His Holiness: John Paul II and the Hidden History of Our Time
by Carl Bernstein, by Marco Politi
Doubleday, 582 pp., $27.50
The glossy publicity material for His Holiness, a book being published simultaneously in eight countries and in excerpted form by Reader’s Digest, contains a list of nineteen “Possible Questions” for the authors. Designed for anticipated press conferences and interviews, these questions are anything but probing and do not suggest that the authors, both investigative journalists, hold their colleagues in high esteem. Nevertheless, such “puff” questions are revealing in their way: more than half of them are invitations to the authors to boast of their discoveries, and they show that Bernstein and Politi (who writes for the Italian daily La Repubblica) mean their sub-title to be taken seriously. They do believe that they have brought to light the hidden history of our time.
Their book is written in a style appropriate to such a claim, rhetorically inflated and awash in hints of secret conversations, confidential informants, and unrevealable sources. In their chatty descriptions of people, places, and events, the authors miss few opportunities to reproduce a cliché. A Jewish attorney in the Pope’s birthplace is said to have been held “in the highest esteem both by his co-religionists and by most of the Gentile movers and shakers of Wadowice.” As a substitute for an account of Karol Wojtyla’s debt to Polish literature we are told that “Adam Mickiewicz, the Romantic bard, in particular set strings resonating in Karol.” At audiences with the new Pope, we learn, “nuns went crazy.” His Holiness is simultaneously urgent and soggy, with gobbets of interesting information adrift in a tumbling onrush of breathless, “colorful” prose.
What have our authors discovered that lay hidden before? According to their own claim, two things. First, a hitherto unknown alliance during the 1980s between Pope John Paul II and the Reagan administration, whose aim was to bring down communism in Europe and prevent its appearance in Central America. Second, that the role of the Pope in engineering the downfall of communism in Europe was vastly more important than anyone had hitherto suspected. They also claim to have revealed for the first time the nature and extent of US (covert) support for Solidarity after the imposition of martial law in Poland in December 1981, and to have shown that it was papal influence that shaped US policy in other matters—notably the opposition of the Reagan and Bush administrations to international agencies that support and practice family planning.
Since the authors are cagey about some sources—”secret,” “confidential,” and “private” appear frequently in the rather unhelpful endnotes—and heavily dependent on interviews (over three hundred by their account), it is impossible to check or corroborate much of the information. But it seems reasonable to believe them when they tell us that William Casey (director of the CIA) and Vernon Walters (“Presidential ambassador-at-large”) met regularly with the Pope, briefing him on US satellite information about Soviet troop movements and the like. It seems plausible to infer that the US administration came to think of the Polish Pope …