Tearful Bush speaks of prayer to Baptist group

June 07, 1991|By Andrew Rosenthal | Andrew Rosenthal,New York Times News Service

ATLANTA -- Wiping away tears as he recalled praying at Camp David before ordering the start of the Persian Gulf war, President Bush offered yesterday a testimony of emotion, politics and faith to a cheering crowd of thousands of Southern Baptists.

In a speech to the annual gathering of the Southern Baptist Convention, Mr. Bush did not touch on issues over which the nation's largest Protestant denomination has differed with him.

Among these is his stated support for John E. Frohnmayer, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, whose dismissal by the president was demanded in a resolution passed Wednesday by the meeting's delegates, who are upset with grants given to projects deemed offensive to religion.

Instead, Mr. Bush ran through a list of issues on which he and the Southern Baptists' conservative leadership are in agreement but which some conservative critics have accused him of abandoning during his presidency.

He condemned any effort to re-establish federal financing of abortion, called for a constitutional amendment permitting organized prayer in public schools and demanded that Congress pass his anti-crime bill within the next week.

But it was his highly personal, ad-libbed anecdote about a moment of prayer that caused the 23,000 delegates in the hall of the World Congress Center to rise to their feet with a roar and shouts of "Amen!"

Mr. Bush's own reserve cracked, and his eyes welled with tears, as he told the gathering that he and his wife, Barbara, prayed with their minister at Camp David.

"For me, prayer has always been important but quite personal," Mr. Bush said.

"And like a lot of people, I have worried a little bit about shedding tears in public, or the emotion of it. But as Barbara and I prayed at Camp David before the air war began, we were thinking about those young men and women overseas. And the tears started down the cheeks, and our minister smiled back, and I no longer worried how it looked to others."

At that moment, his voice broke, and tears filled his eyes. He brushed at them with a finger. Then he turned to the cameras near his lectern, flashed one of the incongruous grins that often appear in his moments of emotional discomfort and pointed to his cheek. "Here we go," he said.

Mr. Bush confessed to reporters afterward that he felt a little embarrassed by his display of emotion before the group. "I do that in church," he said. "Maybe in public it's a kind of a first, or maybe a third."

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