Clinton warms to topic of forgiveness President hears words of support at ceremony on civil rights anniversary

August 29, 1998|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In his first reference to his personal troubles since his poorly received confession speech nearly two weeks ago, President Clinton told a friendly audience yesterday that he's "having to become quite an expert at this business of asking for forgiveness."

But, in a speech from his vacation retreat on Martha's Vineyard commemorating the 35th anniversary of the civil rights March on Washington, the president stopped short of actually asking for forgiveness or apologizing for his actions in the Monica Lewinsky matter.

Amid calls from some of his closest advisers to deliver more contrite remarks than he did in his brief address Aug. 17 -- when he admitted an inappropriate relationship with the former White House intern -- Clinton appeared to be heading toward an apology yesterday as he spoke of lessons he learned from the civil rights movement.

But after discussing the need to forgive "those we believe have wronged us," and saying he learned an important lesson about the art of forgiveness from South African leader Nelson Mandela, Clinton neither asked for forgiveness nor offered any sort of olive branch to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, whom he has attacked and blamed for some of his troubles.

Speaking in a chapel in Oak Bluffs, a historically African-American community on the island of Martha's Vineyard where the Clintons have been vacationing since the day after his televised confession, Clinton received a lengthy ovation.

To mild laughter and applause, he said: "All of you know I'm having to become quite an expert in this business of asking for forgiveness. And it gets a little easier the more you do it. And if you have a family, an administration, a Congress and a whole country to ask, you're going to get a lot of practice."

"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," he continued without mentioning any details of his own situation. "The anger, the resentment, the bitterness, the desire for recrimination against people you believe have wronged you -- they harden the heart and deaden the spirit and lead to self-inflicted wounds.

"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. And I heard that first in the civil rights movement -- 'love thy neighbor as thyself.' "

Clinton has made no public apology since the Aug. 17 speech, which has been sharply criticized by Democrats and Republicans alike for its lack of expressions of contrition and defiant words against Starr. But the president has reportedly made calls in recent days to congressional Democrats that have been described by a presidential adviser as apologetic and explanatory in tone.

Asked about the president's remarks yesterday, White House spokesman Barry Toiv said, "Nobody knew he was going to do this." Clinton spoke from handwritten notes and apparently discarded the prepared speech.

Toiv declined to expand on Clinton's comments, but said the president had meant the speech, in which he also discussed his philosophy for dealing with Russia's turmoil in the context of standing by a friend in need, to reflect the impact of the 1960s civil rights movement on his life.

Clinton's remarks, part of an event celebrating the 35th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, marked the second time in two days that he has made public appearances before friendly audiences, trying to move onto policy issues and put the Lewinsky matter out of the spotlight.

Yesterday, Clinton was introduced by one of his fiercest allies in Congress, Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and major figure in the civil rights movement. "Mr. President, my friend, my brother. I will stand with you from now until the end," Lewis said.

Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree Jr. -- who represents former Clinton Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy and early Lewinsky lawyer Francis Carter -- also offered words of comfort to Clinton.

After thanking the president for his support of civil rights issues, Ogletree said, "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."

Pub Date: 8/29/98

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