The Power Of Prayer

The day before Jesse Jackson made his pilgrimage to Belgrade to seek the release of three American prisoners of war, he stopped at the White House for a chat with Sandy Berger, the national-security adviser. For days, Clinton administration officials had tried to discourage the trip by Jackson, other religious leaders and a congressman, arguing the unofficial diplomatic mission would only interfere with NATO's goal of weakening Slobodan Milosevic. Privately, Clinton aides feared the predictable and loquacious Reverend would be manipulated by Milosevic, allowing the dictator to portray himself as a victim of NATO aggression.

Berger knew he didn't have much chance of changing Jackson's mind--over the past 15 years, the leader of the Rainbow Coalition/Push has successfully negotiated release of captives held by Syria, Cuba, Kuwait and Iraq. But Berger gave it his best shot. "We can't guarantee your safety," he warned, telling Jackson that the NATO bombing campaign would proceed while he was there. Berger then reminded Jackson that, despite his personal relationship with Bill Clinton, he was a private citizen and not the president's emissary. "You do not have the authority of the United States to negotiate," he cautioned. Jackson politely thanked the national-security adviser. He then took Berger's hand and prayed aloud.

Two days later Jackson's head was again bowed in prayer. First, with the three servicemen--Christopher Stone, Steven Gonzales and Andrew Ramirez--who were captured March 31 while patrolling the Yugoslav-Macedonian border. And then with Milosevic himself. Jackson pressed him to release the POWs. The next day, Saturday, Jackson told reporters that the Yugoslav leader had agreed to release the men into his custody.

At the White House, the news was met with caution. The president was off golfing in Virginia with Vernon Jordan; Jackson called Berger. "If they were able to secure the release of the prisoners, that would be a positive development," National Security Council spokesman David Leavy told reporters. The parents of the prisoners were less restrained. "We feel that God is using [Jackson] to accomplish things like this," said Steven Gonzales's mother, Rosie.

But just as the White House had feared, Jackson couldn't resist praising Milosevic--and criticizing NATO. In interviews with reporters on Saturday, the Reverend hailed Milosevic for his "diplomatic gesture," and denounced the bombing campaign, saying it had only strengthened Serb resolve. Jackson called on NATO to temporarily stop the air attacks, which he said were "traumatizing the people." Jackson told reporters he would return with a letter from Milosevic to Clinton, and that the Yugoslav leader was interested in a one-on-one meeting with the president. But there's probably not a prayer that will happen any time soon.

The Power Of Prayer | News