Clinton contrite at prayer breakfast President apologizes to Lewinsky, tells clergy members 'I have sinned'

The Starr Report

September 12, 1998|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Finally delivering the kind of soul-baring speech of remorse that his critics and allies alike have been calling for, President Clinton, his eyes welled with tears at times, told religious leaders yesterday, "I have sinned" and "I have repented."

Hours before a humiliating accounting of his misdeeds in the Monica Lewinsky scandal was made known to the world, Clinton spoke to a hushed audience of more than 100 ministers, rabbis and other clergy at a long-scheduled White House prayer breakfast.

In a solemn, halting voice, the president read from handwritten notes that he said he stayed up late Thursday night preparing.

"I agree with those who have said that in my first statement after I testified, I was not contrite enough," he said, referring to his much-criticized Aug. 17 address to the nation in which he acknowledged an inappropriate relationship with Lewinsky but showed little remorse. "I don't think there is a fancy way to say that I have sinned."

For the first time, he publicly asked for forgiveness from Lewinsky, the former White House intern who told independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr that she engaged in a 18-month sexual relationship with the president in the White House that began when she was 22.

"It is important to me that everybody who has been hurt know that the sorrow I feel is genuine," he said, as Hillary Rodham Clinton looked on, seated near the podium but showing little emotion or expression. "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."

Mike McCurry, Clinton's spokesman, said the president has not contacted Lewinsky privately to apologize.

Clinton, whose words of remorse and apology for his behavior in the Lewinsky scandal have become more frequent and more direct in recent days, said he had finally arrived at the "rock-bottom truth" of what he had done. And, in remarks televised on all major TV networks, he vowed to change his ways and "repair breaches of my own making."

In stark contrast to his defiant Aug. 17 confession in which he attacked Starr for invading his privacy and insisted that his sworn denials of a sexual relationship with Lewinsky were "legally accurate," Clinton yesterday went out of his way to avoid laying blame on others -- even as he vowed to fight to save his presidency.

He said that it may be the case that "the bounds of privacy have been excessively and unwisely invaded." But even so, Clinton quickly added: "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."

In outlining his road to "genuine repentance," Clinton said he would instruct his lawyers "to mount a vigorous defense, using all available appropriate arguments," but without obscuring the fact "that I have done wrong."

He said, too, that he would seek pastoral support "and that of other caring people," raising the prospect that he might seek professional counseling. Asked about that possibility, a White House spokesman said that was a private matter that "should remain in his family."

In a third point, Clinton said, "I will intensify my efforts to lead our country and the world toward peace and freedom, prosperity and harmony."

Clinton's emotional speech was punctuated with occasional applause and shouts of affirmation -- "Yes sir" and "Thank God" -- from an audience that included Vice President Al Gore and several Cabinet members. Many appeared to be moved by the president's words.

Rev. Fred Davie, parish associate at First Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn, N.Y., told reporters: "I think that he couldn't be more contrite and anybody who doesn't believe that this man doesn't feel deeply for what he has done has a different agenda altogether."

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who has counseled Clinton and his family during the crisis, called the speech "a moving act of confession of sins" and said the president was now "putting his soul ahead of his politics."

Jackson said what many of the president's aides whispered privately: If this speech had been made weeks earlier, it may have made "a profound difference" on the situation and climate Clinton faces today.

At one point in his remarks, Clinton's voice choked with emotion and a tear sprang from his eye as he repeated an anecdote he told earlier this week about a young boy in Florida who told him he wanted to grow up to be president and be just like him.

"I want the parents of all the children in America to be able to say that to their children," Clinton said.

"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."

Clinton concluded his speech by reading a passage from a Yom Kippur prayer book, "Gates of Repentance," and then asked the group "to share my prayer that God will search me and know my heart."

Pub Date: 9/12/98

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