Senator Joe Lieberman Attacks Clinton
September 3, 1998
Sen. Joe Lieberman (Democrat, Connecticut) today addressed his colleagues in the United States Senate with regard to President Clinton and the Independent Counsel's investigation.
Mr. President, I rise today to make a most difficult and distasteful statement, for me probably the most difficult statement I have made on this floor in my ten years in the Senate.
On August 17th, President Clinton testified before a grand jury convened by the Independent Counsel and then talked to the American people about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, a former White House intern. He told us that the relationship was "not appropriate," that it was "wrong," and that it was "a critical lapse of judgement and a personal failure" on his part. In addition, after seven months of denying that he had engaged in a sexual relationship with Ms. Lewinsky, the President admitted that his "public comments. . . about this matter gave a false impression." He said, "I misled people."
My immediate reaction to this statement was deep disappointment and personal anger. I was disappointed because the President of the United States had just confessed to engaging in an extramarital affair with a young woman in his employ and to willfully deceiving the nation about his conduct. I was personally angry because President Clinton had by his disgraceful behavior jeopardized his Administration's historic record of accomplishment, much of which grew out of the principles and programs that he and I and many others had worked on together in the New Democratic movement. I was also angry because I was one of the many people who had said over the preceding seven months that if the President clearly and explicitly denies the allegations against him, then, of course, I believe him.
Since that Monday night, I have not commented on this matter publicly. I thought I had an obligation to consider the President's admissions more objectively, less personally, and to try to put them in a clearer perspective. And I felt I owed that much to President Clinton, for whom I have great affection and admiration, and who I truly believe has worked tirelessly to make life tangibly better in so many ways for so many Americans.
But the truth is, after much reflection, my feelings of disappointment and anger have not dissipated. Except now these feelings have gone beyond my personal dismay to a larger, graver sense of loss for our country, a reckoning of the damage that the President's conduct has done to the proud legacy of his presidency, and ultimately an accounting of the impact of his actions on our democracy and its moral foundations.
The implications for our country are so serious that I feel a responsibility to my constituents in Connecticut, as well as to my conscience, to voice my concerns forthrightly and publicly, and I can think of no more appropriate place to do so than the floor of this great body. I have chosen to speak particularly at this time, before the Independent Counsel files his report, because while we do not know enough to answer the question of whether there are legal consequences from the President's conduct, we do know enough to answer a separate and distinct set of questions about the moral consequences for our country.
I have come to this floor many times in the past to speak with my colleagues about my concerns, which are widely-held in this chamber and throughout the nation, that our society's standards are sinking, that our common moral code is deteriorating, and that our public life is coarsening. In doing so, I have specifically criticized leaders of the entertainment industry for the way they have used the enormous influence they wield to weaken our common values. And now because the President commands at least as much attention and exerts at least as much influence on our collective consciousness as any Hollywood celebrity or television show, it is hard to ignore the impact of the misconduct the President has admitted to on our children, our culture and our national character.
To begin with, I must respectfully disagree with the President's contention that his relationship with Monica Lewinsky and the way in which he misled us about it is "nobody's business but" his family's and that "even presidents have private lives," as he said Whether he or we as a people think it fair or not, the reality in 1998 is that a president's private life is public. Contemporary news media standards will have it no other way. Surely this President was given fair warning of that by the amount of time the news media has dedicated to investigating his personal life during the 1992 campaign and in the years since.
But there is more to this than modern media intrusiveness. The President is not just the elected leader of our country, he is, as presidential scholar Clinton Rossiter observed, "the one-man distillation of the American people," and "the personal embodiment and representative of their dignity and majesty," as President Taft once said. So when his personal conduct is embarrassing, it is so not just for him and his family. It is embarrassing for us all as Americans.
The President is also a role model, who, because of his prominence and the moral authority that emanates from his office, sets standards of behavior for the people he serves. His duty, as the Rev. Nathan Baxter of the National Cathedral here in Washington said in a recent sermon, is nothing less than the stewardship of our values. So no matter how much the President or others may wish to "compartmentalize" the different spheres of his life, the inescapable truth is that the President's private conduct can and often does have profound public consequences.
