Remembering When James Dobson of Focus on the Family Called for the Impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998 for Moral Character Reasons

This is a brief post documenting an aspect of the evangelical culture wars. In September of 1998 the leader of Focus on the Family James Dobson called for the impeachment of President Clinton. He did so because of the allegations of the sexual affair with Monica Lewinsky. This post contains the letter James Dobson sent out to his followers about the moral case for impeachment. 

“Let me ask, in what other context such behavior would have been acceptable? When a professor is known to have had consensual sex with a student, the university dismisses him or her forthwith. Academic institutions recognize their responsibility to protect the interests of younger and more vulnerable individuals. When a corporate executive is similarly accused,especially if numerous women claim to have been “groped” or abused in the manner of Kathleen Willey or Paula Jones, that man is fired. Period! If a middle-aged physician had sex with a younger patient in his office, he would probably lose his medical license. If a psychiatrist, psychologist or counselor entered into a sexual relationship with a patient of any age, he would be charged with malpractice. It is stated in the code of ethics for these professions.”

James Dobson in September of 1998 

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”

Matthew 23:27-28 NIV

James Dobson 

James Dobson once led Focus on the Family. Focus was an evangelical giant and every evangelical church I have participated in used his books, ministry materials and more. You can read an overview of Focus on the Family in, “An Overview of Focus on the Family and Questions The Wondering Eagle Would Like to Answer in Time.” Focus was a leader in the evangelical culture wars and that was especially true in the Clinton Presidency. 


A Scandal and James Dobson Calls for Impeachment 

In January of 1998 as the Whitewater Special Counsel was investigating President Bill Clinton a new scandal developed. It dealt with the president having sexual relations with an intern. The story broke first on The Drudge Report on January 17, 1998, ad three days later The Washington Post reported more on the situation and started to report the scandal. On January 26, 1998 Bill Clinton addressed the scandal with his infamous claim that he never touched Monica Lewinsky. Over the year the question people asked was if President Clinton obstructed justice or committed perjury. In the investigation Monica Lewinsky turned over to the FBI a blue dress that was stained with semen. On August 17, 1998 before a Grand Jury President Clinton admitted that he had inappropriate relations with Monica Lewinsky. On September 11, 1998 Ken Starr released the Starr Report. The Starr Report would become the basis for President Clinton’s impeachment.

 Meanwhile in the world of evangelicalism James Dobson was talking up a storm. Dobson became an ardent supporter of impeachment and regularly spoke about moral character.  Below is a note that James Dobson sent out to those who supported Focus on the Family. Its Dobson’s case for why President Clinton should be impeached for his deficient moral character. For the record I snagged this from John Fea post in, “What James Dobson Said in 1998 About Moral Character and the Presidency.

September 1998

Dear Friends:

Greetings to you all. Shirley and I have been visiting the historic city of Boston for the past few weeks while working on a new book called Coming Home. I’ll tell you more about that at Christmastime. We have loved being together and are particularly grateful to God for His healing touch after my illness. Toward the end of our trip, however, we were shocked and dismayed by the admission of the President’s affair with “that woman — Miss Lewinsky” — which brought humiliation on himself, his family and our nation. Millions of words have been written and spoken about that sordid story, which I have chosen not to address during these past seven months. But now I want to express some passionate views that are on my heart.

As with many Christians around the country, Shirley and I have been in prayer for our leaders in government who must deal with the fallout from this scandal. They will need great wisdom and discernment in the days ahead. Our most serious concern, however, is not with those in Washington; it is with the American people. What has alarmed me throughout this episode has been the willingness of my fellow citizens to rationalize the President’s behavior even after they suspected, and later knew, that he was lying. Because the economy is strong, millions of people have said infidelity in the Oval Office is just a private affair–something between himself and Hillary. We heard it time and again during those months: “As long as Mr. Clinton is doing a good job, it’s nobody’s business what he does with his personal life.”

That disregard for morality is profoundly disturbing to me. Although sexual affairs have occurred often in high places, the public has never approved of such misconduct. But today, therules by which behavior is governed appear to have been rewritten specifically for Mr. Clinton. We now know that this 50-year-old man had sexual relations repeatedly and brazenly in the White House, with a woman 27 years his junior. Then he spoke on national television while shaking his finger at the camera, and denied ever having a sexual relationship with Miss Lewinsky. He was the most powerful man in the world and she was a starry-eyed intern. That situation would not have been tolerated in any other setting — ever. And yet the apologists for the President have said endlessly, “It’s just about sex,” as though cheating on your wife was of no particular significance. But the majority of the American people replied, “I support the President.”

