Clinton Impeachment: Statement By Senator Paul Wellstone

The following is a statement from the Senate’s closed deliberations on the Articles of Impeachment against President Clinton, excerpts of which senators were allowed to publish in the Congressional Record for Friday, February 12, 1999.

Senator Paul Wellstone was a Democratic senator from Minnesota. He served from 1991 until 2002, when he died in a plane crash.

Statement by Senator Paul Wellstone (Democrat – Minnesota)

Mr. Chief Justice, I want to explain my views publicly on the impeachment articles sent to us by a partisan vote of the House of Representatives, and on the removal of the President from office which they would prompt.

First, I am shocked and saddened that our Republican colleagues persistently have blocked our efforts to have open and public debates and discussion in our deliberations in this matter, and most especially in our deliberations on the final votes on whether to remove the President. Whatever their motives, this is not what a free, representative, accountable democracy is all about. Simply publishing partial transcripts of our proceedings, which include only some formal statements made by senators and not the deliberations themselves–and doing so only at the end of the trial–is, in my view, a great leap sideways.

I also want to describe what I think–and frankly have thought for months–is a more appropriate mechanism to express our disapproval of the President’s behavior: a tough, bipartisan censure resolution which makes clear our contempt for what he’s done in lying to his family, his friends, his staff, and the American people about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky; and the disgrace which those lies have placed upon his Presidency for all time.

In recent months, hundreds of Constitutional scholars–including many respected conservatives–have argued that, in their view, the Constitution does allow this censure vote; the Senate’s precedents allow it; we have done it before. It’s true that the Constitution is silent on the question of what else we can do in addition to removal; it is also true that the Constitution in no way prevents us from moving forward on censure. The argument that we are somehow blocked Constitutionally from censuring the President is contrived, and fraught with partisan pleading.

Even so, if we are ultimately blocked by a filibuster from a vote on censure, the President will not have escaped the judgment of Congress or the American people. Any Senator, in any venue they choose, can offer their own forceful, public censure of the President, repeatedly if they like. I certainly have. A corporate expression of the Senate’s condemnation of the President’s actions, while of course preferable, is not essential, for all of us already have made known our views.

We all condemn the President’s behavior. It has been said so many times, it hardly bears repeating, were it not for the wilful, partisan attempts to mischaracterize a vote against removal as a vote to condone what the President has done. That is, of course, preposterous; the President has been impeached by the House. That has only happened once before in our history. The trial has gone forward, and every member of this body has condemned the President’s behavior as unacceptable, meriting only scorn and rebuke.

It is clear that the President already has paid a terrible price in the eyes of history, not least in the shame and humiliation that this permanent mark on his presidency has caused him, his family, his friends and supporters, and his Administration. The message is clear, including to our young people: When one fails to tell the truth, there are real, sometimes even awful consequences and costs. The President’s behavior was shameful, despicable, unworthy, a disgrace to his office. And in this long, sordid, painful process, I believe he has been held accountable for what he has done.

Pursued overzealously by Kenneth Starr and by House Judiciary Committee Republicans, the articles were then approved by the full House in a grossly unfair and partisan proceeding that was destructive both of our polity and our politics. All of us should be deeply troubled by it, and all should work together to put it behind us. In my view, these allegations should never have reached the Senate. But they have, and the trial has now been held. It has changed few, if any, minds on the basic facts, on how the law should be applied to those facts, or on the high bar for removal set by the Constitution.

Finally we bring to a close this long, sad year of investigations, hearings, and speeches. It has been a painful year. In many ways, it has been a lost year. Think of what we might have done this past year, had we not done this. Think of the news we could have made, had not all seen this. Think of the good laws that we could have written, had not this stood in the way. Think of the opportunities lost, the hopes staved off. We must ask with Langston Hughes, ‘What happens to a dream deferred?’

Sadly, so many opportunities for better, more prudent and proportionate judgment fell by the wayside. First, and most important, the President should have avoided this sorry relationship. Then, a little over a year ago, the President could have been more forthcoming and told the whole truth, instead of misleading us all. The American people could have handled it. Then, the Independent Counsel could have shown greater discretion in judging whether to bring this case forward. The leadership of the House of Representatives could have allowed a vote on censuring the President, instead of pushing the case forward to impeachment. They were wrong to thwart the will of what I expect would have been a House majority in so doing. And the Senate could have voted to dismiss the case and promptly and resolutely censured the President.

Instead, against better judgment, against all indications of the people’s will, and against any shred of charity, an ardent and zealous minority pressed on. They had the right. They had the power. But they were wrong, and I believe history will so judge them. It is a supreme irony that the most conservative forces in our politics today have for months wielded the most radical option made available in the Constitution against this President: impeachment and removal. Aware of its dangers, our founders designed Constitutional protections against its abuse. This process has shown that those protections are not perfect; they require reasoned judgment in their application; judgment that has been missing in this process from day one.

Let us resolve to learn the lessons of this long, sad year. Let us learn now, having come this far, the wisdom of the founders that impeachment is and must be a high barricade, not to be mounted lightly. Let us learn that because it requires the overwhelming support of the Senate to succeed, it cannot and should not proceed on a merely partisan basis. Let us learn that the desire to impeach and remove must be shared broadly, or it is illegitimate.

