For an American Catholic, what happened next almost defies imagination. According to the Catholic News Agency:
After observing [the image] for a while, Mrs. Clinton asked “who painted it?” to which Msgr. [Diego] Monroy [the rector of the basilica] responded “God!”
Now, it would be both easy and tempting for someone who dislikes Mrs. Clinton's politics (I plead guilty) to point to this story as proof that she's unfit for her current position, especially since it comes on the heels of another gaffe when she went to Europe on her first overseas trip as Secretary of State. There, she brought out a kitschy prop with a red button on top, on which her aides had told her was written the Russian word for "reset." The only problem was that, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pointed out, the word that the State Department chose--peregruzka--means "overcharge."
Both incidents illustrate a bigger problem, however--one that afflicted the Republican George W. Bush administration as much as the Democratic one of Barack Obama. (For the record, I voted for neither man, nor for their major-party opponents.) Those who run the foreign policy of the United States, in both parties, are often naive at best, and, at worst, ignorant of the history, culture, and traditions of those with whom they are dealing.
That's part of the reason why, on a practical level as well as a moral one, both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI turned out to be more correct about the war in Iraq than did President Bush and all of his advisors. They understood the situation better not only because they were not ideologically committed to "spreading democracy" and "nation-building," but because they have quite simply paid attention to developments in the Middle East throughout their adult lives.
How does the son of a president get elected president without knowing that he shouldn't publicly call the president of Russia "Vlad"? How does the wife of a former president who has spent her entire life in public service not know the most prominent of details of the story most dear to Mexican Catholics, the largest group of immigrants to the United States for close to two decades now?
The Bush administration's State Department (not to mention its Department of Defense) strained relations with the world's one billion Muslims, often unnecessarily. Barack Obama, in pursuing his commitment to abortion rights and embryonic stem-cell research, has already set up unnecessary conflicts with Catholics in the United States.
This administration cannot afford diplomatic missteps with the Holy See or with those countries in which large numbers of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics reside. If President Obama is serious about bringing change to Washington, D.C., he might start by demanding that all of his diplomats learn, not simply to think, but to study before they speak. Breaking the cycle of ineptitude in foreign policy that has characterized both Democratic and Republican administrations for 35 years would be change that we can believe in.