The Clinton era has, so far, produced more than its share of he said-she said, or she said-he said or even he said-he said stories. It does not seem that this will end anytime soon, which puts journalists in an interesting position. The most important words in all of journalism, I always tell my students, are, "comma, space, said, space, name, period." In other words, journalism is about the clear attribution of quoted material.
So what do you do when you have a person of very, very high authority standing up in public and quoting someone else? Quoting both sides of a conversation in which this authority figure was a participant? By journalism standards, this is a second-hand quote -- but one that comes from an eye witness, so to speak.
Then, what happens when the other person in that conversation says, in effect, "nope."
I ran into this situation this past week when I wrote my Scripps Howard News Service column about President Bill Clinton's speech at the close of the New Baptist Covenant Celebration in Atlanta. Now when a meeting opens with President Jimmy Carter, ends with Clinton and has Vice President Al Gore in the middle, you know that you are dealing with Baptists in the South, but not Southern Baptists.
Clinton built his entire talk around a parable that explains the importance of "biblical literalism" and why this view of the Bible must be rejected -- gracefully -- but completely rejected (unless, of course, we are dealing with Bible verses about social justice, equality, etc.) by all thinking people. If you want to watch his speech and some of the others from the event, click here and look through the menu. Sorry, but it requires Microsoft software.
Here is the crucial chunk -- sorry, but it's large -- from my column:
As Bill Clinton tells the story, it wasn't your typical Baptist prayer breakfast.
The guest of honor at the White House was the Rev. Ed Young, the Southern Baptist Convention's new president. The two men went jogging near the National Mall and had breakfast on the Truman Balcony with Vice President Al Gore. The three Southern Baptists didn't agree on everything, but the atmosphere was friendly -- in large part because the president admired Young's preaching so much.
But the crucial exchange in that 1993 meeting centered on a question about the Bible, said Clinton, speaking to last week's New Baptist Covenant Celebration in Atlanta. This unprecedented summit drew about 10,000 Anglo, African-American, Asian-American and Hispanic Baptists from 30 North American conventions and organizations linked to the Baptist World Alliance.
Continuing a lengthy story that he turned into a parable, Clinton claimed that Young "looked at me and he said, 'I want to ask you a question, a simple question, and I just want a yes or no answer. I don't want one of those slick political answers. ... Do you believe the Bible is literally true? Yes or no.'
"I said, 'Reverend Young, I think that it is completely true, but I do not believe that you, or I, or any other living person, is wise enough to understand it completely.' He said, 'That's a political answer.' I said, 'No, it's not. You asked a political question.' "
Well, you know what's coming. Right?
The Rev. Ed Young is a very busy man, as you would expect for a megachurch leader who has about 46,000 members who worship on the six metro campuses operated by Second Baptist Church in Houston. Young is a veteran leader on the Southern Baptist conservative side, but one used to dealing with a stunningly diverse and, yes, rather sophisticated super city. He knows how to be smooth.
Young's staff was very helpful and he had also seen a transcript of the Clinton sermon. So let's pick up right there in the column:
... (It) isn't surprising to learn that Young has a radically different take on what happened that morning. He agrees it was a friendly meeting, but doesn't remember eating breakfast. However, the preacher said the logistical details are beside the point.
"The main thing is that I have never asked anyone on this earth that question," said Young. ... "I have no doubt that someone, somewhere has asked Bill Clinton if he thinks the Bible is literally true, but it wasn't me. That isn't a question I ask. I mean, Jesus says, 'I am a door.' ... How do you claim something like that is literally true?"
In fact, Young doesn't remember mentioning "biblical inerrancy" during that White House meeting, the theological term at the heart of 30 years of conflict in the 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention, America's largest non-Catholic flock.
However, the men did discuss the divisions in their church, Young added, and Clinton offered an articulate defense of his more liberal approach to the Christian faith.
Young says that he agreed, at that time, not to discuss the contents of that breakfast with the press and he would prefer to honor that promise. But he said they did talk -- no surprise -- about the hot social and political issues that have divided Baptists and lots of other believers.
So what people keep asking me is: Who do you believe?
I know lots of folks on the Baptist right and they don't talk about "literalism" when it comes to the Bible. Perhaps that is what people like Clinton think that they say. The term they use, of course, is "biblical inerrancy" and there are about six different definitions of that term in common use. That's a complex issue. Ask Billy Graham. Ask the pope.
I have no doubts that Clinton and Young talked about abortion and homosexuality and all the other issues that -- no surprise -- lurked in between the lines of most of the progressive sermons at the New Covenant meeting. It's the times that we live in.
So the question is: Did Young literally say it? "Do you believe the Bible is literally true? Yes or no." And, my fellow journalists, how are we supposed to handle quotes of this kind when the two people in the conversation disagree on what was said?