Statement for the Record of Senator Charles E. Schumer
The Trial of the President
February 11, 1999
Mr. President, this is a day of solemnity and awe. I rise humbled that we are participating in a process that was mapped out more than 200 years ago by the Founding Fathers and that the words we say today will be looked upon by historians and future Congresses for guidance. That is quite a responsibility.
I began this process in the House where it degenerated quickly into bitter acrimony. I would like to say to Majority Leader [Trent] Lott and Minority Leader [Tom] Daschle, and to my new colleagues who have wrestled with this case, that I deeply appreciate your fairness and patience and the way this has been handled with such dignity in the Senate.
Growing up, our country and its government seemed like a mighty oak — strong, rooted, permanent, and grand.
It has shaken me that we stand at the brink of removing a President — not because of a popular groundswell to remove him and not because of the magnitude of the wrongs he’s committed — but because conditions in late 20th century America has made it possible for a small group of people who hate Bill Clinton and hate his policies to very cleverly and very doggedly exploit the institutions of freedom that we hold dear and almost succeed in undoing him.
Most troubling to me are the conditions that allowed this to happen, than the small group who precipitated them.
The small group is not the House Managers or particular officeholders of the Republican party.
It is the small group of lawyers and zealots who decided that they would invest time and money to exploit a personal weakness that people knew the President had, find a case to air it publicly, investigate the President’s private life to the point of obsession, and use it to bring him down.
So they found Paula Jones. And whether she was truly wronged or not, we all knew it was a politically motivated case. The people who financed it had no interest in helping Paula Jones. They never lifted a finger to fight for civil rights or for strong sexual harassment laws. It was opportunism pure and simple.
What is so profoundly disturbing is not that this small group of Clinton-haters hatched this plan. It’s that this group — or any group equally dogmatic and cunning — came so close to succeeding.
If you had asked me one year ago if people like this with such obvious political motives could use our courts, play the media and tantalize the legislative branch to achieve their ends of bringing down the President, I would have said “not a chance — that doesn’t happen in America.”
But it almost happened. And in the future it could be a left wing zealous organization or another right wing group or some other group with strong narrow beliefs.
We’ve got to understand how we’ve reached the point where any small group could have so much power.
Of course, mechanically, we can point to a myriad of bad decisions that brought us to the brink.
In all due respect Mr. Chief Justice, the Supreme Court allowed the Paula Jones suit to go forward arguing that it would not lead to politically motivated cases against future presidents and that the case was unlikely to occupy a substantial amount of the President’s time. What a miscalculation. The next President, even if he or she is a saint, will be sued 25 times if we don’t change the law.
Judge Webber Wright ruled that the Jones attorneys were entitled to depose any state or federal employee with whom the President may have had sexual relations. That’s a fishing license.
Ken Starr, the Independent Counsel, was chosen despite a known and documented bias against the President. He behaved like a special prosecutor; not the even-handed, down-the-middle counsel the law required.
But there is something deeper and more troubling at work than the individual mistakes and decisions by the courts and the personal behavior of the President and the Independent Counsel.
What Bill Clinton did was wrong and arrogant — we all agree. We are all angered.
But let’s express some sympathy.
Bill Clinton is an extraordinary but flawed individual. But so are many other revered leaders, including other presidents. And when we knew about their flaws or suspected as much, we didn’t make that a cause celebre — not because we condoned whatever character flaw they might possess, but because we realize that none of us are superhuman.
We are all flawed. “Let him without sin cast the first stone” is no more a cliche today than it was almost 2,000 years ago.
This democracy would not exist if only the perfect among us were allowed to contribute.
Put yourself, put any of us in Bill Clinton’s position — where your enemy is trying to expose your most embarrassing private flaw. Where they find a way to use the most public venue to humiliate you. Where they put you in front of a civil court of law in what seems to you to be a bogus, politically motivated case that should have never seen the light of day.
How would you react? Would you do what Bill Clinton did by trying to walk up to the line of perjury without crossing it? What would be going through your mind? Would you be thinking about the humiliation? Your family? The ridicule?
Bill Clinton really believes that he went up to that line and didn’t cross it. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t.
It’s a little arrogant on our part to think any one of us could be so certain that if we saw the very real possibility that everything we loved in our lives — and I don’t mean our jobs — but everything we really cherish to the core, burst into supernova on network television, that we wouldn’t consider trying to walk the same line Bill Clinton walked.