Let me ask, in what other context such behavior would have been acceptable? When a professor is known to have had consensual sex with a student, the university dismisses him or her forthwith. Academic institutions recognize their responsibility to protect the interests of younger and more vulnerable individuals. When a corporate executive is similarly accused,especially if numerous women claim to have been “groped” or abused in the manner of Kathleen Willey or Paula Jones, that man is fired. Period! If a middle-aged physician had sex with a younger patient in his office, he would probably lose his medical license. If a psychiatrist, psychologist or counselor entered into a sexual relationship with a patient of any age, he would be charged with malpractice. It is stated in the code of ethics for these professions.

How about the stories reported in the military this past year? Lt. Kelly Flinn was charged with having sexual relations with a subordinate and was forced to resign to avoid a court-martial. Sgt. Major Gene McKinney, the U.S. Army’s highest ranking enlisted man, went through a five week trial after being charged with sexual misconduct.  Air Force General Joseph W. Ralston was denied an assignment as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff because of an affair occurring 14 years ago. 3 Given these and other examples, how can people rationalize the dalliances of the Commander in Chief when those to whom they are accountable are held to a higher standard? Yes, the rules have changed for the President.

How can we forget the excruciating confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas in the U.S. Senate?. Even if Anita Hill’s accusations had been accurate, the worst possible interpretation of Thomas’ behavior was that he “talked dirty” to her. That probably never happened, but even if it did, there was no sex. There were no lies or coverup. No one was involved who was half his age. And yet, many of the same feminists and liberal politicians who viciously sought to destroy Justice Thomas have rallied to support the President. Indeed, Anita Hill showed up on television a few days ago to defend Bill Clinton and to attack the independent counsel, Ken Starr.  Where, may I ask, have other feminist leaders been during this scandal, including Eleanor Smeal, Patricia Ireland, Gloria Steinem and Kate Michelman? Obviously, they aremotivated not by the welfare of women but by raw political power.

How did our beloved nation find itself in this sorry mess? I believe it began not with the Lewinsky affair, but many years earlier. There was plenty of evidence during the first Presidential election that Bill Clinton had a moral problem. His affair with Gennifer Flowers, which he now admits to having lied about,  was rationalized by the American people. He liedabout dodging the draft, and then concocted an incredulous explanation that changed his story.  He visited the Soviet Union and other hostile countries during the Vietnam War, claiming that he was only an “observer.” Numerous sources reported that he organized and participated in anti-war rallies in the United States, Great Britain, and Norway. Clinton evaded questionsabout whether he had used marijuana, and then finally offered his now-infamous “I didn’t inhale” response. There were other indications that Bill Clinton was untruthful and immoral.Why, then, did the American people ignore so many red flags? Because, and I want to give the greatest emphasis to this point, the mainstream media became enamored with Bill Clinton in 1992 and sought to convince the American people that “character doesn’t matter.”

Let me share just a few of the hundreds of statements, in print and in the media, that exist on the record. You’ll quickly recognize this effort by the press to undermine the moral values that we called “character.” Hold on to your hat.

“… we can remember that we are electing not clergy but political leaders — who need to be principled and devious, compassionate and brutal, visionary and, sometimes, utterly egotistical. If we try to do much better, we will end up doing worse.”  — Suzanne Garment, San Diego Union-Tribune.1992

[Speaking on behalf of New York University media scholar Jay Rosen], “there is an important distinction between public and private character.What candidates do in private is largely irrelevant, says Rosen. What matters is their public conduct.”  — Jeremy Iggers in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. 1992

“He [Clinton] will shave, wheedle, compromise and cajole until he finds — or creates — common ground. He is notorious for his ability to impress strangers and disarm opponents. He is notorious for leading people to believe that he agrees with them entirely…without ever committing himself to their position. This is a gift given only to the best politicians.It is how difficult things get done.” — Joe Klein, Newsweek magazine. 1994

“Whether character is a factor or not is relevant only as it relates to what the people want in terms of a President. They’re looking for someone with the character to get the economy back on track and answer the more serious questions facing this country.”  — Max Parker, a Clinton spokeswoman during the 1992 Presidential campaign.

“Voters re-elected Clinton despite widespread doubts about his character. In CNN’s election day exit poll, most voters continued to say Clinton is not honest and trustworthy. They’ve re-elected him because of his job performance — and crossed their fingers that character would not prove to be a major problem.” — Bill Schneider, CNN. 1996

“He has vacillated on issues large and small, and at times he has conducted himself like a man with something to hide. Nevertheless, we think he is still a better choice …” 

“… Clinton was able to defuse the ‘character’ issue by focusing on voters’ own wants and needs. They put their own interests above that issue, and thus relegated all the stories about Clinton’s character to the back burner, or to the trash can. …it means that women and families have decided that it’s more important to have their own issues addressed rather than worry about the character issue.” — Robert A. Jordan of The Boston Globe. 1996.

Clinton is not the only politician in either party who lacks character, certainly, but he is the only one in American history, to my knowledge, who has been specifically applauded for his deceit. Let me share one of the most graphic illustrations of that support. Please read carefully the following statement by noted syndicated columnist, Richard Cohen, after Clinton’s first term.

“… he [Clinton] has been accused of adultery, sexual harassment, and ducking the draft — allegations that send some people into a frenzy of Clinton-hating. The President’s ultimate sin, it seems to some people, is that he appears to have broken the rules — and gotten away with it. That is unforgivable. But to the rest of us, the character issue just hasn’t taken. If we have learned anything over the last four years, it is that strictly personal behavior — in other words, sex — might be interesting, might be titillating, and might be even downright riveting…. One can argue that in both his triumphs and his failures there is a connection between the private and public Bill Clinton. But once the public man is known, the private one just doesn’t seem to matter anymore…. In his own way, Clinton taught us all a lesson about personal character that we should all remember the next time around: It’s sometimes more interesting than important.” — Richard Cohen of The Washington Post. 1996

I wonder what words of wisdom Cohen has to offer about the President now. We don’t have to guess about his colleague at The Washington Post, Michael Kelly. He said a few weeks ago: “[Clinton] will never stop lying. To borrow a hyperbolic description of another of the century’s historic prevaricators, every word he utters is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’ He will lie until the last dog dies.” 

It is obvious that the media now realizes they misled the American people. Most of the largest and most influential newspapers in the country are calling for Clinton’s resignation. Maureen Dowd, writing in The New York Times, said, “Mr. Clinton has killed something worthy and important in public life. All this carnage, and for what? To cover up some seamy sexcapades? His game has grown exhausting.” 

Noemie Emery spoke of Bill Clinton “trailing his fragrant scandals behind him.” Let’s look at the record in the past five years. The American people have been subjected to a barrage of lies and half-truths — from Whitewater, to Filegate, to Travelgate, to Paula Jones, to Kathleen Willey, to the mysterious disappearance of subpoenaed documents, and ultimately, to alleged campaign finance illegalities that may yet bring down the President. If you followed the stories during the past six years, you’ll recognize the names of numerous people associated with convictions or allegations of wrongdoing, including David Hale, David Watkins, Mike Espy, Joycelyn Elders, Henry Cisneros, Webster Hubbell, Ron Brown, Jim Guy Tucker, Hazel O’Leary, Jim McDougal, Susan McDougal, Craig Livingstone, Dick Morris, John Huang, Johnny Chung, Charlie Trie, Al Gore (regarding the Buddhist monks and the illegal telephone calls), and finally, Hillary Clinton, who has been subpoenaed by the independent counsel and given sworn testimony on five separate occasions. 21 There’s a story behind each of these names that are linked to the President. All of this from the man who promised “the most ethical administration in the history of the Republic.” 22

As it turns out, character DOES matter. You can’t run a family, let alone a country, without it. How foolish to believe that a person who lacks honesty and moral integrity is qualified to lead a nation and the world! Nevertheless, our people continue to say that the President is doing a good job even if they don’t respect him personally. Those two positions are fundamentally incompatible.In the Book of James the question is posed, “Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring” (James 3:11 NIV). The answer is no.

Speaking again of the First Lady, we’re being asked to believe that she knew nothing about the President’s escapade. I don’t want to be insensitive during her very difficult trial, but there is something strange about that explanation. After all, Hillary has been over this road before with her husband. Remember her appearance on 60 Minutes in 1992 when candidate Clinton admitted he had “caus[ed] pain in [my] marriage”  regarding the affair with Gennifer Flowers? Hillary has dealt with infidelity at least once. Wouldn’t that have unsettled Mrs. Clinton, especially when she knew about the charges made by Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey and possibly others. Are we to believe that this brilliant woman, a highly respected lawyer, neither saw nor heard anything leading her to conclude that her husband was lying? Did their private conversations reveal anything suspicious to her? How could she not have known about Monica these past seven months when the entire world was digging for information? It doesn’t sound believable to me.

This, then, is the key question. If Hillary did know about the affair, does that mean she lied too? And if so, was it not inexcusable for her to appear on the Today Show in January to blame the “right-wing conspiracy”  for trouble that she knew was of her husband’s own making?

One thing is certain: Mr. Clinton has betrayed some of his closest friends, many of them being women who were pressed into his defense. Included among them were Senator Dianne Feinstein, Senator Barbara Boxer,  Betty Currie, Ann Lewis, Dee Dee Myers, Mandy Grunwald, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala,  among others. Columnist Thomas Sowell wrote, “What could be more selfish or more gutless than a man hiding behind a woman, especially a woman young enough to be his daughter.”  Noted in the President’s weak and defensive explanation on August 17 was no mention of Monica Lewinsky and the other cast of characters. The President owes all his defenders an apology.

