By Hanna Rosin
With tearing eyes and a trembling voice, President Clinton succeeded yesterday in convincing a room full of religious leaders that he was genuinely sorry about his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky and embarrassed about the way he handled it. One after another, ministers, rabbis and imams left the White House prayer breakfast saying they were moved by the sight of the most powerful man in the world humbling himself so thoroughly before them.
Dozens of those who spoke afterward said they were confident that the speech marked a turning point on Clinton's road to personal salvation. Even many who had once been reluctant to forgive the president set aside any concerns they had about being used to provide moral cover and conveyed their approval.
The Rev. T.D. Jakes, a popular Dallas preacher, said he was not a Clinton supporter but he saw the president's speech as a powerful narrative of redemption. "Americans can relate to his human frailty and are looking to see if it's possible to restore fallen people," said Jakes. "What message would we send to the American people if we tell them it's impossible to change? That would be far more devastating."
Many of the 106 religious leaders in attendance said they were won over by the president's deference to religious touchstones, by his repeated references to the fact that he had "sinned," that he had reached "rock bottom," that he had a "broken spirit." Just as important, he named all those he had wronged his staff, his family and especially Monica Lewinsky a crucial step, many of them said, on the road to healing.
He was conversant with a diversity of religions, allowing representatives of many faiths to hear echoes of their own traditions in his words. Many African American ministers picked up hints of Psalm 51, an abject plea by a sinner for moral restoration that Clinton had been studying the long night before. "I know my transgressions," reads the verse, a guiding text in many African American churches, "and my sin is ever before me."
"Turning does not come so easily," it reads. "It means breaking old habits. It means admitting that we have been wrong."
By the end of his speech, many of the clergy said they had experienced a rare moment of the spirit stirring and were moved to offer their pastoral protection.
"It was a truly holy moment for me," said Rajwant Singh, director of the National Seikh Center in Washington.
"I felt it was a religious experience," said the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, general secretary of the National Council of Churches.
"It was a scene of biblical proportions," said Rev. Robert Franklin, director of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta.
The prayer breakfast is held every year at the White House, and the fact that it took place just as Kenneth W. Starr's report was being released was a fortunate accident of timing for Clinton. Every fall, the president has invited a diverse group of religious leaders to discuss topics ranging from health care to his summer reading. While leaders from most religions Catholic, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus are invited, most represent the more liberal traditions in their particular religion.
Outside the prayer breakfast, there were still spiritual doubters. Members of the National Association of Evangelicals had received an invitation to the breakfast but declined, saying their presence "could be misconstrued." And some religious leaders not invited have called for Clinton's resignation.
But for most of those who were there, the moment was historical. For this one morning, they said, the power dynamics of a nation were reversed, with many seeing themselves not as guests before the country's president, but as spiritual guides to a healing sinner. Many mentioned that Clinton looked "sad" and "tired," that he had been up until 4 a.m. preparing his speech. They talked of his pulling down his glasses as a sign of aging and vulnerability. Some swore they saw tears in his eyes.
With a brief, 12-minute apology, the president went from moral pariah to moral exemplar. Many of the pastors and rabbis said they would use his story as a modern parable for upcoming sermons. Rabbi Alan Cohen from Missouri said that on his plane ride home, he would try and construct a Yom Kippur sermon revolving around the president as the central character.
In his closing benediction, the Rev. James Forbes, a prominent black preacher from Riverside Church in New York, urged the clergy members to open their hearts to the president and convince the nation to do the same, according to several participants at the breakfast.
Forbes read from Psalm 130, where King David waits hopefully for the Lord's forgiveness, as patient as the "watchmen of the morning." He then called on the nation to show its better side, and move from anger to forgiveness.
"The session set a tone of getting beyond the smallness of our current focus and moving to a bigness of spirit," said the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, the minister at Foundry United Methodist Church, where Clinton worships when he is in Washington.
Even the supporters, though, said the president still faces a long road ahead. The Rev. Franklin suggested the president go to a spiritual retreat, spend time in a monastery, or more time in Martha's Vineyard.
"Now that he has repented, he must begin rebuilding his life," said Franklin.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company