On Thursday morning, my wife and I had the honor of attending the 53rd Annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., where President Bush and the First Lady were the special guests. And, at the risk of sounding trite: It was one of the most moving events we have ever been to in 15 years of Beltway living.
In part this was because the breakfast came on the heels of the most powerful State of the Union address in years, from the president’s defense of marriage and commitment to investment-based Social Security reform, to his vision of democracy in the Middle East, to that heart-wrenching hug between two women who have sacrificed so much for the cause of freedom.
But it was more than that: In a city raging with bitter partisanship, Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R., Mi.) talked about something few people outside of Washington know exists: the bipartisan House prayer group that meets every Thursday morning in the Capitol to eat breakfast, pray for one another, and pray for the president. Senator Norm Coleman (R., Minn.) and Senator Mark Pryor (D., Ark.) talked about their bipartisan group of “sinners of the Senate” that mirror the prayer meetings on the House side. “As a Jew,” he said, “I’m learning a lot of new things which challenge me. I have a profound respect for the tangibility and accessibility in God my colleagues find in Jesus.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.), also Jewish, read from Micah 6:6-8:
With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
Sergeant Douglas Norman is with the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment. He described how two of his friends were killed by an RPG attack in Afghanistan. He himself was severely wounded and almost killed, and he shared how his faith sustained him during that horrific experience and the months that followed. (And yet he still, endearingly, said public speaking makes him nervous.)
Tony Hall is a former Democratic Congressman from Dayton, Ohio, who is now the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations food and agriculture agencies, based in Rome. In his gentle, understated way, he explained how 26 years ago he moved to Washington as a new Member of Congress only to realize how “hollow” he felt.
“I didn’t know God,” he said, and “I was tired of my ambition.”
He shared how he attended a prayer breakfast, heard others describe the process they had gone through to begin a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and how that event set him on a spiritual journey that led him and his wife to become Christians.
Hall urged religious men and women of both parties not to be shy about bringing their faith to the office and letting it be part of who they are in public. He described a trip he took to an Islamic country where he was greeted by the U.S. ambassador at the airport. “Congressman Hall,” Hall quoted the unnamed ambassador as saying, “I just want to remind you that you’re in a Muslim country. Don’t talk about religion, or it could really set back what we’re trying to accomplish here.” Hall said he just nodded politely. When they arrived at the office of the Muslim leader, Hall says he was asked why he had come to the country. “I would like to be your friend,” Hall said. “I would like our countries to be friends. And I would like to invite you to the National Prayer Breakfast, in the name of Jesus.” The Muslim leader got very excited. He slapped his knee and, according to Hall, said, “That is remarkable. You have come all this way to be my friend and to talk to me about Jesus. That is wonderful. My mother used to talk to me a lot about Jesus when I was a child. We should talk about Jesus more often.” Then the leader turned to the Ambassador and said, “Why don’t you talk about Jesus?” The audience howled.
President Bush then spoke, with heartfelt remarks about the importance of prayer and showing compassion to the least fortunate in society. He was followed by a moving rendition of “Amazing Grace” by singer Wintley Phipps.
The message of the event was powerful. But there was something else that moved me.
Even the most “ordinary” of presidential events have a certain electricity to them you don’t find anywhere else. You arrive at a glitzy, five-star hotel (in this case, the Washington Hilton). You work your way through crowds humming with anticipation. You’re on the lookout for movers and shakers. You whisper to your friends: “Psst, there’s Senator Frist and his wife…. Look, Ken Starr is back in town.”
You present your ticket and photo ID to the courteous and smartly dressed young men and women of the United States Secret Service–ready to take a bullet for the president–and pass through the metal detectors. You try to find your table in an enormous ballroom, along with 4,000 other guests, including those from over 140 other nations, such as the presidents of Honduras and Madagascar, and a delegation of seven Israeli Knesset members. And finally you get the privilege of meeting all the fascinating people who happen to be sitting at the same table to which you’ve been assigned (who, at first, you assume have been randomly thrown together and later realize that, of course, God always has a plan).
Then, at the appointed time, the national press corps arrives in the back of the room. More Secret Service agents flood the front of the room. The emcee stands up at the podium and says, “Ladies and gentlemen, please rise for the president of the United States.” And the party really begins.
But this event was different. No one introduced the president, at first. He just slipped into the room quietly, humbly. Only a few people realized it. Then a buzz of excitement began in one corner of the room and began to spread across the crowd. People looked up from their coffee and conversations and whispered, “I think the president just got here.” And he had. Even some of the most jaded D.C. types are still impressed when the leader of the free world enters the room.
I have encountered George W. in the flesh twice before. Once was in Austin in 1998 when Steve Forbes and I went down to raise money for the Texas GOP. Karl Rove brought us into the governor’s mansion, and then introduced us to then-Governor Bush and Laura, who gave us a tour and talked about the future of the party. The second time was in the White House in the summer of 2001 when the newly elected President Bush signed his first major tax cut bill.
But the man I saw this morning is a very different man than he was in 2001, or 1998–or before, for that matter. Bush is now a man who has waged and won two wars in the Middle East; made it possible for Afghanistan to hold its first democratic elections in its 5,000 year history; helped make it possible for Palestinians to hold their first real (though flawed) elections; toppled Saddam Hussein and made it possible for Iraqis to hold their first real democratic elections; won reelection himself with more votes than any president in American history; and all under withering, constant political attack. That’s the record of an impressive man to be in a room with.
And there’s time yet for this president. As he told us Wednesday night, “Americans have seen the unfolding of large events.” He’s right, and even larger events lay ahead. He’ll keep needing those prayers.
[Editor’s note: This piece has been amended since posting.]