William A. Wilson, confirmed by the Senate Wednesday as the first U.S. ambassador to the Vatican in 116 years, is a longtime friend and adviser to President Reagan who argued long and hard to upgrade U.S. diplomatic ties with the Holy See.
Before his nomination, Wilson served as the president's unpaid special envoy to the sovereign city-state. He was nominated to become ambassador in January 1984, just hours after a joint Vatican-State Department statement announcing the establishment of full diplomatic relations and creating the ambassador-level post.
Wilson had pushed for the exchange of ambassadors between the Vatican and Washington since he arrived in Rome just three weeks after Reagan took office. Wilson describes the difference between 'special envoy' and 'ambassador' as one of protocol.
'Under protocol, I sit in the back row in a dark business suit,' he said in an interview with United Press International. 'The ambassadors are in white tie, up front.'
A convert to Catholicism, Wilson has worked out of a five-room apartment that overlooks the Vatican, a tiny enclave of piety and intrigue surrounded by the bustle of the Italian capital.
Wilson is a member of Reagan's close-knit circle of California friends -- the 'kitchen cabinet.'
He and his wife, Elizabeth, have two children and became acquainted with the Reagans in the 1960s and are close social friends. Wilson was one of the Cailfornia entrepreneurs who shepherded Reagan through the ranks of California politics and eventually into the White House.
When Reagan was governor, he appointed Wilson to the Board of Regents of the University of California in 1972. When Reagan was elected president, Wilson and a handful of other close friends worked on the advisory committee that screened and eventually selected Reagan's cabinet.
The United States has not had diplomatic relations with the Vatican since 1868 and the last time a president -- Harry Truman -- tried to renew formal ties, the nomination was swamped by congressional controversy over the constitutional separation of church and state.
Since negotiations between Washington and Rome were quietly resumed last year, opponents, have been working to block implementation of the full diplomatic ties, succeeding for a time in delaying both Wilson's confirmation and a reprogramming of funds for the ambassador-level post.
But Wilson himself was never an issue, with opponents such as Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., praising his personal qualities and objecting not to the man but to the precedent.
'Nobody is opposed to Bill Wilson,' Helms said at the time of Wilson's confirmation hearings. 'Bill Wilson is one of the finest human beings I know. I'd like to see him in some other position in government. I'd like to see him sitting at the right hand of Ronald Reagan advising him.'
Wilson is a California native who was graduated from Stanford University. He became president of Web Wilson Oil Tools Inc., but left that post in 1960 to become active in real estate and livestock in the United States and Mexico.
He also was on the board directors of the Earle M. Jorgensen Co., owned by another of Reagan's Los Angeles friends, Earle Jorgensen. The Jorgensens and Reagans regularly vacation at Wilson's ranch near Nogales, Mexico.