressmen and senators to try to take back Congress" — a claim PolitiFact rated "mostly true" — so they can approve a Supreme Court justice who will "overturn Citizens United and get this obscene, ridiculous amount of money out so I never have to do a fundraiser again.")
Of course, big Hollywood fundraisers are pretty mundane as far as presidential politics go. A quick jaunt to the seat of the Roman Catholic Church isn't. And Sanders' trip to the Vatican was controversial from the moment he announced it.
First, Sanders' political allies expressed confusion about his decision to leave New York for 36 hours when he is trailing Clinton in the polls, all to give a 15-minute speech to a group of people who can't vote for him. "Some things are more important than politics," Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver shrugged. "When you get invited by the Vatican, I think you go."
Then the president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Margaret Archer, accused Sanders of inviting himself to the conference for political gain. "Sanders made the first move, for the obvious reasons," she told Bloomberg. "He may be going for the Catholic vote but this is not the Catholic vote and he should remember that and act accordingly — not that he will." (Archer, who is English, says she "quite liked" Sanders' views on helping the poor, but that failing to go through her office was "a monumental discourtesy.")
The chancellor of the academy, Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, then said he had invited Sanders, and papal spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi clarified that Sanders had been invited "not by the pope but by the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences." Right before the trip, Lombardi said, "There won't be a meeting with the Holy Father," seemingly dashing Sanders' hopes of meeting the pope.
The brouhaha over who invited Sanders can be chalked up to murky Vatican intrigue and bureaucratic scuffling. But it's pretty clear that the Vatican did not want Sanders to drag the pope (further) into the 2016 U.S. presidential race. Sanders did not seem to take the hint.
On Saturday morning, Sanders did meet the pope, as Francis was on his way out to visit Syrian refugees in Greece. Sanders quickly told The Associated Press that he and his wife "had an opportunity to meet with him this morning," adding, "It was a real honor for me, for my wife and I to spend some time with him. I think he is one of the extraordinary figures not only in the world today but in modern world history." Here's more on how Sanders described the meeting:
Compare that to how the pope described their meeting to reporters on the flight to Greece:
"This morning when I was leaving, Sen. Sanders was there, he had come to the convention," the pope said. "He knew I was leaving at that time and he had the courtesy to greet me. I greeted him, his wife, and another couple who were there and were sleeping in Santa Martha," the hostel where Francis also lives. "When I came down, I greeted him, I shook his hand, and nothing more. This is called good manners and it is not getting involved in politics.... If anyone thinks that greeting someone is getting involved in politics, I recommend that he look for a psychiatrist."
There is no photograph of the meeting. This pope is generally not camera-shy. Sanders was obviously very excited to have met with a man he greatly admires. But his trumpeting of the meeting does not speak well of his diplomatic skills. Indeed, the entire trip was downright bizarre.
Set aside the weirdness of Sanders using his campaign funds to charter a 200-seat Boeing 767-300 to fly 8,500 miles to Rome with his family and a small Secret Service detail so he could briefly talk about income inequality and climate change before the Vatican equivalent of a think tank, for a celebration of an encyclical by Pope John Paul II that is critical of socialism and includes favorable nods to market capitalism. Instead, let's look at why Sanders made the trip in the first place. He and his aides are adamant that the journey wasn't motivated by politics or courting Catholic Democrats in the heavily Catholic, delegate-rich northeastern states where Sanders is struggling. Let's take him at his word — Pope Francis is very popular among liberal Catholics, but more as a moral figure than a celebrity, and certainly not as a campaign prop.
But if Sanders isn't trying to touch the political hem of the pope's garment, what then?
Chad C. Pecknold, a theology professor at Catholic University, speculated that Sanders is preparing for whatever role he will play if he doesn't get the nomination. "Let's say that he is realistic and that his path to the nomination is extremely slim," Pecknold told The Washington Post. "Then he must say, 'Well, what is my role after this campaign?' It seems clear that he is in a position now to highlight his new profile."
Others note that foreign trips during campaigns are generally supposed to raise a candidate's international profile and make him appear more statesmanlike. Barack Obama visited Israel during his 2008 campaign, and Mitt Romney went to both Israel and Britain in 2012 — though, of course, those two nations are major U.S. strategic and economic allies, while Vatican City is neither.
But the explanation Sanders gives is that the trip was a "once in a lifetime" opportunity. "I am deeply impressed by the commitment of the pope to speak out about economic and social and environmental injustice and I would be kicking myself if I refused this opportunity," he told AP. "I would be kicking myself forever if I did not seize the opportunity," he repeated to The Washington Post. That suggests his motivation was "more fan boy than presidential," Sarah Posner says at Rolling Stone.
Sanders is the underdog, and underdogs have to take risks. But presidential campaigns are job auditions. Taking time off before a big deadline to meet a personal hero on company money is nice work if you can get it, as the Gershwins said. But it does leave some questions about how committed you really are to the job.