For the President was visiting the first country in Europe where the political heirs of the dictatorships responsible for the last war - in this case the Fascists - are in government, to the horror of their neighbours and the special alarm of countries with growing right-wing extremist parties of their own.
Contact between the President and the neo-Fascists could not be entirely avoided: the 110 guests at a dinner to be given by the Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, last night included Gianfranco Fini, head of the neo-Fascist-led National Alliance (AN) who, for all his efforts to give the party respectability, has never expressly repudiated Fascism. There was also to be Giuseppe Tatarella, the AN's deputy prime minister.
Mr Berlusconi had sought to defuse objections to their presence by inviting Achille Occhetto, leader of the former Communist PDS, the main opposition party.
The President stood on the Capitol Hill - the Campidoglio - once the centre of the ancient world, and told Romans he had come to celebrate 'the crusade to restore liberty to this country . . . to give Rome back to its people'. He reminded them that freedom and democracy had enabled them to transform Italy 'into one of the world's great economies' and to stand up to Soviet expansionism. 'I am sure that Italy will pursue democracy with virtue and grace,' he said encouragingly.'
Questioned by the press about Italy's neo-Fascist minister, he said Mr Berlusconi had told him his government was committed 'top to bottom' to democracy. Also, in many other countries - he named Poland and Argentina - 'there are many political parties which have their roots in a less democratic past. And I have found it not only useful; but the only reasonable approach, to judge all people in governments today by . . . what they say and what they do when they are in power.'
Mr Berlusconi, for whom this was the first big meeting with a world leader since he took office, insisted 'this is a false problem. It has nothing to do with reality'. The latest survey said the media tycoon whose meteoric political rise was based partly on a shrewd use of opinion poll results, showed that only 0.4 per cent of Italians hanker for Fascism. 'In Italy there is no such thing as nostalgia for a period that we consider to be completely buried in the past, that has been condemned by history.'
He expressed gratitude to the President for 'what the United States, together with the Allies, did 50 years ago . . . this reconstructed Italy would not exist without the sacrifice of many young American lives.'
The President raised what is likely to be a principle theme throughout his journey: 'let us expand our blessings across a wider Europe' to encompass Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. And, being the first American President to be born after the war, he urged that it should be said 'in 50 years from now that the children of freedom and democracy were the builders of a lasting peace.'
That morning, in the centre of Catholic Rome, the Vatican, the President and a pale, haggard- looking Pope, still recovering from a hip replacement operation, aired their deep differences about contraception and world population control. These have come to a head over the UN conference on population and development in Cairo in September, where the Pontiff is campaigning to have the questions of contraception and abortion dropped, and the President has been resisting his appeals.
Mr Clinton is said to have stood his ground on contraception, but said he thought they could come closer on the 'larger issue', a 'policy of sustainable development which leads to improved roles for women and stabilisation of population'. He stressed, for the Pope's benefit, that the 'central role of the family' should not be undermined and the US does not and will not support abortion as a means of population control.