Q & A: Regrets, He's Had A Few
By Trude B. Feldman
Sitting in the Oval Office for a one-on-one interview with me last week, President Clinton said that he is yearning to make amends for his personal transgressions in a way "that will redeem me." His demeanor was serious and somber. He said he was now focusing on "re-earning the trust and esteem of my family and the American people."
Here are excerpts from the interview, which concentrated on the power of repentance.
Q: A central part of the liturgy of Yom Kippur is "The Confessional"--an appeal to God to forgive, pardon and grant atonement to all who pray. Simple, yet comprehensive, this majestic prayer lists 44 sins committed during the past year that we enumerate for ourselves and our communities. What is your reaction to such a prayer?
A: What really has been helpful to me in the last several months and particularly in the last few weeks is religious guidance that I have been given about atonement from the Yom Kippur liturgy, to remind me that while it is unusual for the president to be in a public situation like this, the fundamental truth is that the human condition--with its frailties and propensity to sin--is something I do share with others. And the most important thing about that is not that I can say, oh, thank God I'm not the only sinner in the world. Rather, it is that I can believe in the reality of atonement and ultimately of forgiveness. . . .
You know, some people say to me, "I feel so terrible for you. It's so awful what has been publicized to the whole country, the whole world." Believe it or not, and I know it's hard for people to believe, that has not bothered me very much because of the opportunity I've had to seek spiritual counseling and advice and to think through this and to try to focus much more on how I can properly atone, how I can be forgiven, and then how I can go back to healing with my family.
Q: How will you strive to be a better president as well as a global leader?
A: I think any time a person has to go through a searing personal experience and come to terms with truth, and genuinely atone, and genuinely make the effort to change, that's an immensely liberating experience. It makes you stronger. It makes you straighter. And I think that if people can see that in me, my ability to be president and to do things that are good for the American people will be strengthened, not undermined.
Q: What good do you envision will come out of your present predicament?
A: . . . It gives me a chance to make my marriage whole, and my relationship with all my other friends whole, in a way that the keeping of secrets that are destructive cannot. And I also believe the American people will be more likely to support me because every American has been broken by something in life. . . . Every person who has any self-awareness and honesty knows that. So I think there will be a real sense that . . . we can make a clean breast of this and have a new burst of energy as a country. You know we have a lot of serious challenges out there. Actually, I'm really looking forward to tomorrow and all the tomorrows because I feel freer than I have in a long time.
Q: What do you feel you are doing now to redeem yourself? What has been the price to pay?
A: I think there has been quite a large price to pay. That's self-evident. You know, I think that it's the whole airing of it publicly, what we've all been through. I think there's been a price there. . . . I think there will be a price each day. To a person who has a conscience, that's the biggest price you pay. When you do something you don't believe in, the price you pay is the price you exact from yourself
Q: On Yom Kippur, the Jewish people fast for 24 hours--one way to put themselves in the frame of mind to atone. As you may know, the word "atone" has a simple origin--to be at one again with God. How would you return to be at one with God?
A: It is important to be in the right frame of mind. For me, atonement is not only atoning for a specific thing I did that was very wrong, but to deal also with the various attitudes surrounding it--the desire to lash out, the desire to be angry, every other destructive feeling. You have to atone for them all and then try, insofar as humanly possible, to keep the state of mind that the Jewish people try to achieve on the Day of Atonement every day.
Q: The Jewish New Year is a new beginning . . . . Another image of the holy day is that the slate is clean. How will you wipe your slate clean?
A: You point to a very important concept, because the truth is the hardest thing to come face to face with. When you do wrong . . . it's hard to forgive yourself. Yes, in the Jewish tradition, the slate is wiped clean and you start anew. With real repentance, I'm told, the sins are effectively removed. Christians, too, believe that when God forgives a sin, it is as if He forgets the sin. So it's important for people not to forget--but to remember, as a principle . . . to be able to forgive themselves once they know God has forgiven them.
Q: How will you regain the trust of foreign leaders who look to you for leadership?
A: Remember, most of them come out of different cultures. Those who have telephoned me with encouragement believe I have done nothing, in my public life, to forfeit their trust, and that my private life, whether it is good or bad or troubled or happy, is not their business. So I think foreign leaders tend to see this episode in a completely different way. There is no reason, based on my public record and my discharge of public trust, that they or any Americans could doubt that.
Q: What would you now say to the children around the world who admire you and look up to you as a role model?
A: I would tell them that all people can make mistakes, even presidents. That's the bad news. The good news is that if you acknowledge your errors, and you change, you can go forward free again. Also, that basically I am not an example that one can break the rules in life and get away with it if one is powerful enough. I am an example that you should not break the rules, no matter who you are. But if you do, you must atone before going ahead.
Q: What about your conduct in the future? What have you learned from your improper conduct that you would apply?
A: The positive way is to try and take daily inventory, to organize the beginning and end of the day, and not let the sun go down in anger--as Scripture says. I'd say now that I need to begin each day aware of what my responsibilities are. The Jewish New Year is a symbol of what a person ought to do every day. Each day should be a new beginning. Personal and professional things happen daily to each of us, and many things can throw us off stride. The idea is to organize your life so you get back on course.
Q: How are you coping today? How do you avoid wallowing in regret?
A: Instead of wallowing in regret, I am working at repairing my life and my marriage. My wife is a remarkable woman, and her strength and support are a constant inspiration to me during this painful time. I'm doing the people's business. At the same time, I'm diligently working with my family on the healing process. Wallowing in regret is a cop-out.
Q: What do you expect to accomplish in your remaining time at the White House?
A: Well, two years ago when you interviewed me for my 50th birthday, I told you that even if I live to be 100, I will have more yesterdays than tomorrows. Now, each one of my tomorrows is more precious, and now I am even more acutely aware of that. Also, I never did understand why, for example, a president, in a second term, could feel that it is time to relax because most of the work has been done. I don't believe that. I think perhaps the greatest achievements for America and for the world are still in the future. We have serious challenges ahead. In my remaining two years and four months as president, I expect to achieve more of my goals. That's how I look at my situation. I am not marking time. I feel immensely energized by where we are today and where we are heading.
Trude Feldman is White House correspondent for the Las Vegas Sun and for various publications with emphasis on religion and foreign policy.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company