PRESIDENT CLINTON'S PLEA FOR FORGIVENESS
September 11, 1998
President Clinton requests forgiveness at a White House prayer breakfast before the Starr Report was released. Phil Ponce speaks with the Rev.'s Paige Patterson and C. Welton Gaddy.
JIM LEHRER: Now the President's new request for forgiveness. It came early this morning at a White House prayer breakfast before the Starr was released. Here's an extended excerpt from what he told the 100 or so religious leaders who were present.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I may not be quite as easy with my words today as I have been in years past, and I was up rather late last night thinking about and praying about what I ought to say today. And rather unusual for me, I actually tried to write it down. So if you will forgive me, I will do my best to say what it is I want to say to you -- and I may have to take my glasses out to read my own writing.
First, I want to say to all of you that, as you might imagine, I have been on quite a journey these last few weeks to get to the end of this, to the rock bottom truth of where I am and where we all are. I agree with those who have said that in my first statement after I testified I was not contrite enough. I don't think there is a fancy way to say that I have sinned.
It is important to me that everybody who has been hurt know that the sorrow I feel is genuine: first and most important, my family; also my friends, my staff, my Cabinet, Monica Lewinsky and her family, and the American people. I have asked all for their forgiveness. But I believe that to be forgiven, more than sorrow is required -- at least two more things. First, genuine repentance - a determination to change and to repair breaches of my own making. I have repented.
Second, what my bible calls a "broken spirit"; an understanding that I must have God's help to be the person that I want to be; a willingness to give the very forgiveness I seek; a renunciation of the pride and the anger which cloud judgment, lead people to excuse and compare and to blame and complain. Now, what does all this mean for me and for us? First, I will instruct my lawyers to mount a vigorous defense, using all available appropriate arguments. But legal language must not obscure the fact that I have done wrong. Second, I will continue on the path of repentance, seeking pastoral support and that of other caring people so that they can hold me accountable for my own commitment.
Third, I will intensify my efforts to lead our country and the world toward peace and freedom, prosperity and harmony, in the hope that with a broken spirit and a still strong heart I can be used for greater good, for we have many blessings and many challenges and so much work to do. In this, I ask for your prayers and for your help in healing our nation. And though I cannot move beyond or forget this -- indeed, I must always keep it as a caution light in my life -- it is very important that our nation move forward.
I am very grateful for the many, many people -- clergy and ordinary citizens alike -- who have written me with wise counsel. I am profoundly grateful for the support of so many Americans who somehow through it all seem to still know that I care about them a great deal, that I care about their problems and their dreams. I am grateful for those who have stood by me and who say that in this case and many others, the bounds of privacy have been excessively and unwisely invaded. That may be.
Nevertheless, in this case, it may be a blessing, because I still sinned. And if my repentance is genuine and sustained, and if I can maintain both a broken spirit and a strong heart, then good can come of this for our country, as well as for me and my family. (Applause.) The children of this country can learn in a profound way that integrity is important and selfishness is wrong, but God can change us and make us strong at the broken places.
I want to embody those lessons for the children of this country -- for that little boy in Florida who came up to me and said that he wanted to grow up and be President and to be just like me. I want the parents of all the children in America to be able to say that to their children… I ask you to share my prayer that God will search me and know my heart, try me and know my anxious thoughts, see if there is any hurtfulness in me, and lead me toward the life everlasting.
I ask that God give me a clean heart, let me walk by faith and not sight. I ask once again to be able to love my neighbor -- all my neighbors -- as my self, to be an instrument of God's peace; to let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart and, in the end, the work of my hands, be pleasing. This is what I wanted to say to you today. Thank you. God bless you. (Applause.)
JIM LEHRER: And to Phil Ponce.
PHIL PONCE: Joining me are two religious leaders: Rev. C. Welton Gaddy of Northminster Baptist Church in Monroe, Louisiana, attended today's White House prayer breakfast; he's executive director of the Interfaith Alliance, which promotes the role of religion in public life; and Rev. Paige Patterson of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina; he's president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Gentlemen, welcome. Rev. Gaddy, you were in the room. What was the mood like?
REV. C. WELTON GADDY, The Interfaith Alliance: It was a stunning moment. I couldn't help but think that seated in a place that epitomizes the height of political power, there was a pervasive humility, recognition of the frailty of people who sit in places of power.
PHIL PONCE: And your personal reaction to what the President said?
REV. C. WELTON GADDY: I was deeply moved by what the President said. But you have to understand that when people confess to me, I assume that they're telling the truth.
PHIL PONCE: Rev. Patterson, your reaction.
REV. PAIGE PATTERSON, Southern Baptist Convention: Well, I was very grateful for the very different tone that we heard in this speech today, but there is a difference between forgiveness, on the one hand, and competency to serve on the other hand. I hope that the President's confession is sincere this time, but, after all, this is a man who is a serial liar. He has been saying things time after time after time which are simply not true. Why should we believe him now? Only time will really tell. He needs to step down.
PHIL PONCE: And, Rev. Gaddy, is that what it'll take? Will that be the test, time, what happens over time?
