More on Zen-Bush

Jennifer Ambrose of Ambrose-a-rama was kind enough to point out that Cardinal Zen did, in fact, comment on his May 31 meeting with President Bush to the South China Morning Post (subscriber only):

“I am not confirming it, but if he wanted to see me, why shouldn’t I? Has Bush got leprosy?” Cardinal Zen said. “I am feeling that this is not something I should talk about.”

Unless Zen is being coy (and why would he be?), this is a pretty good indication that the Bush White House – and not Zen – leaked the news of the meeting. I don’t want to make a political judgment here, but I will point out that the leak itself seems to have been pretty self-serving, considering that it was almost simultaneously reported by the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page (subscriber only) and arch-conservative commentator Robert Novak. Both editorials painted the meeting as proof of Bush’s credentials on religious freedom issues (the absolute reddest of meat for Bush’s base), and both pieces have echoed around the Catholic blogs (for example, Rick Garnett‘s really excellent site). One wonders, though, if – before leaking the news – anyone at the White House bothered to touch base with Zen or anyone else in the Catholic hierarchy on whether such a leak would be a good idea for the ongoing diplomacy between Rome and Beijing.

Zen’s reticence with SCMP suggests that the White House didn’t give that much thought.

Finally, a brief note on Novak’s bizarre and parochial concluding sentence:

George W. Bush is at a low point among his fellow citizens, but he is still a major figure for Catholics in China who look to him as a clarion of freedom.

After nearly four years of reporting on China’s Catholics, I must admit that I have never – not once – met a Chinese Catholic who had an opinion on Bush’s stand for religious freedom. In fact, I’d venture to guess that most Chinese Catholics don’t even know that Bush has a reputation as a clarion of religious freedom. But that’s no matter to Novak, whose real purpose in writing about the Zen-Bush meeting likely had very little to do with religious freedom, anyway.


  1. I think you are being very unfair to the Bush administration here. I am pretty sure that Bush did not try to play this for political gain.

    Washington leaks like a sieve and if you didn’t notice in the article there were major efforts to stop this. IT seems like alarm bells were going off including in the State Dept and among the Church people. Also lookat the sourece where Novack got it from. That is a serious religious reporter not some Republican hack. In other words don’t assume this came from the White House. THere were tons of people that knew about this and not too happy with it.


  2. I think it’s a fair comment when you write that Bush did not try to play this for political gain. You’re right: there’s no evidence for that. But I think it’s very clear – from Novak’s article – that the Bush White House (not Bush, per se) is more than happy to see this story circulating in the press, and in a manner which benefits Bush politically. Whether Bush is participating in that is another matter.

    How else to explain Novak reporting that the meeting was the idea of a Bill McGurn, a very conservative White House speechwriter? That info certainly didn’t come from State – nobody there would know it. It could ONLY come from the White House and, more importantly, it could only be confirmed by the White House. And Novak’s reference to “Ambassador Squish” is just classic White House Political Office (and probably not approved by Bush, a man admirably disinclined to criticize friends).

    I really don’t want to get involved in the politics of this. To me, what’s most interesting is that Zen clearly preferred that the meeting remain secret (not matter how naive that may seem). That says quite a bit about the current status of the Beijing-Rome dialogue.

  3. Good catch, Frank, and I now concede that the White House probably didn’t leak directly to sympathetic editorial pages. Where the leak came from, however, is still in question. The story cites “Church sources” in China and the United States.

    It might well be that the White House wanted to keep quiet about the meeting, but then decided to fan the story to sympathetic editorialist once the leak appeared in the Catholic media.

    Anyway, thanks for pointing that out. Unless something new comes from this, I’ll leave the “Zen Bush” [love that combination] meeting to history.

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