By Richard S. Dunham
I was leaving the White House one day this week when I ran into Charles Colson, the ex-Watergate burglar who served time for his crime. He was visiting the other Big House for the second consecutive day to take part in discussions on federally funded social services provided by religious groups. Colson now runs a respected Christian fellowship program for prison inmates. His pardon, if it comes, will be delivered by a higher authority than the President of the United States.
Funny how the issues of faith and forgiveness seem inextricably intertwined in Washington these days. Former President Clinton set off a political firestorm when he pardoned fugitive billionaire Marc Rich just hours before his term ended. Rich had fled the U.S. and renounced his citizenship rather than face criminal charges that he cut business deals with America's Middle Eastern adversaries in violation of federal embargoes. Rich's ex-wife, New York songwriter Denise Rich, has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Democratic National Party and even gave some fancy parting gifts to the Clintons to help furnish their new homes.
Clinton forgave Marc Rich, but many Democrats can't and probably won't ever forgive Bill Clinton. "I don't think any fugitive from justice ought to get a pardon," says Democratic Representative Martin Meehan (D-Mass.), a former prosecutor. Some longtime party loyalists are aghast at his final act in office. "The Rich thing is beyond anything I can imagine," says longtime Democratic National Committee Chairman Bob Strauss. "For lack of a worse word, [it's] sickening to me.... I think this has left a stain that is hard to erase."
Clinton's faith that he can weather any political storm is being severely tested. Still, he isn't known as "The Comeback Kid" for nothing. His golfing buddy and fund-raising ally Terry McAuliffe is taking over the Democratic National Committee, and Clinton will be able to make news every time he delivers a $100,000-a-pop speech. But it will take time to restore public faith damaged by the pardons, the gift spree, reports of fraternity-like pranks by outgoing White House staffers, and the controversy over the former President's costly midtown Manhattan office rent.
For George W. Bush, a different kind of faith is on the agenda. At numerous White House events and a field trip into inner-city D.C., President Bush emphasized the role that faith-based initiatives can play in delivering everything from nutritional to spiritual sustenance. On Jan. 30, he established a White House Office of Faith-Based & Community Initiatives. On Feb. 1, he spoke of his own faith at the annual National Prayer Breakfast. "I believe in the power of prayer," he told the nondenominational, multicultural gathering. "[Faith] has sustained me in moments of success, and in moments of disappointment. Without it, I would be a different person, and without it, I doubt I'd be here today."
Bush's faith seems to reach beyond religion. His faith that he can work with congressional Democrats in the same cooperative manner he operated in Austin strikes some Hill veterans as "naive," Bush conceded in an unprecedented appearance by an opposition-party President at a Senate Democratic retreat on Feb. 2. Still, the President says he'll try. That sort of faith has led Bush to invite liberal Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy to the White House three times in his first two weeks on the job. Clinton never hobnobbed with conservative Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) that often.
While Bush may in time be proven naive about his hope to rid the nation's capital of partisan bile, he certainly has succeeded in changing the tone, short-term. By inviting key Democratic liberals to help shape major policy initiatives, he has all but guaranteed that they won't engage in the politics of personal destruction, even when they disagree on policy proposals. And he seems likely to win congressional support for programs that allow churches, synagogues, and mosques to provide social services. "The days of discriminating against religious institutions, simply because they are religious, must come to an end," Bush argued on Feb. 1.
That's music to the ears of the Religious Right and the GOP's voter base. But Bush's emphasis on faith and forgiveness also plays well in minority communities. And most congressional Democrats are not eager to bash religious institutions and religious Americans. Indeed, if there's such a thing as the "Religious Left" in America, he has put it on the defensive.
If Chuck Colson can walk into the White House -- proud, forgiven, and politically ascendant -- then there is hope for the Comeback Kid. Still, Clinton might want to take a lesson from Colson and Bush. Before forgiveness and redemption, there must be repentance.
Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his Washington Watch column every week, only on BW Online
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht