HONORS 195: Rhetoric of Impeachment; Fall, 1999, John Dewey Honors Program, College of Arts & Sciences, University of Vermont
Alfred C. Snider, Edwin W. Lawrence Professor of Forensics

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Charles Ruff:

The Privacy Defense


Bethany Fuller

December 10, 1999

Privacy was a big issue during the impeachment proceedings and the overall sex scandal. It was introduced as an issue by the House Managers who wanted to discuss how moral and appropriate the actions of the president and Monica Lewinsky were. The defense then used the same topic to argue that he should not be impeached. This was because, as the defense planned to show, a president should not be impeached for something that occurred during his private life. This is mainly based on the fact that impeachment, as defined, applies to the president and his role regarding the state and safety of the country.

Privacy was introduced by the House Managers but widely used by the defense team. The defense focused on this so completely because private matters do not fit into the actions of high crimes and misdemeanors, which is required to impeach the president. The main purpose behind focusing on privacy was to show that matters in a personal life to not reach the level of impeachable regardless how immoral they were. The main goal, therefore was to prevent the impeachment of the president.

Privacy is also an issue that Charles Ruff seems to live by. He is one of the most powerful attorneys in the country, and was a prosecutor of Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal. However, it is very difficult to find a lot of information about him personally, or about his career. Typically it seems that there is more information available about someone with a powerful position such as Ruff, than others with less powerful opinions.

When it comes to the issue of privacy and the impeachment, there are a few questions that come to mind. In the past, the private life of a president was not reported in the media. What has changed since then making it acceptable for the media to report on Clinton’s private life with such detail? What were some of the turning points? When it comes to the impeachment proceedings, are personal issues a reason to impeach a president? Why is it that Ruff never defends the president or denies Clinton’s activities? Isn’t that how a defense attorney usually proceeds? How does the issue of privacy fit into Ruff’s own life?

Clinton is not the first sitting president to have a mistress or an affair. Multiple others have as well, but the media never broke the story to the public. The strongest example of this is President Kennedy. A large percentage of the public probably suspected that there was something going on between the president and Marilyn Monroe, but the media would not report on the story.

This is because there was once a gentleman’s agreement for hands off journalism when it came to the subject of the president’s personal life. There had been an understanding between journalists and politicians that reporting on a politician’s personal life was off limits. If the president had a sexy secretary who went on all business trips with him, and everyone had strong suspicions that she did not go with him to work, the media would never report about it. They did see it, and probably had sources to verify that there was an affair, but they stayed true to their agreement.

But, political journalism has changed over time. A main turning point in this change was Watergate. Watergate was in the news because it may have come to impeachment proceedings if the president had not resigned. The issue at hand had to do with illegal practices and policies of some White House personnel. The media reported on the facts and also began to criticize and render judgment regarding Nixon’s actions. During Watergate the media became more critical of politicians, but still remained professional in that criticism. They maintained this criticism of the presidency when later issues about presidents surfaced.

When Clarence Thomas was being appointed to the Supreme Court, Anita Hill came forward claiming that he had harassed her sexually in a professional situation. The media covered the story since sexual harassment was just entering the news media and was being seen as a big deal in the workplace. Since this reporting on Clarence Thomas, the media has found it easier and more acceptable to report on the personal and sexual matters of politicians, specifically in matters dealing with adultery and harassment.

When Paula Jones, and Gennifer Flowers accused the president of harassment, the stories were given media attention due to the issue of harassment. When the story broke about Monica, it was during the time of the accusation made by Paula Jones, and reporting on Monica was acceptable because if anything had occurred between her and the president, it would have an effect on the Jones harassment trial.

It is possible that the media may not have reported on Monica had she not come into the spotlight during a trial regarding the president and sexual harassment where other sexual matters were seen to apply. Due to the way the timing worked out, we can never be sure that the media might have been less harsh. It is very likely that they still would have reported on the issue because Monica would probably still have been a subject in the internet "news service" called the Drudge Report. Matt Drudge, not having a media oriented background does not hold himself to the same standard as the rest of the media. Other media sources do not report on stories without full backup since they do not want to be required to retract anything they may say, and will lose credibility as they misreport items.

Impeachment was included in the Constitution by the Founding Fathers to allow members of Congress to remove a sitting president if he was not acting (professionally) appropriately. The House Managers argued that the issue of acting appropriately applied to all aspects of the president including issues that are personal.

Charles Ruff does not agree with this. He states, "Impeachment is not a remedy for private wrongs; it’s a method of removing someone whose continued presence in office would cause grave danger to the nation." (Minneapolis Star Tribune, 1-20-99) And that "The only conduct that merits the drastic remedy of impeachment is that which subverts our system of government or renders the president unfit or unable to govern." (Dallas Morning News, 12-9-98) He backs this up by referring to the Founding Fathers and the fact that impeachment of a president was intended to be used for misconduct in professional, and public matters such as the safety of the country. There are several times that he states this.