REV. C. WELTON GADDY: Time certainly makes a difference. I understand what Dr. Patterson's saying about the tone. And a lot of people have questioned the tone of the President's confessions. Confession, by its very nature, is an intensely personal matter. And anyone who's been in a pastorate and listened to people confess know that early on there is one kind of attitude and mood, and as things move on and there's interaction with what's been done, there's another. I think time has helped the President come to grips with the wrong that he's done, the profundity of that. And we're seeing that reflected in the way he talks about it now.
PHIL PONCE: And how does that tie in with the question of his continuing ability to serve?
REV. C. WELTON GADDY: Well, the decision about his ability to serve is going to be a political decision. I think it's a wonderful opportunity to see if we can model understanding and forgiveness. Now, I do want to make a distinction, because there are two tracks here. There's a spiritual track and there's a political track. On the spiritual track I think he's making progress; I think he's getting healthier, and that means things are getting brighter. With the release of the Starr report today on the political, legal track, things are probably getting darker. So he's going in two different directions on those tracks.
PHIL PONCE: Rev. Patterson, the intersection of the private, the moral, with the public, the political?
PHIL PONCE: Rev. Gaddy, no longer capable of leading?
REV. C. WELTON GADDY: It depends on how you understand leadership. There is the idea - and I think a very valid one - that the leader is a person who comes to grips with his or her frailty, and often after an experience that is an experience of failure or of wrongdoing, if the person rightly deals with that, can be strengthened in character and even enhanced in a capacity to lead. It really comes down to whether we approach that from the understanding of do we want a leader that becomes sensitive and compassionate because of having been through that kind of valley, or do we have to have a leader who is free and perfect, and, if that's the case, we're in trouble.
PHIL PONCE: Rev. Patterson, impossible to have a perfect leader?
REV. PAIGE PATTERSON: Oh, no, of course not. There are no perfect leaders, but there are certainly leaders who have not proceeded with the public they attempt to lead by misleading the public again and again and again. The factor that you have here is that under oath this President has misrepresented the truth. He has lied to the American people. There is no good reason why anybody should believe him and follow his leadership at this point, and there's no good reason why he ought to put himself, his family, and the nation through any more of this for his own sake, get alone with God, get alone with his family, and renew those relationships that are needed.
PHIL PONCE: Rev. Patterson, you are a fellow member of the President's denomination. Did you believe him today?
REV. PAIGE PATTERSON: I have only hope that he was telling the truth. To say whether I believe him or not would help. It is God who must judge. But I hope that he was telling the truth. Even if he were telling the truth, it's still time to resign.
PHIL PONCE: Time to resign, Rev. Gaddy?
REV. C. WELTON GADDY: I do not agree with that. I think we are at a teachable moment, a moment that could strengthen us as a nation. At the end of the breakfast today Jim Forbes talked about this being a time when all Americans could examine their own lives -
PHIL PONCE: Quickly, Jim Forbes is -
REV. C. WELTON GADDY: Is pastor of Riverside Church in New York City. He said this is a time for all of us to look at ourselves, to recognize our capacities, our potentials, and for all of us to engage in a kind of penitence that we're looking at the President for doing. There is no - I don't know if anybody that wants to defend what the President's done. I certainly don't. It was wrong to the core. At the same time, I want to give the President an opportunity to be a leader in a brand new sense of confessing his wrong and of showing us that there is hope beyond wrongdoing and that he achieves what can be achieved -
PHIL PONCE: Rev. Patterson, have you personally forgiven him?
REV. PAIGE PATTERSON: Yes. If he wants my forgiveness, he certainly has it. I love this man, and I do not want deep sorrows to come to him any more than what have already come to him. And that's exactly one of the major reasons that I think he ought to leave office at this present time. Our nation does not need the spectacle of an impeachment hearing. His family does not need it. He does not need it. Set the example of what a man ought to do in a case like this, and get alone with God and with his family.
PHIL PONCE: How about that? The connection between repentance and resignation.
REV. C. WELTON GADDY: Well, I understand that we have a justice system that I believe in firmly. And impeachment is a part of that system. If the President is convinced that he still has the right to lead and the ability to lead and that he has not committed impeachable offenses, then I think the process ought to work, and we'll see where that process leads us.
PHIL PONCE: Rev. Patterson, a difference between impeachable offenses and offenses against God?
REV. PAIGE PATTERSON: Oh, yes, certainly so. There are impeachable offenses that perhaps would not have anything to do with God. There are other offenses that have to do with God that might not be impeachable. To me, the issue is not nearly so much the question of impeachment; it's a question of character. And unless we return to heroes in this country that are men of character - whether in public office, in sports, or in the ministry - we are going to destroy the family and, hence, our nation also.
PHIL PONCE: Quickly, Rev. Gaddy.
REV. C. WELTON GADDY: Yes. I am all for the discussion of character, and clearly the President did some things that represent poor judgments in character. It would be equally tragic, though, if we come down on the President in a way of judgment that suggests that none of us have reason to be penitent as well. And if the discussion about justice in this case uses a man's personal tragedy to advance partisan political purposes, that is an even greater tragedy.
PHIL PONCE: Gentlemen, I'm afraid we're out of time. Thank you both very much.