Clinton's Repentance--And Ours

Many of those present for Bill Clinton’s prayer breakfast repentance were moved. Unlike his August 17 address to the nation, this speech was contrite enough to convince. Of course, many of his spiritual advisers have been counseling Clinton for many months to tell the truth for the sake of his own soul, his family, and the nation. To admit "sin" now, after having been caught by a relentless prosecutor, cornered by a grand jury, and run out of delaying and obfuscating tactics clearly has not persuaded everyone of the sincerity of the president’s repentance. My religious mother (who voted for Clinton) put it this way: "He didn’t really repent, he just got caught."

But even "foxhole conversions" can be genuine. In the wave of ever-stronger reactions, even from his own party members, to the president’s "immoral" and "disgraceful" behavior, Clinton is becoming increasingly sorry, but he still wants the nation to forgive him and to "move on."

By anyone’s definitions, Bill Clinton has much to repent of. But, maybe, so do the rest of us. Much has been said about Clinton being the first "baby boomer" president. And to be honest, the now terribly public revelations of the president’s behavior are embarrassing to many of our generation. While Bill Clinton may be characteristically excessive, are there ways that his behavioral style is all too representative of an America led by our generation?

WHILE CLINTON’S moral failures are astounding, are they also archetypal, and do they give us all reason for reflection? Perhaps there is more to repent of here than just his betrayal of his family and the public trust.

  • Should we repent for thinking that being smart matters most and that if you’re very bright, talented, and aggressive you can get away with a lot? The only way to make sense of Clinton’s reckless and self-indulgent behavior with Monica Lewinsky is that he must have thought he could get away with it. How many of the rest of us think that same way?

  • Should we repent for thinking that being liked by everybody can get you anything you want? Or that "working the room" is more important than working on your own character? Clinton has a way of telling everybody what they want to hear. He has never been known to be guided by a consistent moral compass. But isn’t this flexible moral style highly rewarded these days? Does anyone argue with success anymore, no matter how it’s achieved?

  • Should we repent for thinking that style really is more important than substance? Clinton knows that in our society, looking good is more important than being good. How many of us live by that same maxim?

  • Should we repent for thinking that getting people to believe you is more important than telling the truth? Is Clinton the only one these days who thinks spin doctors are the best advisers?

  • Should we repent for thinking that power and success allow us to break the rules, or that playing the game is fine as long as you don’t get caught? Surely Bill Clinton is not the only powerful person, inside and outside Washington, to believe that power entitles us to more benefits, instead of demanding of us more service to others.

  • Should we repent for our arrogance and egotism--and for the recklessness that risks the really important things in life for passing pleasures? Taking stupid chances that could compromise or destroy valuable relationships and accomplishments is hardly just a characteristic of the leader in the White House.

  • Should we repent for thinking that our behavior doesn’t have to have any consequences? A shopkeeper in Israel, grieving over the failing Middle East peace process, asked an American relief worker recently, "Doesn’t your president understand that his actions affect me personally?" How many people could be affected by each of our self-imposed afflictions?

THE PRESIDENT’S BEHAVIOR really has had consequences. A wife and daughter have been painfully betrayed, but those are private matters and we should all pray that the first family can find the healing it needs. Sadly, there have been great public consequences too.

This president, who has perhaps the most "comfortable" style we have yet seen in the White House, seems uncomfortable with truth-telling, and not just in regard to private matters. Stonewalling, and bending and spinning the truth, are now, unfortunately, even further entrenched as the way a president carries on public discourse. Instead of establishing a new style of leadership that gradually wins back more participation in the political process, Clinton has led people to be even more cynical about politics. And the unfolding fiasco pushes us to make dangerous distinctions between personal morality and public performance.

The performance of the economy has become a justification for ignoring moral issues, another dangerous development. If the economy begins to tumble, will the president’s job performance ratings finally begin to plunge? Should the thrill of owning a new sports utility vehicle really allow us to overlook the public misdeeds of our leaders?

This whole sad chapter in American history has also been a great national distraction from the truly important issues of our public life. The nation’s children have been subjected to months of tawdry public talk about sex and have lost the president as a role model. Mothers on welfare haven’t gotten the help their families need to move out of poverty. A new national conversation on race has turned from a critical matter to a hardly noticed series of obscure events.

Campaign finance reform has gone nowhere. Famine in the Sudan is being ignored. The dangerous nuclear arms race in South Asia has fallen out of the headlines. Saddam Hussein is still obstructing weapons inspectors and we will have to do more to deal with the Osama bin Ladens of the world than shoot off a few cruise missiles. The president’s own agenda on education, health care, child care, and Social Security has badly faltered.

To invoke the name of God is a powerful thing, but politicians and ordinary citizens should be careful: You never know where repentance might lead. We are all weary of these tragic events. Resignation or impeachment are the political topics now, but the real issue here is moral accountability. How will moral accountability ever happen with Bill Clinton? Or with the rest of us? How could his genuine repentance--and ours--begin to teach our nation something about spiritual values?


At 6:56 p.m. on September 3, 1998, Luke Carroll Wallis came into the world. Seven pounds, seven ounces and 20 inches long were the vital statistics. More vital was a healthy baby who entered the world without distress in a good, natural labor. Sporting lots of dark hair and big blue eyes, Luke went straight to his mother’s breast and to his happy parents’ hearts.

This first week of Luke’s life was full of pure delights. Helping him learn to feed, watching him sleep, giving him his first bath, getting to know every part of his little body, interacting with those lovely blue eyes, taking him out for his first walk and enjoying people’s smiles and attention, wondering about his future, smiling at each other a lot--these have been the initial wonders for Joy and me. Our world is full of light at the moment.

I’ve often reflected, throughout the week, how universal these experiences are. Parents rich and poor, in all colors and creeds, in every culture and nation have known these delights for millennia. Having a baby is the most common thing in the world. And yet, each little part of welcoming this new life into your life seems so unique and special to the parents and family involved. That’s common grace. It is, indeed, a gift from God, and nothing makes us more aware of how precious God’s gifts are than a newborn baby. Life itself seems more precious to us right now than it ever has before--an almost universal experience for parents.

Perhaps that’s why when we see children threatened by famine, war, or extreme poverty, our hearts go out. This is not supposed to be. Everything in you wants to protect and nurture that child. You didn’t really know that in addition to each other, you could love someone else so much, and so immediately. It’s a powerful feeling as new parents, and one we suspect that God has a great deal to do with.

While I’m a Fellow at Harvard this year, we’ll have a lot of time together as a family, yet another blessing. We walked all around the beautiful campus of the Episcopal Divinity School yesterday, on a perfect fall day. All the new students were having their orientation, just like we were having ours as new parents. We wandered into the empty chapel, and I realized it was Luke’s first time in church. When I saw the pulpit, I couldn’t resist climbing up there with Luke asleep in the baby carrier against my chest. I guess I just wanted him to get used to being in a pulpit--you know, just in case. I thought he seemed remarkably comfortable! Joy noted that he was asleep, as people often are in church.

Holding him in the delivery room, I did pray, as many parents do, that Luke would be everything that God desires of him and created him to be. Offering your child to God is a way of offering yourself to God again, and it felt that way to me. For the religious and not, there is powerful spirituality in the birth of a child. Already, we’re learning a little about the unconditional love of God for us in the way we feel about our own child. Through one of the most universal human experiences, parent after parent is taught the lessons of love and life. And all is grace.

JIM WALLIS is now a regular contributor on ethics and public policy to the opinion page of the MSNBC Web site ( where portions of this column appeared.

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