ROME: He came (to Rome), he saw (the inside of the Vatican but not Pope Francis) and he conquered (the few dozen students and expats who turned out to see him).
In the process, Bernie Sanders got very nearly trampled by a Roman media scrum.
And with Pope Francis opting not to spend any time in the company of the Vermont senator, aides must have been wondering if the 8,500-mile roundtrip and two days out of the race to be the Democrat presidential candidate were worth it.
Sanders did have a few relaxed moments in the spring sunshine on Friday, strolling through the Vatican’s Perugino gate to greet a group of around 30 American expatriates and students brandishing “Go Bernie” and “Feel the Bern” placards.
The relaxed meet and greet lasted only seconds however before a swarm of international media engulfed the democratic socialist.
Flustered, flushed and looking all of his 74 years, Sanders stumbled at one point and briefly looked as if he might fall to the Roman cobblestones.
“Can we get everyone back behind the barriers,” one of the security team frantically shouted, before adding, more forlornly, “Could someone say that in Italian.”
Having recovered his balance, Sanders shoved forward and regained his focus. “Are there any American reporters here?” he asked.
The rolling maul of cameras, microphones and sweaty hacks never made it back behind the barricades, so Bernie opted to deliver his explanation of what he was doing here from the middle of it.
He said he had come to Rome out of respect for Francis’s positions on the global economy and the environment — “historic and incredible” positions the pontiff happens to share with a certain Brooklyn native.
“What the pope is saying is that we cannot continue to go forward when so few have so much and when greed is such a destructive force, not only in the United States of course but around this world,” Sanders said.
And he said Francis’s intervention in the climate change debate had been a game changer.
“So when I received this invitation, and I know it’s taking me away from the campaign trail for a day, it was so moving to me that it was simply something I could not refuse to attend.”
Sanders had flown to Rome at the invitation of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, a kind of Vatican think-tank on social, economic and environmental issues, for a Friday conference.
Some political commentators have suggested he was looking for a boost to his ratings among US Catholics with a trip that could be spun as an indication of Vatican endorsement.
Although the papal spokesperson had made it clear earlier in the week there was no prospect of a personal audience with Francis, the pontiff would normally have turned out to greet all of the attendees at such a high-profile seminar.
On this occasion however he sent a letter of apology, citing his need to prepare for Saturday’s trip to Lesbos.
Sanders was unlikely to get a warm greeting from two other attendees of the Vatican-hosted meeting — Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa and Bolivian President Evo Morales — both known for being hostile to US interference in Latin America.
The 79-year-old pontiff will have an early start with a 7am flight to catch to the Greek island at the centre of Europe’s migrant crisis.
Sanders may or may not have been disappointed with the papal no-show but American expatriates Linda Lauretta and Chelsie Nieman were delighted to have seen him in the flesh.
“We have been here since 9.30am this morning. We weren’t sure where he was going to be but luckily one of the Swiss guards took pity on us and told us to come here,” said Lauretta, an English teacher from New York state.
“I think a lot of Americans living outside of the US back Bernie because they have experienced different types of society and they can see them working.”
Nieman, a graphic designer from Atlanta, added: “I’ve just been really impressed with everything that he stands for.”