By Barb Fraze
Pope John Paul II meets Cuban President Fidel Castro Jan. 22, 1998. (CNS/Reuters)
WASHINGTON — The announcement of the thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations — and Pope Francis’ role in it — brought back memories of St. John Paul II’s historic trip to Cuba in 1998.
But if journalism is the “first rough draft of history,” as the saying goes, this piece from the Catholic News Service archives sheds light on how a presidential sex scandal stole the limelight from a trip that might — in history — have bigger implications.
John Thavis, then CNS Rome bureau chief, filed this story Jan. 28, 1998:
HAVANA (CNS) — When Pope John Paul II descended on Cuba, more than 2,000 journalists were waiting to cover what many news media considered the story of the year.
U.S. television networks rented out entire floors of Havana hotels. Camera crews jostled for the best positions on platforms at the airport arrival ceremony. Reporters combed the crowds for quotes. And then everyone went to work on what would surely be the lead story of the week.
A few hours after the pope arrived on Jan. 21, however, the U.S. networks pulled their anchors back home and scaled down their coverage: Allegations were surfacing that President Bill Clinton had had an affair with a White House intern.
Pope John Paul II meets Cuban children during his 1998 visit. (CNS/REUTERS)
It wasn’t long before former intern Monica Lewinsky enjoyed as much notoriety as Fidel Castro, and TV specials on “The Pope in Cuba” were replaced by reports on the presidential crisis.
For reasons that Vatican and Cuban officials may never understand, a Washington sex scandal had bumped the pope from the top of the news.
“I was very disappointed,” said U.S. Archbishop John P. Foley, the Vatican’s top communications official, who was a commentator for NBC News during the papal visit. “I thought it was an unfortunate indicator of priorities.”
Archbishop Foley said the pope’s trip was of tremendous significance for the United States and the world.
“Maybe this other event is historic, too, but I don’t think in the same dimension,” he said.
Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls made the best of it.
“All the same, we think the message is getting across, in and outside of Cuba,” he said Jan. 24 after being informed of the latest U.S. coverage (Read More)