Ballot Box

The Best of Joe Lieberman

The bravest thing he ever did.

Slate continues its short features on the 2004 presidential candidates. Previous series covered the candidates’ biographies, buzzwords, agendas, and worldviews. This series assesses the story that supposedly shows each candidate at his best. Here’s the one told by supporters of Joe Lieberman—and what they leave out.

The story: “On September 3, 1998, I reached my own resolution of these conflicts when I went to the Senate Chamber and delivered what I described as ‘the most difficult statement I have made in my ten years in the Senate.’ I called the President’s behavior ‘disgraceful,’ ‘immoral,’ ‘harmful,’ and ‘too consequential for us to walk away from.’ I took strong issue with the President’s argument that his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky was ‘nobody’s business’ but his family’s and that ‘even presidents have private lives.’ ‘Whether he or we as a people think it is fair or not,’ I said, ‘the reality in 1998 is that a president’s private life is public.’ When he misbehaves in private, he risks damaging the country he heads, compromising the trust of the people he serves and diminishing his capacity to lead. … While we may regret this loss of privacy, it will often be good for our country because the private conduct of a public official can have real and serious effects on his or her ability to carry out governmental responsibilities, and therefore sunlight–even the harsh sunlight of the contemporary media–can, as Justice Brandeis once said, be a helpful and effective disinfectant. The greater the power a person holds in government, the greater is his or her responsibility to behave correctly because the worse are the effects of personal misbehavior on the government and the people he or she serves. That is certainly the lesson the Bible teaches. …” (Lieberman, In Praise of Public Life)

Reality check: Contrary to popular impression, Lieberman wasn’t the first Democratic officeholder to denounce Clinton’s behavior after Clinton confessed to the affair with Lewinsky. Earlier that week, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California and Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio had criticized Clinton’s behavior. Lieberman got more attention in part because he had been Clinton’s friend and in part because he delivered his remarks on the Senate floor.

Lieberman did issue his condemnation in the face of pressure from the White House and congressional Democrats to keep quiet. And he did open the floodgates for Democratic criticism of Clinton, invigorating the movement for impeachment. But Lanny Davis, a lawyer who helped handle Clinton’s public relations during the scandal, told the Washington Post in June 2003 that Lieberman’s speech helped Democrats “do a kind of pivot, to condemn [Clinton’s] conduct without calling for his removal. … A lot of people around the White House thought that Joe Lieberman saved Bill Clinton’s presidency by giving that speech.”