Originally created 09/12/98

Clinton apologizes to the nation, Lewinsky before religious leaders



WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, seeking spiritual solace at a moment of political peril, included Monica Lewinsky for the first time in apologizing Friday for his relationship with the former White House intern and for lying about it.

"I don't think there is a fancy way to say that I have sinned," he said, his eyes glistening.

Although Mr. Clinton has apologized several times publicly in recent days as the House prepared for possible impeachment proceedings, Friday's remarks to a gathering of religious leaders were the first in which he has directly mentioned Ms. Lewinsky.

"It is important to me that everybody who has been hurt know that the sorrow that I feel is genuine -- 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. But I believe to be forgiven, more than sorrow is required," he said.

Reading from notes as his hushed audience of more than 100 ministers, priests and other religious leaders listened, the president said he had a broken spirit but still hoped to regain the nation's trust.

"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," he said.

That remark drew hearty applause.

Mr. Clinton spoke just hours before the public release of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's report to the House accusing the president of perjury, obstruction of justice and other possibly impeachable offenses in connection with the Lewinsky affair.

While vowing to change his ways and "repair breaches of my own making," Mr. Clinton also said he would instruct his lawyers to mount a vigorous defense against the Starr charges, "using all available appropriate arguments."

"But legal language must not obscure the fact that I have done wrong," he added.

Afterward, some of the clergy praised the president for what they saw as a heartfelt penance.

"He couldn't be more contrite," said the Rev. Fred Davie of the First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn, N.Y. "Anybody who couldn't see that has another agenda altogether."

Rabbi Edward Cohn of Los Angeles said: "I love this man. I've been surprised how unforgiving religious leaders seem to be" -- referring to criticism from around the country. "I want to see him continue what he's started. He's good for America."

Mr. Clinton, delivering his 12-minute speech in the East Room of the White House, emphasized that he was struggling to heal the wounds he had inflicted on his family.

"As you might imagine," Mr. Clinton said, "I have been on quite a journey these last few weeks, to get to the end of this, the rock-bottom truth of where I am," he said.

The Rev. Bill Harrell, pastor of Abilene Baptist Church in Augusta, said the president's apology cannot absolve him from the consequences of lying to the public for so long."He may have to leave office," the Rev. Harrell said. "He certainly is going to be crippled as a moral leader. He will not have the respect of people, especially those in government."

Like many Americans, the Rev. Harrell said he questioned whether President Clinton was genuinely sorry.

"I would feel a lot better with his confessions if they were born out of a genuine inward repentance rather than being born out of having been discovered," he said.

"In the face of all this, I pray for him as the president. I've led my church to pray for him," the Rev. Harrell said. "My goal is his redemption and the redemption of his soul because I believe he's a lost man. I have all sorts of compassion for him and for his family.

"The problem is they're just mired in sin."

The president, after speaking at the prayer breakfast, turned to Dr. Gerald Mann of the Riverbend Church in Austin, Texas, and asked him to lead the assembly in prayer.

"Our Father, our great land needs healing, a healing of the soul. And so we pray for the soul of our first family," he said as Mr. Clinton stood at his side, head bowed. "For Chelsea, let her feel the love and the prayers that go out for her. For our first lady, give her the strength to continue to show all of us what grace and courage and mercy look like."

The president said he had come to realize that his first public statement about the relationship with Ms. Lewinsky had not been sufficiently contrite. That statement followed his Aug. 27 testimony on the matter.

Putting on his reading glasses, Mr. Clinton read a passage from the Yom Kippur liturgy that talked about fall as a time for "turning" that comes easy in nature but not for man. "It means breaking old habits. It means admitting that we have been wrong -- and this is never easy. It means losing face. It means starting all over again," Mr. Clinton read.

To muffled affirmations from around the East Room, Mr. Clinton concluded the passage with a prayer of his own:

"I ask that God give me a clean heart, let me walk by faith and not sight. I ask once again to be able to love my neighbor -- all my neighbors -- as myself, to be an instrument of God's peace, to let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart and, in the end, the work of my hands, be pleasing. This is what I wanted to say to you today."

First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton attended the session but did not speak.

Vice President Al Gore opened the prayer breakfast, which he called an annual opportunity to heal, with brief remarks in which he did not directly mention the Lewinsky matter or Mr. Clinton's legal peril.

"I've stood with him as he has led this nation, and on a personal note I would like to tell you he is not only a great president, he has been a great friend," Mr. Gore said.

Before the prayer breakfast, Mr. Clinton was criticized severely by some leaders of his own Baptist faith while other clergy talked of forgiveness.

"Enough condemnation has been heaped on him already without people adding further to the burden he must bear," said the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, pastor of the church Mr. Clinton attends, Foundry United Methodist.

"It's time for compassion. Regardless of what he's done, he's still a child of God," said the Rev. Barbara King, founder-minister of the nondenominational Hillside International Truth Center Inc. in Atlanta.

Staff Writer Amy Joyner contributed to this report.