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 "not appropriate," that it was "wrong," and that it was "a critical lapse of judgement 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 "public comments. . . about this matter gave a false impression." He said, "I misled people."
My immediate reaction to this statement 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.
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 I owed that much to President Clinton, 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, 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 so than the floor of this great body. I have chosen to speak particularly at this time, before the Independent Counsel files his report, because while we do not know enough to answer the question of whether there are legal consequences from the President's conduct, we do know enough to answer a separate and distinct set of questions about the moral consequences for our country.
I have come to this floor many times in the past to speak with my colleagues about my concerns, which are widely-held 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 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 children, our culture and our national character.
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 as a people think it fair or not, the reality in 1998 is that a president's private life is public. Contemporary news media standards will have it no other way. Surely this President was given fair warning 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 observed, "the one-man distillation of the American people," and "the personal embodiment and representative of their dignity and majesty," as President Taft once said. So when his personal conduct is embarrassing, it is so not just for him and his family. It is embarrassing for us all as Americans.
The President is also 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 Rev. 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.