In this case, the President apparently had extramarital relations with an employee half his age, and did so in the workplace, in vicinity of the Oval Office. Such behavior is not just inappropriate. It is immoral. And it is harmful, for it sends a message of what is acceptable behavior to the larger American family, particularly to our children, which is as influential as the negative messages communicated by the entertainment culture. If you doubt that, just ask America's parents about the intimate and often unseemly sexual questions their young children have been asking and discussing since the President's relationship with Ms. Lewinsky became public seven months ago.
I have had many of those conversations in recent days, and from that I can conclude that many parents feel much as I do, that something very sad and sordid has happened in American life when I cannot watch the news on television with my ten-year-old daughter any more.
This is unfortunately familiar territory for Americas families in today's anything-goes culture, where sexual promiscuity is too often treated as just another lifestyle choice with little risk of adverse consequences. It is this mindset that has helped to threaten the stability and integrity of the family, which continues to be the most important unit of civilized society, the place where we raise our children and teach them to be responsible citizens, to develop and nurture their personal and moral faculties.
President Clinton is well aware of this threat and the broad public concern about it. He has used the bully pulpit over the course of his presidency to eloquently and effectively call for the renewal of our common values, particularly the principle of personal responsibility, and our common commitment to family. And he has spoken out admirably against sexual promiscuity among teenagers in clear terms of right and wrong, emphasizing the consequences involved.
All of which makes the President's misconduct so confusing and so damaging. The President's relationship with Miss Lewinsky not only contradicted the values he has publicly embraced over the past six years. It has compromised his moral authority at a time when Americans of every political persuasion agree that the decline of the family is one of the most pressing problems we as a nation are facing.
Nevertheless, I believe the President could have lessened the harm his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky has caused if he had acknowledged his mistake and spoken with candor about it to the American people shortly after it became public in January. But as we now know, he chose not to do this. His deception is particularly troubling because it was not just a reflexive and understandably human act of concealment to protect himself and his family from the "embarrassment of his own conduct," as he put it, when he was confronted with it in his deposition in the Paula Jones case, but rather the intentional and premeditated decision to do so.
In choosing this path, I fear that the President has undercut the efforts of millions of American parents who are naturally trying to instill in our children the value of honesty. As most any mother or father knows, kids have a singular ability to detect double standards. So we can safely assume that it will be that much more difficult to convince our sons and daughters of the importance of telling the truth when the most powerful man in the nation evades it. Many parents I have spoken with in Connecticut confirm this unfortunate consequence.
The President's intentional and consistent misstatements may also undercut the trust that the American people have in his word, which would have substantial ramifications for his presidency. Under the Constitution, as presidential scholar Richard Neustadt has noted, the President's ultimate source of authority, particularly his moral authority, is the power to persuade, to mobilize public opinion and build consensus behind a common agenda, and at this the President has been extraordinarily effective. But that power hinges on the President's support among the American people and their faith and confidence in his motivations, his agenda, and ultimately his personal integrity. As Teddy Roosevelt once explained, "My power vanishes into thin air the instant that my fellow citizens who are straight and honest cease to believe that I represent them and fight for what is straight and honest; that is all the strength I have."
Sadly, with his deception, President Clinton may have weakened the great power and strength of which President Roosevelt spoke. I know this is a concern that many of my colleagues share, that the President has hurt his credibility and therefore, perhaps, his chances of moving his agenda forward. But I believe that the harm the President's actions have caused extend beyond the political arena. I am afraid that the misconduct the President has admitted may be reinforcing one of the most destructive messages being delivered by our popular culture --namely that values are essentially fungible. And I am afraid that his misconduct may help to blur some of the most important bright lines of right and wrong left in our society.
I do not raise these concerns as self-righteous criticism. I know that the President is far from alone in the wrongdoing he has admitted. We as humans are all imperfect. We are all sinners. Many have betrayed a loved one, and most of us have told lies. Members of Congress have certainly been guilty of such behavior, as have some previous Presidents. We try to understand the profound complexity and difficulty of personal relationships, which gives us pause before passing judgement on them. We all fall short of the standards our best values set for us. Certainly I do.
But the President, by virtue of the office he sought and was elected to, has traditionally been held to a higher standard. This is as it should be, because the American president is not, as I quoted earlier, just the one-man distillation of the American people but the most powerful person in the world, and as such the consequences of misbehavior by a President, even private misbehavior, are much greater than that of a an average citizen, a CEO, or even a Senator. That is what I believe presidential scholar James Barber, in his book, The Presidential Character, was getting at when he wrote that the public demands "a sense of legitimacy from, and in, the Presidency. . . There is more to this than dignity, more than propriety. The President is expected to personify our betterness in an inspiring way, to express in what he does and is (not just what he says) a moral idealism which, in much of the public mind, is the very opposite of politics."
