In February 1994, CT's Philip Yancey and David Neff joined President Bill Clinton and a host of dignitaries in listening to a bracing moral lecture from the late Mother Teresa. Her passion for truth trumped any concern she might have had for the feelings of the powerful gathered in the Washington Hilton ballroom. Later that same day, Neff and Yancey interviewed the President in the Oval Office and the presidential limousine. In writing up that interview (CT, Apr. 25, 1994, p. 24), Yancey contrasted Mother Teresa's bold loyalty to truth with the President's perennial penchant for taking his cues from the crowd.
That interview in the limo was a metaphorical moment: as Neff and Yancey questioned him about his views on abortion, a distracted President scanned the sidewalks, waving to people. He seemed to need constant affirmation, and the likelihood was low that he would deal with Mother Teresa's bracing slap with the hand of righteousness.
In 1994 we saw a politician eager to give the people what they want. On August 17 of this year we saw the same thing: the President's polls showed that the people would forgive him for having sex with an intern, but that they favored impeachment for perjury. So the President gave the people what he thought they wanted—so he could get what he wanted. In a televised nonapology, the President owned up to the "inappropriate relationship" with Monica Lewinsky, but hid behind weasel words on the issue of perjury.
The President was wrong. When he offered the nation his grudging statement of regret and then proceeded to blame others for his troubles, he shed his last shred of moral authority. That moral authority had been based in part on his famous compassion. But that Clintonian compassion was hollow: having led his friends, staff, family, and supporters into lying for him, it was clear he had no feelings for anyone but Bill. We learned that he'd been operating several commandments short of a decalogue.
The prodigal president
The week the President "apologized" was also the week our editorial staff was putting the final touches on a series of essays on the parable of the Prodigal Son, which will appear in our next issue. It was profoundly disturbing to meditate on that wonderful parable of radical grace while hearing the President's attempt to excuse his stonewalling and his misleading of his wife, daughter, friends, and nation.
The President was no prodigal, limping home, hoping for some minimal acceptance as a servant. He was still in the far country, hoping somehow to make it on his own.
The parable of the Prodigal Son, like the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin also found in Luke 15, is about Jesus' joy in searching out sinners. The shepherd finds the lost sheep, the housewife finds the lost coin, the Father declares his son once lost but now found. But there is a huge difference between being found and being cornered. That difference, though, is in large part what the lost will make of their being discovered. Will they, as Kenneth Bailey writes in our next issue, "accept to be found"? (For that is the notion of repentance in these parables.) Or will they find in their moment of discovery that they are cornered?
On August 17, Bill Clinton acted like he was cornered. There was no mea in his mea culpa. He no sooner acknowledged an "inappropriate" sexual relationship with a female intern less than half his age, than he started blaming those who were doing their duty in pursuing the truth and upholding the law. Even his subsequent attempts at apology—to his cabinet, to party loyalists, to Democratic members of Congress—looked more like sandbagging operations to shore up crumbling support than like the fruit of personal reflection. For Bill Clinton, there was no openness to being found.
And the American people were not like the elder brother, refusing to forgive or to celebrate. Indeed, we are often eager to forgive. One of the fundamental religious narratives of Western civilization is repentance and restoration. This storyline undergirded the willingness of Jimmy Swaggart's followers to accept his weeping confession and restore him to their affections. Swaggart's sin, said Garry Wills in his book Under God, did not disillusion his followers but confirmed their belief that all are sinners, and his confession was the necessary next act in the drama of restoration. What amazes us is that though Clinton comes from a conservative Christian background, he doesn't seem to understand the fundamentals of remorse and repentance required to restore relations.
If, as some observers have suggested, Clinton's life bears the marks of addiction, this lack of remorse is understandable, since addictive personalities are skilled at denial and often refuse to acknowledge their problem even when cornered and confronted.
The President's failure to tell the truth—even when cornered—rips at the fabric of the nation. This is not a private affair. For above all, social intercourse is built on a presumption of trust: trust that the milk your grocer sells you is wholesome and pure; trust that the money you put in your bank can be taken out of the bank; trust that your babysitter, firefighters, clergy, and ambulance drivers will all do their best. And while politicians are notorious for breaking campaign promises, while in office they have a fundamental obligation to uphold our trust in them and to live by the law.
It is legitimate to debate whether Paula Jones's sexual harassment suit should have been allowed to go forward against a sitting President; it is reasonable to discuss whether Ken Starr's Whitewater inquiry should have been delayed and whether all the avenues he pursued were part of his mandate. But whether or not the President's legal problems should have been put on hold, unsavory dealings and immoral acts by the President and those close to him have rendered this administration morally unable to lead. Surely those close to him, who believed his denials and risked their own credibility for him, will have to work hard to trust him again. The rest of us may have lost less individually, but the public perception that the Establishment cannot be trusted, increasing ever since Watergate, has been solidly reinforced.
Bill Clinton missed a truly historic moment. August 17 could have been a great opportunity for national healing. A straightforward admission, with some evidence of contrition, would have brought openness and resolution. But while he had the nation's attention, he let his anger at Ken Starr get in the way, and he fumbled.
The President is no Prodigal Son, limping home toward reconciliation. But he is limping, and he will have more difficulty than any other lame duck administration commanding the respect and attention of the American people.
No doubt Bill Clinton has been counting on something other than his apology to carry him through the next two years. A booming economy has long propped up his popularity, and we are sure he did not foresee the precipitous stock market "correction" of late August. A big-stick foreign policy has also been a classic ploy to boost presidential ratings. But his attack on reputed terrorist sites in Sudan and Afghanistan left many with questions about timing and appropriateness. Did he minimize the extent of his apology in the knowledge that in a few days he would be diverting attention to Osama bin Laden?
Conservatives who have been combating religious persecution abroad were particularly vexed by the attack on a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory. For several years, the administration has been minimizing the abundantly clear evidence of officially encouraged enslavement and crucifixion of Christians in that country's southern region. Fearing the disruption of trade relationships, the administration had been unwilling to make the Sudan into the international pariah it should be. But now, on the slimmest hint that precursors of chemical weapons were being produced there, they fired missiles that turned the Sudan into a martyr.
Can we put it behind us?
Amidst the widespread dissatisfaction with the President's apology and the calls for his resignation, some of the nation's most prominent religious leaders issued a pastoral letter entitled "An Appeal for Healing." Signed by the National Council of Churches' Joan Brown Campbell and Andrew Young, among others, the August 27 document pointed to our common sinfulness and the President's cursory "It was wrong" statement, and called us back to the business of government. "It is time once again to be led by our President. We need our country back," it said.
While the need for national healing cannot be gainsaid, this document tried to rush a necessarily slow process. Just as no one recovers from a divorce or a death in the family in six months, so no country can bounce back from presidential betrayal in ten days.
How much wiser was the Christian Century's Jim Wall, who spotted unfinished business. The simple "It was wrong" was not enough for Wall, who wrote that "a confession does not argue; it admits wrongdoing in a spirit of honest contrition." Wall also displayed a pastoral concern for Monica Lewinsky and her family, to whom, he said "the president owes … a public apology and request for forgiveness." The issue is not whether she was a predator, Wall said, but the President's abuse of power for personal gratification over an extended period of time.
At this writing, we expect Clinton to hang tough, to remain the comeback kid he is known to be. He has played that role well in the past, and we see little evidence that he will try a fresh approach. As we pass through a period of increasingly intense political struggle, we cannot help thinking what a difference true contrition could have made.
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