Two Cheers for Joe Lieberman

Would Sen. Joe Lieberman be Al Gore’s choice for running mate had he called for Bill Clinton’s resignation or impeachment in his famous 1998 Senate floor speech –you know, the one condemning Clinton’s “disgraceful behavior” in the Lewinsky affair? (Click here to watch a clip of the speech. Click here to read it.)To ask this question is to dive into a fen of moral ambiguity. Let’s don our wet suits.

To refresh your memory: On Sept. 3, 1998, after Clinton’s televised “confession” regarding his affair with Monica Lewinsky (the snarky quotation marks are Lieberman’s, from Page 12 of his recently-published book, In Praise of Public Life), Lieberman caused a minor sensation by becoming the first high-profile Democrat to attack Clinton about Flytrap. For Clinton, it was a moment of maximum vulnerability. The Starr Report would be released a few days later, disgorging highly persuasive evidence that Clinton had committed perjury; almost-as-good evidence that he’d suborned perjury and obstructed justice; and gratuitous-but-mortifying detail about Clinton’s sexual trysts with a White House intern.

Lieberman, who had always taken a hard line on “values,” was extremely tough on Clinton in his speech. Clinton’s behavior was “disgraceful,” and Clinton was wrong to say that the affair was nobody else’s business:

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. …[S]omething 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.

Lieberman was similarly blistering about the way Clinton had lied to cover up the affair:

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. … [This] may also undercut the trust that the American people have in his word, which would have substantial ramifications for his presidency.

All this sounded like a windup to a call for Clinton’s resignation–which in the weeks that followed would be issued not only by Clinton’s Republican enemies in Congress but also by a handful of liberal commentators, including Garry Wills, Lars-Erik Nelson, Clarence Page … and Chatterbox, who–probably alone in this crowd–still believes Clinton ought to have voluntarily departed office in the fall of 1998. (Apart from the facts that Clinton really did break the law and disgrace the Oval Office, Gore would be running now as an incumbent, probably not from behind. If Gore loses in November, expect Chatterbox to file an “I told you so” column about this.) But the resignation call never came, from Lieberman or from anyone else. Instead, during Clinton’s Senate trial, Lieberman issued a statement saying that:

  1. He no longer believed the phrase high Crimes and Misdemeanors “gave Congress broad latitude to impeach and remove from office a President who had committed any violation of the criminal code”;
  2. But he also rejected “the contention that a President’s giving false or misleading statements under oath or his impeding the discovery of evidence in a lawsuit arising out of his personal conduct may never constitute a high crime or misdemeanor”;
  3. But in this case the impeachment managers hadn’t demonstrated that Clinton’s “misconduct has so compromised his capacity to govern in the national interest that he must be removed”;
  4. But that the impeachment managers had done a pretty good job of showing “it is likely that there were occasions on which the President made false or misleading statements and took actions which could have had the effect of impeding the discovery of evidence in judicial proceedings.”

Chatterbox is not interested in rehearsing the complex arguments for and against impeaching Bill Clinton, a subject on which this column was, and remains, almost as wishy-washy as Lieberman. However, Chatterbox does think Lieberman could have spared himself (and many others) this legal and constitutional brain teaser had he gone just a bit further in September 1998 and said: Clinton Must Go!

It’s hard to know what to think of a politician who’s a little bit brave. The journalistic temptation is to condemn him as a hypocrite. But surely it’s better to be a little bit brave than not-at-all brave. On the other hand, one can’t help speculating about how life would be different had Lieberman called on Clinton to resign. There’s no telling what Lieberman might have started. In Chatterbox’s view, a strong push from congressional Democrats might have energized Gore to tell Clinton that the jig was up. Chatterbox has a hard time seeing how even a stubborn soul like Clinton could have held on after that. But after displaying such pissiness, would Lieberman have stood a chance to be the Democratic nominee for vice president in 2000? We should pause to remember that Barry Goldwater got the Republican nomination for president before, not after, he gave Richard Nixon a gentle push out the door in 1974.

Chatterbox does not mean to suggest that Lieberman engaged in any conscious calculation about keeping himself a viable running mate for Gore. Chatterbox seriously doubts that. Chatterbox does suspect, however, that Lieberman’s caution was fed in part by rational anxiety about what being a true maverick might do to his political future. This anxiety probably manifested itself as something that felt to Lieberman very much like sincere uncertainty.

To read William Saletan’s September 1998 “Frame Game” about Lieberman’s speech, click here.