Full Text: Lieberman's Remarks
By Federal News Service
Thursday, September 3, 1998
Mr. President, I rise today to make a most difficult and distasteful statement. For me, probably the most difficult statement I've made on this floor in the 10 years I've been a member of the United States 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, quote, "not
appropriate," that it was, quote, "wrong," and that it was, quote, "a
critical lapse of judgment," 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, quote, "public comments about this matter gave a false
impression." He said, "I misled people."
Mr. President, my immediate reaction to this statement that night
it was delivered 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
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
Well, 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 that I owed that
much to the president for whom I have great affect and admiration and
who I truly believed has worked tirelessly to make life tangibly
better in so many ways for so many Americans.
But the truth is that 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 that than on this great
I've chosen to speak particularly at this time before the
independent counsel files his report because while we do not know
enough yet to answer the question of whether there are legal
consequences of the president's conduct, we do know enough from what
the president acknowledged on August 17th to answer a separate and
distinct set of questions about the moral consequences for our
Mr. President, I have come to this floor many times in the past
to speak with my colleagues about the concerns which are so widely
shared 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 in 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
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 culture, on our character and on our children.
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 by his family's, and
that "even president's have private lives," as he said. Whether he or
we think it fair or not, the reality is in 1998 that a president's
private life is public. Contemporary news media standards will have
it no other way. And surely this president was given fair notice of
that by the amount of time the news media has dedicated to
investigating his personal life during the 1992 campaign and in the
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 Rossetter (sp) observed, and I quote,
"the one-man distillation of the American people," and as President
Taft said at another time, "the personal embodiment and representative
of their dignity and majesty."
So when his personal conduct is embarrassing, it is sadly so not
just for him and his family. It is embarrassing for all of us as
Americans. The president is 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 Reverend 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 the
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 frequently unseemly sexual questions their young children have
been asking them and discussing since the president's relationship
with Ms. Lewinsky became public seven months ago. I have had many of
those conversations with parents, particularly in Connecticut. And
from them I conclude that parents across our country 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 10-year-old
This unfortunately is all-too-familiar territory for America's
families in today's anything-goes culture, where sexual promiscuity is
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, in fact, has shown during the course of his
presidency that he understands this and the broad concern in the
public about the threat to the family. He has used the bully pulpit
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.
Now, all of that makes the president's misconduct so confusing
and so damaging. The president's relationship with Ms. Lewinsky not
only contradicted the values he has publicly embraced over the last
six years. It has, I fear, 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 are facing.
Nevertheless, I believe that 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.
This deception is particularly troubling because it was not just
a reflexive and, in many ways, understandable human act of concealment
to protect himself and his family from what he called the
embarrassment of his own conduct when he was confronted with it in the
deposition in the Jones case, but rather it was 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 and
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 statements, more
deeply, may also undercut the trust that the American people have in
his word. 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, to 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 public
and their faith and confidence in his motivations and agenda, yes, but
also in his word.
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 that I have," Roosevelt said.
Sadly, with his deception, President Clinton may have weakened
the great power and strength that he possesses of which President
Roosevelt spoke. I know this is a concern that many of my colleagues
share, which is to say that the president has hurt his credibility and
therefore perhaps his chances of moving his policy 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 worst
messages being delivered by our popular culture, which is that values
are fungible. And I am concerned that his misconduct may help to blur
some of the most important bright lines of right and wrong in our
Mr. President, I said at the outset that this was a very
difficult statement to write and deliver. That is true, very true.
And it is true in large part because it is so personal and yet needs
to be public, but also because of my fear that it will appear
unnecessarily judgmental. I truly regret this. I know from the Bible
that only God can judge people. The most that we can do is to comment
without condemning individuals. And in this case, I have tried to
comment on the consequences of the president's conduct on our country.
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 have told lies. Members of
Congress have certainly been guilty of such behavior, as have some
previous presidents. We try to understand -- we must try to
understand the complexity and difficulty of personal relationships,
which should give us pause before passing judgment on them. We all
fall short of the standards our best values set for us. Certainly I
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, as I quoted earlier,
is not just a one-man distillation of the American people but today
the most powerful person in the world. And as such, the consequences
of his misbehavior, even private misbehavior, are much greater than
that of an average citizen, a CEO or even a senator.
That's what I believe presidential scholar James David Barber, in
his book "The Presidential Character," was getting at when he wrote
that the public demands, quote, "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," end quote, 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, for reasons
that are thoroughly human, he missed 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 failed to show, I think, that he
understood his behavior had 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 I regret that he failed to acknowledge that while Mr. Starr
and Ms. Lewinsky, Mrs. Tripp and the news media have each, in their
own way, contributed to the crisis we now face, his presidency would
not be imperiled if it had not been for the behavior he himself
described as wrong and inappropriate.
Because the conduct the president admitted to that night was
serious and his assumption of responsibility 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 that 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 today and for our posterity tomorrow
that what he acknowledges he did within the White House is acceptable
behavior for our nation's leader. On the contrary, as I have said, 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
In the same way, it seems to me that 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
For now, in fact, all we know for certain is what the president
acknowledged on August 17th. As far as I can see, 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.
And 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
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 in our national character.
In the meantime, as the debate on this matter proceeds and as the
investigation goes forward, we would all be advised, I would
respectfully suggest, to heed the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln's second
annual address to Congress in 1862. With the nation at war with
itself, President Lincoln warned, and I quote, "If there ever could be
a 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 that we are at such a time 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 interest 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, in our time, work together to resolve this
serious challenge to our democracy.
I thank the chair. I thank my colleagues. And I yield the
Copyright © 1998 by Federal News Service, Inc. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold or retransmitted without the written authority of Federal News Service, Inc. Copyright is not claimed as to any part of the original work prepared by a United States government officer or employee as a part of that person's original duties. Transcripts of other events may be found at the Federal News Service Web site, located at www.fnsg.com.
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