There are many of us in politics and many in the media who carry on and opine as if we and they are perfect.
Maybe we’re seeking an impossible duality. We demand, as we should, that our elected leaders be held to the highest standard. And then we shine the brightest light imaginable to expose those who don’t measure up.
But, of course, no one can meet that standard, particularly under the blinding bright glare of late 20th century light.
There is a fundamental question our society must address — how do we keep our standards high but at the same time accept, as the Founding Fathers did, that our leaders are only human.
Related to this is a second underlying cause that has allowed this small group of zealots to almost undo the President.
It seems we have lost the ability to forcefully advocate for our position without trying to criminalize or at least dishonor our adversaries — often over matters having nothing to do with the public trust. And it is hurting the country; it is marginalizing and polarizing the Congress.
In today’s environment, it would be easy, but wrong, for Democrats to lay the blame for this predicament simply on a narrow band of right-wing zealots out to destroy Bill Clinton.
It would be easy, but wrong, for Republicans to say that the only reason Bill Clinton survived this scandal is a strong economy.
What began 25 years ago with Watergate as a solemn and necessary process to force a President to adhere to the rule of law, has grown beyond our control so that now we are routinely using criminal accusations and scandal to win the political battles and ideological differences we cannot settle at the ballot box.
Both parties are to blame.
In what was close to a mirror image of this case — John Tower was a tremendous senator and was perfectly capable of serving our nation as Defense Secretary. He was ruined in a political feeding frenzy that was meant to shame him.
Newt Gingrich came to power by destroying others. He was destroyed by the same means.
The ledger is pretty much even between the two parties, but it has become more partisan and bitter. It is reminiscent of the Oresteia, a trilogy of ancient Greek plays by Aeschylus.
In the Oresteia, the warring factions of the House of Atreus trapped themselves in an escalating chain of revenge such that at the end of the chain, Atreus served his brother a pie that contained his own brother’s murdered children. Each side escalated until both sides were destroyed.
We risk our Congress becoming a House of Atreus.
In conclusion, we have all been shaken by these last six months, but there are two glowing beacons of optimism — two strong oaks that still stand mightily.
The first is the wisdom of the Founding Fathers. Every year I live, and every year I serve I am ever increasingly amazed at their wisdom and genius.
They didn’t know there would be political parties, but a simple mathematical fraction — two-thirds — a two-thirds majority in the “cooling saucer of the Senate” meant that removal of a President from office would have to involve more than the whims of a narrow band of politicians.
We walked up to the abyss and it was simply the elegant mathematics of the Founding Fathers that kept us from going over.
They have pulled America back from the brink of future chaos that might have occurred if we removed the President for human frailties and low crimes. God bless the Founding Fathers.
The second oak is the American people. They are not necessarily as informed as we are on the intricate particularities of this case. They didn’t follow every twist and turn. They knew that what the President did was wrong.
But they knew that the President’s wrongdoing reflected human frailty rather than malevolence or any abuse of power or duty. They knew from their common sense wisdom that this did not rise to the level of impeachment and removal either as defined by the Constitution or as defined by their common sense of justice, fairness, and right and wrong. They knew that if they were in Clinton’s shoes, they weren’t sure how they would react.
Many of my colleagues excoriate any mention of the polls. But my colleagues on this side of the aisle have cited the polls not as politicians putting their fingers in the wind, but as a measure of what the American people feel.
In the eyes of the Founding Fathers, that is a legitimate consideration in deciding whether a President should be removed. And for six months, the American people in every segment of the country have been unwavering in their view that the President should not be removed.
They remain unshakable in their belief that the Congress, the Courts, and the press had gone too far. They were the only, truly rational actor in the whole drama. God bless them.
The people and the founders are the twin oaks that stand tall amidst this sad episode of American history. But if the cycle of political recrimination and scandalizing continues, the American people will become more alienated and cynical and shaken by the political process and they, too, will lose faith in the great instrument the Founding Fathers have given us.
If it gets to the point where the American people become too cynical we could lose it all.
After this is over let’s end the recriminations. Let’s not blame Ken Starr, or bash the President, or scapegoat the House Managers. Let’s instead think about what brought us to this point.
Let us shake hands and say we are now going to forego bringing down people for political gain. Let us understand that our leaders have foibles, and though we must be held to a higher standard, let us not make it a sport to expose those weaknesses.
The American people have saved us from ourselves. Let’s not ask them to do it too many more times.