Covering the National Prayer Breakfast, always on the first Thursday of February, is a lot tougher than it looks. First, you have to be up before the crack of dawn to drive downtown, find a parking place and make your way to one of the White House gates where you have to go through a security check before sprinting over to the press briefing room in the West Wing where you’re directed to a convoy of about 20 cars.
The reporters and photographers (along with camera equipment) all have to cram into the last three cars for the mile-or-so long ride to the Washington Hilton, where some 3,800 people are waiting for the President to arrive. While he strides onstage, the press pool gets to pile off to one side. After the president makes his remarks, he then leaves, taking the reporters with him.
I was always tasked with covering the religion angle of the event, so returning to the White House with the event only half over wasn’t in my best interests at all. I ended up leaping from the stage onto the ballroom floor and finding an empty seat, much to the consternation of Secret Service folks who yelled at me for breaking some obscure protocol. (Apparently if you come with the president, you’re expected to depart with him).
One of my aims was to put together something interesting about the prayer breakfast, itself. You see, very few media bothered to cover it –- or at least cover it well -- back in the George W. Bush era, which was when I was there. More than a decade later, I’m glad to see the coverage has gotten much more sophisticated, no doubt because the evangelicals organizing the breakfast have become power players in their own right.
So I want to call attention to some of the more creative ways the breakfast was covered this year. It’s no secret that the prayer breakfast is part of a multi-day conference that involves a lot of secret gatherings that reporters know about, but rarely can sneak into. Michelle Boorstein of the Washington Post found out about an alliance of evangelicals and Muslims connected with the breakfast.
The best paragraphs were the following:
(The Rev. Steve) Bezner and others said one reason evangelicals are becoming more comfortable with Muslim engagement is because this generation isn’t called “interfaith” -- which makes evangelicals nervous because many are theologically conservative and don’t like the concept of watering down the differences among religions. They call it “multifaith,” which to Bezner feels more frank about the goal: different faiths standing side by side, not one big squishy group.
“The first time I met an imam in my neighborhood, we’re five minutes into the conversation, and he said: ‘Do you think I’m going to hell?’ I said: ‘That’s what my tradition teaches, yes.’ He said: ‘Good, I think you’re going to hell, too, so now we can have an honest conversation.’ ”
Time magazine’s Elizabeth Dias sat down with the incoming chairs of the Prayer Breakfast to discuss how to heal the partisan divide in Congress. And this:
(Senators) Coons and Lankford, who will be officially named co-chairs on Thursday, have been leading the weekly Wednesday morning Senate Prayer Breakfast for the current 115th Congress. Most Wednesday mornings at 8:30 a.m., a group of senators gathers to pray in a yellow room near the Capitol’s carriage house entrance. Democrats such as Coons and Tim Kaine of Virginia, and Republicans Lankford, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Deb Fischer of Nebraska, and Ted Cruz of Texas attend when they can. Sometimes as many as two dozen senators show up, a quarter of the Senate. Participation is private, but Lankford and Coons say about the same number of Democrats attend as Republicans.
For an hour, the lawmakers pray, sign a hymn and talk about their concerns, such as ill or struggling family members. They rotate who shares a personal testimony. Sometimes former senators join. Policy is almost never discussed.
In years past, a lot of us knew such meetings were going on, but it was hard to get anyone to give out names of participants. I'm glad Dias got these two to talk.
Several outlets, including CNN, did stories on the large Russian delegation expected for the breakfast, now that the meal has now become another must-attend political event.
Many of the Russians attending the breakfast this year are senior religious figures. Konstantin Bendas, a bishop of the Russian Union of Christians of the Evangelical Faith, said he felt the need to go this year because the US-Russian relationship had deteriorated so much.
"It's the right time for believers -- Christian people -- to unite for at least a day, bend the knee and pray for peace and unity without politics," Bendas told CNN.
But the bishop was also skeptical of the motives of some attendees.
"I suppose the majority of members of the (Russian) delegation don't want to pray; they want to mingle," he said. And many might be attending to "try to solve their own problems, that is -- their name possibly appearing in future sanctions lists."
Even better was Radio Free Europe’s piece on all the Ukrainians showing up for the breakfast to the point that their parliament back home in Kiev couldn’t pass any legislation.
As many as 50 Ukrainian parliament deputies are believed to have attended the breakfast, according to lawmakers with whom RFE/RL spoke and others who spoke to Ukrainian media.
Some lawmakers who stayed in Kyiv said the absence of such a large number of their colleagues paralyzed the work of Ukraine's parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, and they lamented the fact that dozens of their colleagues chose the prayer breakfast over important debates and possible votes on crucial legislation.
On February 7, parliamentary sessions were closed in advance so that deputies flying to Washington could catch their flights… "The prayer breakfast is a get-together and a platform for making contacts," a shrugging (lawmaker Viktor) Chumak told ZIK TV during a segment called "the [not] working parliament." "There you can exchange business cards, a few phrases, talk, and take a selfie with Trump in the background."
These are delicious stories that make being a journalist in Washington worthwhile. And they’re stories that should have been done about the prayer breakfast years ago. The event has always been a beehive of clandestine get-togethers between various heads of state, religious groups and people who needed a chance to talk without any danger of publicity.
The prayer breakfast organizers went out of their way to not accommodate journalists except for the press pool, which is why I rode along with it twice to cover the event. Otherwise, there was no way I could get in other than buying a very expensive ticket that my company was not going to spring for.
But that was then.
Today, journalists are covering it almost like a sports event with vignettes of major players, behind-the-scenes plays and reports on who said what and who was there to hear it. Which is a good thing, in that it’s time the capital’s largest annual religious event got the decent, even analytical coverage that it has long deserved.