top of page

Farewell Joe

As is often the case in recent years, when a high-profile member of the US Senate or House of Representatives passes away, friends ask me whether I knew them.

While I had been in the presence of Joe Lieberman on several occasions and sometimes in small group settings, I can’t honestly say that I knew him. But, I was around him enough to make some observations.

Words that come to mind are cerebral, steady, and introspective. Joe Lieberman, in contrast to some of his colleagues, was always a good listener. He conveyed a sense of interest and curiosity about what you had to say. When we were working on the legislation to release the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records, he asked great questions, listened carefully to the answers, and followed up with additional questions that proved he was listening.

One thing that set Joe apart in my opinion was his Jewish heritage. The Jewish Bible has a myriad of wonderful stories, but at its heart is the Law. The covenants between God and the people of Israel were always anchored in the Law, so much so that the universal symbol of law has been the tablets containing the Ten Commandments. see Thou Shalt Not, March 8.

Joe Lieberman had a reverence for the law and a devotion to the principles and foundations that support it. His respect and support for the National Archives was born of that devotion. We were the temple where the American torah was preserved, protected, and made available to the people. Our building was even built in the style of a temple, with columns, a public portico, and the holy of holies that was the rotunda.

Morality is a long-developed sense of proper conduct in a society, whereas laws are instituted by formally recognized authorities regulating our conduct as citizens. They are closely related and were of vital importance to Joe Lieberman. The one moment in his career that illustrated this devotion was September 3, 1998 when he rose on the Senate floor to address his colleagues and the nation about President Bill Clinton's admitted affair with Monica Lewinski. It was a little more than three weeks after Clinton had addressed the nation, contradicted months of denials, and called his relationship with Miss Lewinsky “improper.”

Senator Lieberman rose above politics that day and branded the conduct of his close friend and fellow Democrat in unambiguous terms. Moralistic? Naive in the late 20th Century? Old fashioned? Yes, yes, and yes. But for those of us deeply disappointed that Clinton squandered the upside potential of his presidency, it all needed to be said. Contrast it with the unwillingness of today's congressional leaders to step away from their president or former president when actions are immoral and ill-advised.

I will let Joe speak for himself and offer this up as one of his most courageous acts as a public servant.

Floor Statement of Senator Joseph Lieberman, 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 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.

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 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 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 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 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 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 Rossetter 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 daughter anymore.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 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 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 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 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 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 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 floor. Lieberman



bottom of page