Just as the American people are demanding of their leaders, though, they are also fundamentally fair and forgiving, which is why I was so hopeful the President could begin to repair the damage done with his address to the nation on the 17th. But like so many others, I came away feeling that he for reasons that are thoroughly human had squandered a great opportunity that night. He failed to clearly articulate to the American people that he recognized how significant and consequential his wrongdoing was and how badly he felt about it. He also failed to show that he understood his behavior has diminished the office he holds and the country he serves, and that it is inconsistent with the mainstream American values that he has advanced as President. And he failed to acknowledge that while Mr. Starr, Ms. Lewinsky, Mrs. Tripp, and the news media have all contributed to the crisis we now face, his presidency would not be in peril if it had not been for the behavior he himself described as "wrong" and "inappropriate."
Because the conduct the President has admitted to was so serious and his assumption of responsibility on August 17th so inadequate, the last three weeks have been dominated by a cacophony of media and political voices calling for impeachment, or resignation, or censure, while a lesser chorus implores us to "move on" and get this matter behind us.
Appealing as the latter option may be to many people who are understandably weary of this crisis, the transgressions the President has admitted to are too consequential for us to walk away and leave the impression for our children and for our posterity that what President Clinton acknowledges he did within the White House is acceptable behavior for our nation's leader. On the contrary, as I have said at length today, it is wrong and unacceptable and should be followed by some measure of public rebuke and accountability. We in Congress --elected representatives of all the American people --are surely capable institutionally of expressing such disapproval through a resolution of reprimand or censure of the President for his misconduct, but it is premature to do so, as my colleagues of both parties seem to agree, until we have received the report of the Independent Counsel and the White House's response to it.
In the same way, it seems to me, talk of impeachment and resignation at this time is unjust and unwise. It is unjust because we do not know enough in fact and will not until the Independent Counsel reports and the White House responds to conclude whether we have crossed the high threshold our Constitution rightly sets for overturning the results of a popular election in our democracy and bringing on the national trauma of removing an incumbent President from office. For now, in fact, all we know for certain is what the President acknowledged on August 17th. The rest is rumor, speculation, or hearsay --much less than is required by Members of the House and Senate in the dispatch of the solemn responsibilities that the Constitution gives us in such circumstances.
I believe that talk of impeachment and resignation now is unwise because it ignores the reality that while the Independent Counsel proceeds with his investigation, the President is still our nation's leader, our Commander-in-Chief. Economic uncertainty and other problems here at home, as well as the fiscal and political crises in Russia and Asia and the growing threats posed by Iraq, North Korea, and worldwide terrorism, all demand the President's focused leadership. For that reason, while the legal process moves forward, I believe it is important that we provide the President with the time and space and support he needs to carry out his most important duties and protect our national interest and security.
That time and space may also give the President additional opportunities to accept personal responsibility for his behavior, to rebuild public trust in his leadership, to recommit himself to the values of opportunity, responsibility and community that brought him to office, and to act to heal the wounds to our national character.
In the meantime, as the debate on this matter proceeds, and as the investigation continues, we would all be advised to heed the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln's second annual address to Congress in 1862. With the nation at war with itself, Lincoln warned, "If there ever could be a proper time for mere catch arguments, that time is surely not now. In times like the present, men should utter nothing for which they would not willingly be responsible through time and eternity."
I believe we are at such a time again today. With so much at stake, we too must resist the impulse toward "catch arguments" and reflex reactions. Let us proceed in accordance with our nation's traditional moral compass, yes, but in a manner that is fair and at a pace that is deliberate and responsible. Let us as a nation honestly confront the damage that the President's actions over the last seven months have caused, but not to the exclusion of the good that his leadership has done over the past six years nor at the expense of our common interests as Americans. And let us be guided by the conscience of the Constitution, which calls on us to place the common good above any partisan or personal interest, as we now work together to resolve this serious challenge to our democracy. Thank you.
This is the text of an article written by Senator Lieberman and published in the New York Times on November 29, 1998. He calls for President Clinton to be censured by Congress.
