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Bill Clinton, Ken Starr and Grace Through a Shared Faith

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Recently, I had the unusual opportunity to interview Ken Starr for a magazine in Texas, The Wacoan. He had just become the President of Baylor University, as I was about to leave Baylor to take a job at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis. In the course of our conversation, we discussed in some detail his work as Dean at Pepperdine Law School, and this led to the subject of Bill Clinton:

"One of the things you did at Pepperdine was bring in very significant speakers, including Supreme Court justices," I pointed out. "Will you be able to do the same thing here at Baylor?"

"I hope so," he said. "It's always great for students, but it's also great for the faculty, the administrators, the staff to be able to see a renowned lawyer or justice of the Supreme Court."

"Would you ever consider having one of those people be Bill Clinton?" I asked.

"Of course!" he replied. "I'd be honored to have President Clinton here."

With those few words, Ken Starr overturned my expectations. It was a gently jolting response, and one that opens up the possibility of a singular moment for our nation.

There are few people who like both Clinton and Starr. I am one of them. I have worked under both -- at Baylor under Starr, and as a federal prosecutor in the Clinton administration. Politics aside, there are striking similarities between the two. Both are engaging and warm. Both possess a sharply honed intellect yet are quick to give credit to others for joint accomplishments. Both have the rare ability to excel both in small groups and on television. Both have made their careers largely in public service, and both have fierce advocates and detractors.

Two additional similarities might become even more significant than those, however. First, both Ken Starr and Bill Clinton are Baptists (Starr having joined a Baptist church upon moving to Waco). They are, in fact, probably the two best-known Baptists in American life today. Both men have consistently identified their faith as an important part of their identity and have in quiet ways relied on their faith during their own struggles. They not only profess faith, but it seems to play an active role in their lives -- it was faith that in part drew Starr to Baylor (a Baptist school with a very real religious identity) and Clinton to his work in places like Haiti.

Intriguingly, both men have publicly embraced the idea of soul competency (the traditional Baptist view that each person must develop and be responsible for his or her own beliefs), a concept that allows for fellowship between those whose religious and social ideas may diverge. Just as importantly, the faith they share is one that consistently emphasizes reconciliation and forgiveness.

The last similarity, and perhaps the most crucial likeness if reconciliation is to occur, is that both President Clinton and President Starr are leaders. Every one of us probably disagrees with where one or the other may have led us, but it is beyond dispute that their identities in our national consciousness, their roles in history, and their abilities are all connected to their primal status as leaders.

It is now time for them to lead us, together, towards what it is we need so badly in this country: reconciliation and healing of the political damage we have inflicted upon one another. We live in an age when harming an opponent is seemingly more important than serving the best interests of our country, and that is tragic. Republicans won't be seen with Democrats and vice versa, and the viciousness of that dynamic seems only to get worse with time. If our country is to flourish, there must be a stopping point and a return to an ethic of true public service.

We need these two leaders to show us a better way -- leaders who are informed by a genuine faith centered on grace and whose own wounds have been leavened by time. To see President Starr and President Clinton at peace and common purpose would be an ultimate act of leadership on the part of both, a selfless gesture for the good of us all.

The time may come when we see a picture of Starr and Clinton breaking bread, building a house, or walking down a rebuilt street in Haiti. That image will be stark and startling. Because forgiveness is difficult, it will also depict one of the hardest and greatest achievements of two men who will long be remembered in this, the most forgiving and hopeful of nations.