Let us learn that the subject matter of impeachment must be a matter of great gravity, calling into question the President’s very ability to lead, and endangering the nation’s liberty, freedom, security. Let us learn that the case against the President must be a strong and unambiguous one in fact and in law, for even a President deserves the benefit of our reasonable doubts.

The charges brought against President Clinton do not rise to those levels. And even if they did, the case against him is neither strong nor unambiguous. As the White House defense team has made clear, there are ample grounds for doubt about both the facts and law surrounding each of the two articles before us.

It is true that the impeachment process has further alienated millions of Americans from their government, and that is a tragic harm for which the President bears considerable responsibility. It is also true, as we were told by Chairman Hyde yesterday, that the nobility and fragility of a self-governing people requires hard work, every day, to get it right, to fight the good fight, to discern the common good. But I believe, unlike him, that it is the impeachment process itself, both here and in the other body–its partisanship, its meanness and unfairness, its leadership by those who want to win too badly–which has increased people’s cynicism; not the prospect of the President’s ‘getting away’ with something.

Our nation was founded on the Jeffersonian principle, ‘that government is the strongest of which every man feels himself a part.’ What Jefferson and the other Founders feared was the warning of their counterpart Rousseau: ‘As soon as any man says of

the affairs of State ‘What does it matter to me?’ the state may be given up as lost.’ But while the many signs of disaffection among our people are growing, I do not think we have reached the point of no return; there is time in this Congress to recover from this episode, and to move on.

Despite the claims of pundits that Americans have simply tuned out, I think a deeper reality is present in their reactions, and in the polls. In fact, most Americans, in their wisdom, have reached a subtle, sophisticated judgment in this case, and have already moved beyond it. As is so often the case, they’re way ahead of Washington. It is true that they abhor the President’s behavior, but don’t believe it merits his removal. In addition, they believe that there are larger issues facing the nation than the misdeeds that nearly all now concede the President committed: peace in the Middle East; the hunger of children; the health of Americans; saving our social security safety net; debating whether hundreds of billions of dollars of surplus should go to bolster Medicare, or to some combination of universal savings accounts or tax cuts. These are the things that the people sent us here to work on. These are the things that I hear about when I return to my state.

So let us now bring to a close, with our votes, this long, sad year of investigation and impeachment. And let us resolve that there shall be many a year before we have another one like it. It is time for our country to pull together to seek an end to the fractious partisanship that has defined this period, and to re-engage a full-throated, genuine debate about our nation’s future that can help us find again that common ground that unites us as Americans, and that can serve as a firm foundation for resolving the many serious problems that still face our country–impeachment or not–today and tomorrow.

We should, as White House attorney Charles Ruff said, listen to the voices not merely of the advocates who have been before us, but of Madison, Hamilton, and the others who met in Philadelphia 212 years ago; of the generations of Americans since then; of the American people now, and of future generations of Americans. And if we do, we will do the right thing.

Congressman John Lewis observed in his final impeachment speech, in the end, we are ‘one house, one family, one people; the American house, the American family, the American people.’ We are called together to come to judgment on this President, and then to return promptly to the pressing issues that lay before us, and that require our urgent attention. That judgment is by now clear: Bill Clinton should remain President; the censure of this body, and the historic impeachment that will ever attach to his name, will leave a permanent mark on his presidency.

I thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, for the fine work that you have done, and I thank both the majority leader and the minority leader for their leadership. I said to Senator Lott, I think yesterday, I am still furious that we are in closed session and will say that, but I appreciate the way in which you have kept us together. I thank the two of you.

I was thinking I might do something a little different, because even if I were to give a great speech to the best of my ability, I don’t know that there are any more arguments that can be made. I was thinking like, I might agree–actually I have a printed statement–I might agree to just have my statement included in the Record and not speak any further, if I can get some support for some legislation. (Laughter.)

Just on some children’s legislation. Does it look like we are at that point? It does? Well, I like that show of support, and I think, Mr. Chief Justice, what I will do is give to you in a moment a full statement and just simply say to everybody here about three things in 2 minutes.

One, I wish we had done this in open session, and I cover that more in my full statement.

Second of all, I think that a decision to acquit is certainly not a decision to condone the President’s behavior which I think merits scorn and rebuke.

Third of all, I think that the standard, and I want to say this to Senator Domenici, talking about children, to me the standard is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. I think the evidence has to be unambiguous and strong. I don’t think it was. Senator Levin said that very well, so I don’t need to repeat any of those arguments.

Fourth of all, Tim Hutchinson, Senator Hutchinson, I like what you said about the polls. I actually make a different argument. I raised the question earlier when we were raising questions about popular will and does it matter. I actually meant about the last election, it seems to me if it ever does, it is on such a decision. I think before you overturn an election, you really have to meet a very high threshold. I don’t think the House managers have done so.

Finally, I think a lesson that I have learned as a political scientist, when I teach class again, is I do not think the articles work and this process works when it is clearly not bipartisan. I think it becomes illegitimate. It just doesn’t work.

You did not have broad support coming from the House, and you do not have it here. That is why I think it was doomed from the start.

Finally, it has been a long, sad year, and I wish–I just wish–that those who could have really rendered decisions with judgment had done so, starting with the President and his sorry affair. He could have told the truth to the people in the country. The people would have appreciated that. I could also talk about Starr, and I could also talk about the House, and I could also talk about us. But I do not think I need to do so.

Let’s get on with the work of democracy. We have had some strong views here, but I am looking forward to working with you.

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