President Calls for Reconciliation
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 5, 1999; Page A3
Adopting his familiar role as repairer of the breach, President Clinton urged a roomful of members of Congress and world leaders gathered for yesterday's national prayer breakfast to purge themselves of hatred, even if at times it feels justified, and reconcile with their enemies.
"Remember that all the great peacemakers in the world in the end have to let go and walk away, like Christ, not from apparent but from genuine grievances," he told a packed ballroom at the Washington Hilton. "If Nelson Mandela can walk away from 28 years of oppression in a prison cell, we can walk away from whatever is bothering us," he said.
Clinton did not mention his impeachment trial or his own moral struggles of late, sticking instead to such far-off examples as Middle East peace and Kosovo. But Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) said what was on many people's minds when he asked the gathering of 3,000 to forgive the president and help him atone.
With his eyes closed, Lieberman asked for a "special prayer during this time of difficulty for the president, that you hear his prayer, that you help him with the work he is doing with his family and his clergy, that you accept his atonement."
That message drew its most enthusiastic response from one of the president's own ministers, Anthony Campolo, who said he hoped the meeting might mark a turning point in the nation's unforgiving mood.
"I am convinced from knowing him that he wants the next couple of years of his presidency assuming there is a next couple of years to be a period of reconciliation, internationally, nationally and personally," said Campolo, one of three ministers who meets biweekly with Clinton, and the only one at the breakfast.
The 47th annual event, chaired this year by Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.), is designed to be an occasion free of politics, where world leaders gather to pray for the president and vice president, and urge reconciliation throughout the world.
The audience included heads of state, members of Congress and local clergy. They gathered to hear prayers from several national leaders, among them Vice President Gore, former senator John Glenn (D-Ohio), Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) and Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.). Christian author Max Lucado spoke about the need for humility in divisive times.
Largent, a Christian conservative who gave the Republican response to the president's State of the Union speech last month, upheld the spirit of the event by reaching out to the man he voted to impeach just a few weeks ago.
"I may not have voted with you, but I want you to know, Mr. President, I care for you and I love you," said Largent, speaking from the lectern after the president's remarks.
But in some ways the event was rancorous before it began. Many prominent Christian and Jewish leaders boycotted the breakfast because Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was attending, and a few hundred protesters gathered outside the hotel with signs reading "Arafat is a Terrorist."
Clinton, however, reminded the crowd of Arafat's consistent if fitful attempts to make peace with Israel.
"You do not make peace with your friends," Clinton said, "but friendship can come, with time and trust and humility, when we do not pretend that our willfulness is an expression of God's will."
While the crowd accepted Clinton's general appeal for harmony, reactions to his personal redemption were mixed, ranging from barely concealed hostility whispered in the hallways to warm and public embrace.
Unlike the White House prayer breakfast where Clinton made his abject apology in September, the president does not choose the invitees at this one. While most religions are represented, the list is dominated by conservative evangelicals, few of whom support this president. So unlike the last event, the president did not sway any fixed minds.
"I was impressed by the genuinely Christian tone he maintained, especially given the backdrop of what's going on on the Hill," said the Rev. Eugene Rivers, a Clinton supporter and well-known minister who works in inner-city Boston.
But many were merely perfunctory and polite.
"He is a master," said the Rev. Charles Nestor, senior pastor of the 1,500-member Manassas Assembly of God, about Clinton's speech. But when asked if he thought Clinton had repented, he replied: "Only God can say that about any of us. ... Like everyone else I am laying my political views aside today."
At one point, Clinton stepped gingerly into a debate that has plagued him during past prayer breakfasts: whether political leaders misuse religious symbolism for their own ends.
"When we take up arms or words against one another, we must be very careful in invoking the name of Lord," he said, using Adolf Hitler's perversion of Christianity as an example.
Though he raised the subject in another context, Clinton himself has been accused of being careless with religious language and using it as a shield against his enemies, most dramatically in a declaration signed by 140 moderate theologians and scholars.
"We fear that the religious community is in danger of being called upon to provide authentication for a politically motivated and incomplete repentance that seeks to avert serious consequences for wrongful acts," they wrote.
But Campolo dismissed those fears, saying the president is taking his responsibility to repent "seriously."
"I'm sad when religious leaders become so cynical that when a man says I want to pray and get other people to help me, they automatically read into that a negative political interpretation," he said.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company