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Clinton Talks of 'Self-Inflicted Wounds'

Clinton speaking at Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs, Mass. (Reuters)

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By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 29, 1998; Page A01

OAK BLUFFS, Mass. Aug. 28 – In the sweltering summer heat of a crowded church, President Clinton spoke today of the pain of "self-inflicted wounds," the struggle for redemption and the path toward to forgiveness.

Clinton came to the 129-year-old Union Chapel here to honor the 35th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. He recalled weeping as he watched King's speech on television, at the age of 17, and he remembered King's message to love one's enemies. In his own season of personal pain, Clinton suggested he has tried to follow that example.

"All of you know, I'm having to become quite an expert in this business of asking for forgiveness. It gets a little easier the more you do it," Clinton said.

"But I have to tell you that in these last days, it has come home to me, again, something I first learned as president, but it wasn't burned in my bones, and that is that in order to get it, you have to be willing to give it."

Clinton made no direct mention of his affair with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky and the investigation by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, though many in the crowd of 400 said there was no doubt about the meaning of his words. As he spoke, it was as if the audience – black, white, young and old – collectively embraced him.

"People make mistakes and there needs to be room for forgiveness," said Nancy Wewiorski, one of many in the audience who warmly received Clinton and praised him for what he said.

Since his Aug. 17 speech to the nation in which he admitted an inappropriate relationship with the young woman, Clinton has been urged by aides and friends to show more remorse. Many thought that statement was also marred by the anger he expressed toward Starr. Today's remarks, however indirect, seemed to be Clinton's way of acknowledging the criticism and telling the nation he had taken it to heart.

"And so it is important that we are able to forgive those we believe have wronged us, even as we ask for forgiveness from people we have wronged," he said in what many here agreed was an apparent reference to the independent counsel.

After he finished speaking, the president joined the audience in singing "We Shall Overcome."

Aides said they had no idea today was the day Clinton would return to the themes of the controversy; speechwriters had prepared a three-page address solely on the topic of King and civil rights. But Clinton abandoned the text around 11 this morning, outlining his remarks in longhand on the backs of two sheets of the typed address. He was still refining his thoughts in the limousine four hours later.

"The whole thing, lock, stock and barrel, was his," said spokesman Barry Toiv, who refused to offer any additional insight into the speech. Aides would not say if today's remarks would be Clinton's final comment on the Lewinsky scandal. First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and daughter, Chelsea, did not attend today's event, which was one of many around the country commemorating the historic civil rights march.

Even before Clinton rose to speak in the church, a wooden octagon painted in the shades of the sea, it was clear today's event became a part of the healing process aides say the president has begun in the wake of his admission he lied about the affair.

"Mr. President, you have been my friend and you will always be my friend," said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) as Clinton blinked back tears. "I was with you in the beginning and I will stand with you now till the end."

Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree, who advised Anita F. Hill during the Senate's confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, delivered a rousing endorsement of Clinton the man and Clinton the politician, noting the president's support on issues such as health care, abortion and race.

"All those times it was very easy for us to be with you because you were with us," said Ogletree, as Hill watched from the front row. "And now in difficult times I want you to know that the people here understand and feel your pain, believe in redemption and are here because of you and are here with you through thick and through thin."

Clinton has often risen to rhetorical heights when in the black community and today he artfully wove together the experiences of South African President Nelson Mandela, America's civil rights leaders and even Russian President Boris Yeltsin, whose thin grip on power appears to be slipping fast as his country falls deeper into economic chaos.

"Well, I should go to Russia, because, as John said, anybody can come see you when you're doing well," Clinton said.

He recalled a conversation with Mandela in which he asked the leader of the anti-apartheid movement how he was able to make peace with men who had imprisoned him for 27 years.

"'You can't make me believe you didn't hate those people,'" Clinton said, recounting his remark. Mandela acknowledged he despised his oppressors for years. "And then he said, 'They could take everything away from me – everything – but my mind and my heart. Now, those things I would have to give away. And I simply decided I would not give them away.'"

Clinton conceded he feels as Mandela once did.

"And all of us – the anger, the resentment, the bitterness, the desire for recrimination against people you believe have wronged you," he said, "they harden the heart and deaden the spirit and lead to self-inflicted wounds."

Today's 90-minute event – and the president's emotional speech – stood in marked contrast to Clinton's political visit to Worcester on Thursday in which he delivered a flat and at times rambling account of his administration's achievements and its latest efforts to curb youth violence.

As he sat in the chapel today and listened to other speakers, Clinton at times appeared distracted and at other times moved. Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Harvard University sociologist who greeted the president when he arrived on Martha's Vineyard last week, said he felt the speech was therapeutic for the president. "He looks a thousand times better than he did that day," Gates said.

Gates said Clinton's appearance today should put to rest calls for him to offer a detailed apology. "I don't think Americans want him to go further," he said. "This was the subtle, sophisticated thing to do. Those that want him to do more in public have ulterior motives."

Lewis, a leader of the civil rights movement, said Clinton called him earlier in the week to make certain he would be welcome at the event, largely a tribute to Lewis who spoke at the march 35 years ago.

Lewis told Clinton: "You have to be here."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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