"(T)he framers (of the constitution) made it clear ... that they intended to place substantial constraints on the use of the impeachment power. They used language ... that was clearly designed to reach conduct that involved abuse of official power." (Federal News Service, p 2)

"(W)hat ... the Founding Fathers, the framers of the Constitution, had in mind ... as bad as this conduct may be, whatever the conduct is, does it meant that the president of the United States should not and cannot lead the country?" (Federal News Service, p 23)

Ruff continues by stating that "in order to have committed an impeachable offense, the president must have acted to subvert our system of government." (Federal News Service, p 2). And that "impeachment of the president ... was to be reserved for only the most serious matters that threaten the very fabric of our political structure." (Federal News Service, p 2) "The president has not committed a high crime or misdemeanor. His conduct, although morally reprehensible, does not warrant impeachment" (Gannett News Service, 2-11-99) "It does not warrant overturning the mandate of the American electorate." (Dallas Morning News, 12-9-98)

With these statements he is telling the American public and members of Congress that the issue at hand is personal, and by all means does not relate to national security, or another official power of the president. He argues to the members of Congress that impeachment and removal of a president is a very big deal, and a matter which acts to counter the vote of the American people to put him in office in the first place. He states that this should only be done as a last resort, or as punishment when a crime had been committed. He concludes the series of thoughts with a question.

"There is only one question before you, albeit a difficult one, one that is a question of fact, and law, and constitutional theory. Would it put at risk the liberties of the people to retain the president in office? ... Putting aside partisan animus, if you can honestly say that it would not, that those liberties are safe in his hands, then you must vote to acquit." (USA Today, 7-14-98)

With this rhetorical series, Charles Ruff indicates that he believes the president should not be impeached for a personal matter such as this. And that the Founding Fathers did not intend to have impeachment in regards to a matter that did not involve presidential, or executive power, and the safety of the nation.

Ruff makes an additional statement, "We know the pain the president has caused our society and his family and his friends, but we know, too, how much the president has done for this country." (USA Today, 7-14-98) He admits here that most people realize the president has made mistakes which caused both pain and problems for many people close to him, but not necessarily to the public as a whole. He also tries to remind everyone that as a president, Bill Clinton has done things for the country, and therefore one can conclude, should not be impeached if the presidency is not effected by his personal life. By this he infers that the American people do not want him to be impeached.

Charles Ruff was a main defense attorney during the impeachment proceedings, and yet he never defended or denied Clinton’s actions. He even went so far as to say, "No one is defending the morality of the underlying conduct (of the relationship with Lewinsky)." (Federal News Service, p 28) And, "Neither the president nor anyone speaking on his behalf will defend the morality of his personal conduct." (Federal News Service, p 2) It is seemingly his job to defend the president, yet he openly states that he will not defend Clinton’s actions.

In regards to a "normal" defense case, these statements by Ruff appear very odd. Usually a defense attorney denies the actions of the client, such as they are innocent and did not murder the victim. Or they may defend their actions, such as, my client did murder the victim, but it was self defense. Ruff never says anything equivalent to either of those statements. Why is that?

The issue at hand is whether or not the president and Monica ‘had sexual relations’. When discussing the issue of whether or not an impeachment hearing should even be held, Ruff had interpreted the thoughts of the Founding Fathers and concluded that impeachment does not apply to personal issues such as this one.

In keeping with the idea that the issue is a personal one, Ruff refuses to comment directly. This refusal to comment on the president’s actions while not ‘on duty’ supports the fact that Ruff considers this to be a private matter. If he were to have commented or passed a judgment, he would have supported the fact that Congress and the American public also have a right to pass judgment on the personal actions of a sitting president as well.

The two statements that he did make about it being personal conduct, and not defending the morality of the issue indicates that Charles Ruff himself lives by a set of morals in respect to his personal life. This implies that the morals that Ruff lives by are different than Clinton’s and Ruff would not find himself in a position similar to that of the president.

The statement about not defending the conduct of the president appears to tell the members of the Judiciary Committee that it is all right to disagree with the morals that have been demonstrated by the president while it is not all right to pass a judgment resulting in Clinton’s removal from office.

This privacy issue was part of why I chose to study Charles Ruff in the first place. I wanted to study someone that I did not know much about, if anything, so I would have less opinions of them before I began researching and writing about them. "At age 59, Ruff is Mr. Clinton’s fifth White House counsel, he’s ranked among the 100 most powerful attorneys in the U.S." (CBS Evening News, 1-19-99) Even though he is such a powerful attorney, and has had a fairly long career, there is not much written about him personally.

Until the impeachment proceedings, and with the exception of the Watergate impeachment trial, Charles Ruff has been very successful at staying out of the media. This success could be partially based on the fact that both his mother, Margaret Carson (or Carlson) and his half-sister Carla Ruff, had jobs involving publicity. Carla was a publishing consultant, and his mother was a music publicist with a major in political science.

