Sen. Joseph Lieberman Speaks On Clinton
Sept. 3, 1998
In September 1998 Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman took to the Senate floor to condemn President Bill Clinton's marital infidelity as immoral, disgraceful and damaging to the country. These are his comments:
LIEBERMAN: 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.
Watch Lieberman's condemnation of Clinton (part 1)
(QuickTime, Real or Windows Media)
Watch Lieberman's condemnation of Clinton (part 2)
(QuickTime, Real or Windows Media)
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 believed him.
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 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 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 Senate floor.
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 country.
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 is
coarsening. In doing so, I have specifically criticized leaders
of the entertainment industry for the way they have used the
enormous influence the 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 culture, on our character and on our
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 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 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 (ph) 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. And because of his prominence
in the moral authority that emanates from his office, sets
standards of behavior for the people he serves.
His duty, as the Reverend Nathan Baxter (ph) of
he 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
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 daughter
This, unfortunately, is all-too-familiar territory for
America's 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, 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
Nevertheless, I believe the president could have lessened the
harm his relationship with Ms. Lewinksy 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 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 pre-meditated 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
Newsted (ph) 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
But that power hinges on the president's support among the
American people 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 may 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
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 society.
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 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, as I quoted earlier, is not just the 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
(ph) 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
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
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, selected 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 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 from office.
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 then is
required by members of the House and Senate in the dispatch of
the solemn responsibilities that the Constitution gives us in
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
physical 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 move 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, to
rebuild public trust in his leadership, to really commit himself
to the values of opportunity, responsibility and community that
brought him to office, and to act to heal the wounds in our
In the meantime, as the debate on this matter proceeds and as
the investigation goes forward, we would 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 again today.
There's 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
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