VATICAN CITY — Bernie Sanders’ whirlwind Vatican tour began with a motorcade, tearing through the legendarily bad Roman traffic roughly 10 hours after the previous night’s debate in Brooklyn finished. Italian motorcycle police escorted the senator, who hadn’t even had time to shower, let alone change or practice the speech he’d finished writing overnight on the chartered plane.
By the time Sanders made it to the Vatican walls Friday, a small crowd of about two dozen expats wearing Bernie 2016 campaign t-shirts and carrying “Feel the Bern” signs — one that read “#RomeIsBerning” — was bustling, along with a growing throng of international media.
It may have been the most incongruous scene in a campaign that has featured many of them, with the Vermont senator, who struggled to be taken seriously at the outset of the campaign, sitting in the shadow of the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica, awaiting his chance to take his message to a global audience.
His remarks to a Vatican conference celebrating the 25th anniversary of an encyclical by Pope John Paul II to mark the end of the Cold War were brief — he traveled more than 4,000 miles and spoke for no more than 15 minutes on Friday. When Sanders plodded out of Perugino’s Gate afterwards with his wife and Columbia professor-slash-campaign adviser Jeffrey Sachs, tourists were crowded around windows in buildings across the street just to get a glimpse of the underdog American presidential candidate, having been elbowed aside by a teeming mass of cameras and reporters.
As Sanders waded into the mass, a stricken look crossed his face, the look of a man who had long insisted he was trying not to politicize his less-than-a-day-long stay on Roman and Vatican soil, but who was suddenly aware that dozens of cameras from across the world were pointed straight at him, just inches from his face while Vatican security and Secret Service tried to wedge in around him.
Pinned near the well-worn brick walls, he launched into a hoarse but emotional version of his now-familiar recitation of his affinity for Pope Francis, and said the Pope’s environmental encyclical was having real-world effects. Sanders insisted it was important for him to be here, no matter the timing of Tuesday’s high-stakes New York primary.
Within minutes, he swiftly swiveled back up the driveway, beyond the ancient barriers, after hearing a question he didn’t much like — about whether he was courting Catholic voters with this trip.
He almost didn’t make it to the conference in time. The trip started on a frenzied note Thursday night as airport-bound campaign staffers and reporters piled into Sanders’ patchwork motorcade of white and black vans seconds after the evening’s debate in Brooklyn ended.
The candidate, however, stayed behind, and aides fretted as they watched the candidate talk to CNN on their phones and followed his progress on Twitter, the minutes ticking by and the already tight schedule getting tighter. Once Sanders finally peeled away, he rocketed from the Brooklyn Navy Yard to JFK Airport, pulling up on the tarmac to a massive, gleaming, chartered Delta 767 — a break from Sanders’ usual Eastern Airlines digs.
The traveling party was in the air less than two hours after Sanders walked off the debate stage.
Even upon his arrival eight hours later, Sanders was cutting it close: Bern Force One landed at the private terminal in Rome with just 52 minutes left on the clock before he was scheduled to speak at the Vatican conference.
Sanders made it in time to deliver a truncated, globalized version of his standard campaign address, soon after Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa addressed the audience in a small conference room surrounded by warm, deep-green courtyards and palatial, high-ceilinged rooms topped by intricately painted ceilings.
For hours Sanders was sequestered there, behind a placard reading “B. Sanders,” sitting and grinning next to Bolivia’s socialist (and anti-American) president Evo Morales. Nestled in the inner sanctum of the Roman Catholic Church — among the vaulted ceilings, ancient crosses, and religious icons — the most successful Jewish presidential candidate of all time couldn’t have looked more comfortable as he engaged in an academic conversation celebrating a quarter-century-old papal encyclical, with heavily-accented English bouncing off the spare wood-paneled walls and marble floors.
He remained ensconced there for much of the evening and overnighted at the papal residence, while his family — an entourage of his children, their spouses and four grandchildren — toured the Eternal City and aides and reporters alike tucked into pasta at an Elizabeth Taylor-themed tourist trap. In the end, all Sanders saw of the flawless, blue-skied Roman days was on the motorcade rides to and from the airport, providing him with fleeting glimpses of the Circus Maximus and the Largo di Torre Argentina, where Julius Caesar was stabbed.
Before he left though, after much speculation about whether he would receive an audience with the pontiff, Pope Francis came through for him. Sanders got a brief five minute audience with the pope early Saturday morning, just when it seemed he would be leaving without any face time with the spiritual leader of American Catholics — a high percentage of whom live in New York.
The campaign, and the pope, insisted there was nothing political about the get together. There were no cameras present (not even the campaign videographers brought along for the trip) but Sanders found time for a round of post-meeting celebratory interviews with the networks.
There was still one more adventure before returning to the pressure of the New York primary, and the grind of the campaign trail — which included a planned Brooklyn round table on Saturday evening.
Halting Roman traffic dead in its tracks as the Sanders motorcade sped to the airport to make its noon departure time, the senator’s wife Jane stopped the caravan to finish up the family vacation portion of the trip. With confused Romans looking on, trying to figure out who, exactly, was in the buses suddenly blocking the city’s busy intersections, she made an executive decision – departure schedule be damned, the Sanders grandchildren were going to find some Roman gelato.
The family eagerly piled out of the bus, but to no avail. The store was closed.
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