Obama’s Vatican scandal (Not!)

     Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (Susan Walsh/AP Photo)

    Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (Susan Walsh/AP Photo)

    I always thought that Jeb Bush was supposed to be the brainy guy in that family. I now stand corrected.

    On Thanksgiving eve, he tweeted this:

    Why would our President close our Embassy to the Vatican? Hopefully, it is not retribution for Catholic organizations opposing Obamacare.

    — Jeb Bush (@JebBush) November 27, 2013

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    Hang on a sec…Obama is closing our Vatican embassy? Yup, that’s the scoop from the wingnut entertainment complex. Last Tuesday, The Washington Times headline screamed: “Obama’s call to close Vatican Embassy is ‘slap in the face’ to Roman Catholics.” The Drudge Report duly picked it up, and the echo chamber reverberated. WND, a right-wing website, headlined: “Obama ‘insults’ Catholics in Vatican-embassy shutdown.” Breitbart News chimed in: “Obama administration is trying to diminish and discredit the Vatican’s role in the world.” The Daily Caller crayoned: “Catholics furious over Obama plan to close Vatican embassy site.”

    By now you’ve guessed the punchline: Obama isn’t closing the Vatican embassy. Last week’s hype was a baldfaced lie – potent enough, or exploitable enough, to attract the ostensibly sane Jeb Bush.

    Hopefully, on some not too distant day, a smart historian with a degree in psychology will look back on this era and analyze why so many conservatives have become allergic to factual reality. This psychosis has manifested itself so often – among the birthers, the skeet shoot paranoids, the Gettysburg truthers, the list is endless – that one is tempted to simply ignore the behavior. But no. In the name of rationalism, it needs to be called out.

    And so, in the case of Vatican-gate, here are the empirical facts: Obama isn’t closing the Vatican embassy. He’s moving it from its current location, a converted residential building in Rome, to a new location within the U.S. embassy compound in Rome. This move is slated for 2015. The new location is a free-standing building with its own address, and its own street entrance. And the whole moving process began years ago, when the U.S. bought the building adjacent to the U.S. embassy; the purchase was engineered by the George W. Bush administration.

    The new Vatican building is one-tenth of a mile closer to Vatican City than the current building. (No embassies, from any country, are physically situated inside Vatican City.)  In the new U.S. building, the size of the diplomatic staff will be the same as before. Nor is it unusual for a nation to locate its Vatican mission within its embassy compound. The United Kingdom does that. So does Israel.

    All told, the State Department says the move will save us $1.4 million a year – and boost security. On the latter point, a State official said last week: “The Mission to the Holy See is not (currently) in a building that has the kind of physical security protection that we would like it to have. It doesn’t have the setback from the street that is available in its new compound, and there are – it does not have the level of other security protections, including Marine security guards that are available at the combined U.S. Government compound.”

    So much for the latest lie. Which brings us back to Jeb Bush. Why would the ex-Florida governor and respected Republican wise man see fit to echo the lie on Twitter?


    Because Jeb wants to curry favor with Catholics – who are typically swing voters in U.S. elections. Catholics as a group favored Obama by two percentage points in 2012, and by nine points in 2008. But they favored Jeb’s brother W by five points in 2004. (The National Republican Senatorial Committee, gearing up for the ’14 Senate races, is similarly fixated on Catholic voters, as evidenced by a petition it launched last week, heralding the lie: “President Obama plans to close the U.S. embassy to the Vatican.”)

    You may have also noticed the flaw in Jeb’s second tweeted sentence, about “Catholic organizations opposing Obamacare.” Tweets don’t leave room for nuance, which perhaps explains why he overlooked certain inconvenient facts – for instance, that Catholicism is not monolithic; that a number of organizations, including the Catholic Hospital Association, have endorsed Obamacare and its rules for contraception coverage; that 54 percent of U.S. Catholics (according to a ’12 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute) believe that religiously affiliated bodies, like hospitals and colleges, should offer health plans with contraception at no additional cost; and that, more broadly, 82 percent of Catholics have told Gallup that contraception is “morally acceptable.”

    But Jeb was merely narrowcasting. He was trying to woo culturally conservative Catholics, and the fact-averse denizens of The Base. It’s a true sign that he’s keeping his presidential options open. To prove his bona fides to the rabid righters who vote heavily in early primaries, he needs to demonstrate that he too can sound unhinged. Yo Jeb, bravissimo!


    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal