When Is It Time to Forgive?

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What happens now?

The president of the United States has admitted inappropriate behavior with a young woman who is not his wife. The nation's chief executive further has acknowledged that he "misled" the American people - meaning he lied by omission.

This is an awkward moment. The presidency - the most powerful office in the world's most powerful nation - is left in an embarrassed state. The president, by the way he's handled his moral dilemmas, has presented Americans with a moral dilemma of their own: how to respond.

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Last week, in a public appearance after his admission, President Clinton floated an overture, although not quite in so many words, to those struggling with the matter. He talked about forgiveness - about forgiving and being forgiven.

Issues other than forgiveness still must be resolved; for example, it remains to be determined whether he has broken the law. But his proposition for forgiveness seems tempting. Forgiveness, he seems to say, is the charitable thing. Forgive, and the matter can be over. Forgive, and the next step is to forget - a blessed relief from the whole sordid business.

Americans should, indeed, be prepared to forgive. But before we do, we should first put ourselves in the president's place. Only then can we begin to see whether the time is right for forgiveness. To do this we must imagine ourselves exposed as he is - caught badly in the wrong and knowing it. Caught in deception, betrayal, outright lies. Caught in behavior that can be neither explained nor condoned.

In truth, most of us have been there in some way, at some time, whether in situations worse than the president's or not as bad. In some degree, we know how it feels.

And having been there, we can be honest with ourselves: We know when forgiveness is deserved, and when it isn't. We know, too, that what matters most is not winning the forgiveness of others, but earning the forgiveness of ourselves.

How do we earn our own forgiveness? First, by a full, frank, and usually painful acknowledgment of the wrong we've done - dropping the self justifications and denials in which we've cloaked ourselves, examining our behavior in the cold light of truth, and admitting where we have failed to meet the standards we know are right.

Second, having recognized those standards, we dedicate ourselves to meeting them, and to leaving behind our former sense of ourselves. This, of course, is only a beginning; all of us know from hard, disappointing experience that mere intentions don't count for much. Only when we have proven to ourselves that we are changed can we know that we have earned our own forgiveness.

This process of repentance and reform - of redemption - is wholly internal. It's difficult, if not impossible, for others to know whether it has occurred. The legal system may punish or pardon; family, friends, and even public opinion polls may forgive or condemn, but if this internal change has not occurred, the matter is not yet over.

However, when genuine reform does occur, most of us express it in the form of sincere, unreserved apologies and vows of change. Only then do we ask others to forgive us.

So, is it time for us to forgive Mr. Clinton? It might be, if he showed the kind of contrition we recognize as indicating genuine repentance. But his admissions have been grudging, and his apologies have been more implied than stated. He has not sounded like a man changed.

And his overtures for forgiveness have come surprisingly soon. Rumors, allegations, and charges of moral misbehavior dogged him for years. The Lewinsky matter pursued him for many months. After finally admitting under intense pressure that he had not been truthful, could he, in the space of a few days, have examined himself, been truthful with himself, and reformed?

It is possible, certainly.

But the American public has the right - and, given the importance of the presidency, the responsibility - to respond to his overture for forgiveness with reserve. We should forgive only when the president shows he has discovered the upright, honest, and moral man he intends to be - and not before.

* Stephen T. Gray wrote a weekly column for the Monroe (Mich.) Evening News where he was editor and president. Mr. Gray is now managing publisher of the Monitor where he oversees the paper's business departments. He is writing as an individual.

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