I think it is also appropriate that the President’s spinmeister, James Carville, apologize to the independent counsel, Ken Starr, for saying “what the man [Starr] ought to do is close up his little obsessive sex shop and go back to whatever he’s doing. And I’m saying this: that this little pygmy of a public man, Ken Starr, this is all he’s got. This is his last dying gasp to save his reputation for history, and it’s not going to work.”  Carville also stated that Starr was “about as independent as a turkey is bright,” 29 “a right-wing partisan hack,” 30 and accused him of “scuzzy, slimy” tactics. 

Can you imagine the President of the United States being represented by such an undignified character? Mr. Starr is a courageous public servant. He has taken the heat to get at the truth, and we haven’t seen all the facts to date. This Christian man, who was asked by the Attorney General to do this thankless job, will be vindicated in the end, and indeed, he has already!

Well, that brings me back to the issue with which we began. The American people have now heard the President’s dramatic confession of adultery. There is no longer any reason to speculate, and yet, the media reports that the majority continues to believe “it doesn’t matter.” At one point during the shocking revelations last month, Clinton’s public approval rating approached 70 percent!  I just don’t understand it. Why aren’t parents more concerned about what their children are hearing about the President’s behavior? Are moms and dads not embarrassed by what is occurring? At any given time, 40 percent of the nation’s children list the President of the United States as the person they most admire.  What are they learning from Mr. Clinton? What have we taught our boys about respecting women? What have our little girls learned about men? How can we estimate the impact of this scandal on future generations? How in the world can 7 out of 10 Americans continue to say that nothing matters except a robust economy?

I am left to conclude from these opinions that our greatest problem is not in the Oval Office. It is with the people of this land! We have lost our ability to discern the difference between right and wrong. Biblical moral principles have guided us since the Pilgrims came to these shores. In his farewell address to the Congress in 1796, George Washington said:

“Of all the disposition and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports…. And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion … reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” 

Clearly, this nation has been blessed because it was based on a commitment to biblical morality. But that is changing. Eleven years ago, Gary Hart was forced to withdraw from the Presidential race after a brief tryst,  and yet the majority today seems to find nothing wrong with behavior that is too disgusting to be reported on the evening news.

We are facing a profound moral crisis — not only because one man has disgraced us — but because our people no longer recognize the nature of evil. And when a nation reaches that state of depravity — judgment is a certainty.

As for the future of Bill Clinton, who knows where his presidency is headed. Because I’m writing this on September 1, he may or may not still be president by the time you read this. I see the President as a prize fighter who’s been staggered by a succession of blows, but he’s still standing. One more solid punch and he could go down. Only time will tell. Regardless of his personal future, I hope that Mr. Clinton will, as William Mattox suggested, “choose to follow in the path of Watergate figure Chuck Colson, a man who came clean with the truth, owned up to his misdeeds and found, at the height of his public humiliation, a new life and a new purpose.”  As with all of us sinners, Jesus Christ is the atonement.

Pray with us for our country, won’t you? Nothing short of a spiritual renewal will save us.


James C. Dobson, Ph.D

3 thoughts on “Remembering When James Dobson of Focus on the Family Called for the Impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998 for Moral Character Reasons

  1. Dobson was a tool, used to create the Religious Right. I have no idea if he was a naive dupe, or where his heart was, but he did much to stir the waters of the Cultural Wars. I know countless believers who took his word, or any of his guests assertions, without the slightest questioning. And much of it was intended to steer religious folk into the Republican fold while villainizing the liberal left.


    • And with time and entropy, this has ended with “HAIL TRUMP! GIVE HIM PRAISE AND ADORATION! HAIL TRUMP!”

      The Extra Sci-Fi sub-channel on YouTube is covering Dystopias and Apocalypses this season. Here’s their episode on one of THE classics:

      Especially note the Two Minutes Hate from about 4:00 to 5:00.
      That is what Culture War Uber Alles (combined with Twitter Brain) can result in.


  2. Because after being Christian Kingmaker under Reagan and Bush 41, Dobson was on the outs with Clinton. Court Evangelical/Kingmaker under Bush 43, on the outs with Obama. Now back to Court Kingmaker. That In/Out/In/Out/In see-saw had to be a factor in Dobson’s head.

    And even as far back as his debut The Strong Willed Child, Dobson seemed to view childrearing (and by extension how much else?) as Power Struggle and primarily Power Struggle. (As in Always Show Who’s Boss — Remember the belt-and-dachshund incident?)

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