The One Reasonable Solution
In the weeks since the midterm election, some of President Clinton's harshest critics and staunchest defenders have found something they agree on: impeachment or nothing. There is no third option, they say. Either Congress must vote on whether to remove Mr. Clinton from office or we must move on as if he had done nothing wrong.
This line of argument misreads the Constitution and misconstrues the meaning of censure. If it prevails and the House does not vote for articles of impeachment, the nation would be left with an unclear and unacceptable conclusion to this crisis.
It is important first to clarify what a Congressional resolution of censure would not do. It would not send Mr. Clinton to jail, require him to pay a fine, remove him from office or restrict or alter the powers or duties of the Presidency in any way.
So, contrary to the arguments some have made against censure, a censure resolution would not qualify as a bill of attainder - a law that legislatively determines guilt and imposes punishment - because it would neither be a law nor impose any specific punishment.
Instead, censure would be a collective statement by Congress that while Mr. Clinton's conduct may not be reason enough to remove him, it calls for a rebuke. In this way, censure would be similar to the "sense of Congress" resolutions we commonly use to express our views on matters as diverse as an international child custody dispute and the need for free elections in Gabon - both subjects of such resolutions this year. It would be strange if the Senate passed resolutions on those issues but not on behavior that has threatened the Clinton Presidency and stirred broad and deep emotions among the American people.
Some opponents of censure contend that a Congressional resolution reprimanding the President would differ significantly from other legislative resolutions because in the case of Presidential misconduct the Constitution's impeachment clauses imply that Congress's only options are to impeach or do nothing. Others are concerned about the separation of powers.
Neither argument is convincing. To read the Constitution's authorization to impeach the President for misconduct as ruling out all other actions makes no more sense than saying that Congress's power to declare war rules out taking any other action relating to national security - for instance, a resolution supporting a peacemaking force in Bosnia or calling for stronger action against Iraq.
As for the separation of powers, it is true that each branch of Government must not intrude on duties and powers constitutionally reserved for the other branches. But a censure resolution would not intrude because it would have no binding legal effect.
It is for this reason, I suspect, that no one has suggested that the numerous sense-of-Congress resolutions that addressed issues within the province of the other branches were unconstitutional. During the recently adjourned session of Congress, for example, both Houses unanimously condemned the racially motivated slaying of James Byrd, an African-American in Texas, and urged that the case be investigated. The House also adopted at least three separate resolutions expressing views on the President's activities, including one that urged Mr. Clinton not to participate in a formal reception in Tiananmen Square when he visited China.
These were expressions of legislative opinion rather than exertions of authority over the other branches. They did not appropriate Congressional power to determine the guilt or innocence of those accused of killing James Byrd or seek to regulate how Mr. Clinton conducted diplomacy. The same would be true of a resolution condemning Mr. Clinton's misconduct in the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Still, a censure resolution could have the powerful effect of reaffirming the fundamental values that we Americans hold in common and of restating the importance of those values to our nation's highest office.
The President's sexual misconduct and his deliberate efforts to deceive the American people and our judicial system have had a serious and adverse impact on the nation. Since early September, he has repeatedly apologized for his misconduct and accepted responsibility for its consequences. He has also sought atonement and religious counseling. Since no one can take back behavior that has already occurred, there is little more can we ask him to do.
Whether Mr. Clinton's misconduct reached the level of an impeachable offense and warrants removing him from office is something on which senators must reserve judgment until the House has finished its inquiry. The Judiciary Committee must review the answers Mr. Clinton has provided to the 81 questions it put to him in writing. Then, the House must vote on the articles of impeachment being drawn up by the committee.
If the House chooses not to impeach, as seems likely, then we must censure. C ongress must provide a decisive ending and a strong statement that makes clear to ourselves and posterity that we are a nation that understands the difference between right and wrong, truth and falsehood. We must clearly explain the expectations we have of our leaders, present and future, and serve notice that if the President is guilty of wrongdoing he must suffer, at the least, public embarrassment and reproach.
Those who say that a censure resolution is only a slap on the wrist should bear in mind that only two Presidents in our history have been censured. In this instance, censure would serve to record the nation's opinion of Mr. Clinton's behavior.
Those who call a censure resolution mere words should remember Clement Attlee's tribute to the wartime statements of Winston Churchill: "Words at great moments of history are deeds." We are at a moment of great challenge in our history. We should find words strong enough to meet that challenge and act as deeds.