Last night, on the eve of Good Friday, former President Bill Clinton made an extended and unannounced visit to Alexandria, where he attended a performance of the Pentecostals of Alexandria’s (or, as it’s known in the community, the PoA) passion play “Above All.” His visit was completely unknown by the local media in Alexandria, who, as of the time of publication, have yet to report the story and were not present before or after yesterday’s event.
With the exception of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who lived in Alexandria for a few weeks during World War II while he oversaw the Louisiana Maneuvers exercises, no other American president has spent as much time in the city of approximately 49,000, and no president has visited Alexandria on more occasions than Clinton has.
This was at least Clinton’s sixth trip to Alexandria and at least the fourth time he has attended the PoA’s passion play, which, in an earlier iteration, was known as “Messiah.” (The national press often misreported that Clinton attended performances of Handel’s “Messiah;” the PoA’s version, however, was entirely their own creation).
It is not an ordinary church play. “Messiah” and now “Above All” feature a cast and crew of nearly 500 people; there are live animals, pyrotechnics, and elaborate sets. It’s an enormously expensive production, and tickets sell out faster than almost any other concert or play in the state. Between 15,000 to 20,000 attend the show each year.
Although former President Clinton counts several people in the Alexandria area as friends, most of whom have known him since he was governor of neighboring Arkansas, he continues to return to Central Louisiana because of his close relationship with Anthony and Mickey Mangun, the husband and wife duo who have presided over the Pentecostals of Alexandria for more than three decades.
Rev. Anthony Mangun is the church’s senior pastor, after taking over from his father G.A., who had turned a small church into one of the nation’s largest and who remained an active presence until his death in 2010. He first met Clinton in 1977 at a Christian camp meeting in Arkansas. Mangun’s wife Mickey sang at both of Clinton’s inaugurations and at the dedication of his library in Little Rock, and like her husband, her connection to the former president was also forged in the so-called Natural State. For many years, her father, Rev. James Lumpkin, was Arkansas’ most prominent Pentecostal leader.
As president, Clinton attended two performances of “Messiah,” in 1996, during a visit in which he officially handed over the former England Air Force Base to the newly-created and locally-controlled England Authority, and in 2000, where he surprised the traveling press pool by taking the church’s stage and confessing, for the very first time in public and in emotional, impromptu remarks, that he had feared he could have been removed from office during the Lewinsky scandal. During the scandal, Anthony Mangun was widely reported to have been one of the president’s closest “spiritual advisers” and to have visited the White House on at least one occasion to counsel Clinton.
(Clinton also attended a performance of “Messiah” during his final term as governor of Arkansas, along with his wife, Secretary Hillary Clinton, and their daughter Chelsea).
Yesterday, incidentally, was not the only time the media in Central Louisiana failed to report on a visit by Clinton. On a summer weekend during his second term, the president somehow managed to play an entire round of golf at the Alexandria Golf and Country Club without being noticed by the local press (if there was a traveling press pool with him, no one thought that particular round of golf merited national reporting). He was noticed by at least one person in town, my late father, who happened to be playing golf that same afternoon and who met the Commander-in-Chief at the turn.