With their backgrounds in publicity, it is likely that Charles Ruff learned about how information gets into the media, and also, how to stay out of the media if you so desire. It seems obvious that Charles Ruff believes strongly in privacy. Many attorneys, especially the more powerful, are in the news frequently stating opinions about one matter or another. In many cases, this is just to keep their own name and face covered in the media. Since Charles Ruff is not frequently in the news while he is not working on an impeachment trial, he must value his privacy more than the limelight.

One main result of this desire for privacy was the fact that it was very difficult to obtain and confirm information about his past, even down to some rather small details. The first example of this was the last name of his biological father. It was known that Ruff was the last name of his stepfather who adopted him, but his biological father’s name was either Carson or Carlson. It seems odd that a detail about him that is so small and less private is not known with full accuracy.

Another example of finding conflicting stories due to a lack of media information, is how Charles Ruff became wheelchair bound. This may be partially due to the fact that he is very quiet about the fact that he is in a wheelchair. Again, two similar, but slightly conflicting stories were found.

"In 1963, just out of Columbia Law School and recently married to Susan Willis, his Swarthmore College sweetheart, he was teaching law in Liberia on a Ford Foundation grant when his legs were paralyzed by Guillain-Barre syndrome." (People Weekly, 2-1-99)

"It was in 1965, while teaching in Africa, that Mr. (Charles) Ruff, by then married and awaiting the birth of his first child, came down with a polio like virus that has left him in a wheelchair ever since." (New York Times, 2-9-99)

I don’t know much about Guillain-Barre syndrome. It is possible that it is the polio like virus that the New York Times referred to. It still seems a little odd that one resource was able to name the syndrome while another just guessed at the type.

There is further confusion regarding why Ruff was in Africa in the first place. A quote above from People states that he was teaching, but another source claims that instead of teaching, Ruff "contract(ed) a polio-like illness years ago while serving his country in Africa."(CBS Evening News, 1-19-99)

The amount of privacy regarding Ruff is not due to the fact that he has only recently started a law career, or has held smaller positions in the law. Charles Ruff has had a 30 year career and in fact he has had many positions that would have been very public. He worked "at Covington & Burling, the prestigious Washington, D.C., law firm where Ruff was a partner between 1982 and 1995." (People Weekly, 2-1-99)

"Ruff gave up a lucrative private practice (at Covington & Burling) in 1995 to take the thankless job of top lawyer for the beleaguered District of Columbia, describing it as a position, ‘so interesting and challenging it was difficult for me to say no.’ " (AP Online, 6-5-98)

He also "closed up shop as the fourth and final Watergate prosecutor," (AP Online, 6-5-98) "(He) won convictions of two members of Congress caught in a federal sting operation, and prosecuted John Hinckley for attempting to kill president Reagan." (People Weekly, 2-1-99) "(H)is clients in private practice included Sen. Charles Robb, D-Va., White House aide Ira Magaziner and Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio." (AP Online, 6-5-98)

It seems a little odd that an attorney that has had such big jobs, especially in the political arena, has not had more media attention in his life. I think that this says a lot about his desire to keep his private matters private. Any attorney who wanted to and without a great deal of effort, could eventually make enough noise and get himself associated with the right people to get into the news. It would take much more effort for an attorney to keep himself out of the news.

Since privacy is such an important issue for Charles Ruff this makes him a perfect attorney to represent Clinton in this case. He argues that private lives should remain private. This is an easy position for Ruff to take, and argument for him to make since he lives with this belief himself. It would have been much harder for him to argue this as effectively if he had chosen to live the more private parts of is life more publicly.

It is much easier, and effective in life to defend a position that you personally agree with and feel strongly about. People can and will defend positions that they are paid to defend, but their defense is usually less effective, or convincing than the defense that could have been given by someone who really cared about the subject.

In regards to his rhetoric regarding privacy, I believe that Charles Ruff did a wonderful job. He got his point across effectively. This is evident by the fact that the president was not impeached. Ruff reached his goal of avoiding the result of impeachment. His rhetoric was good, in that it accomplished his goal of preventing the impeachment of the president.

It was also good rhetoric since it pleased the American public when Clinton was not impeached. The president remaining in office, pleases the American people because of how well the economy had been performing.

Ruff’s rhetoric was also good because it sent a reminder that your private life and public life do not necessarily overlap, and probably should not. If the president had been impeached over personal misconduct in a public place, that would send a message to others, especially business leaders, that workers or employees can be judged by their performance at work as well as by private matters which should never be considered in regards to job performance. I would never want my performance or standing at work to be dependent on decisions that were made in my private life. In this way, Ruff’s rhetoric was good for society as a whole.

There is another way that Ruff’s rhetoric involves society. Some people that were in favor of impeaching the president argued that leaving him in office would degrade the morality of the presidency, and in turn our nation.

At one point in time, character had a lot to do with being the president. The candidate elected may not have been the best at being president, but they had character that the country could look up to. They were men who had personally helped to defend the freedom and beliefs of the country by fighting in wars, or serving in armed services.

It was evident that times had changed when Clinton was re-elected. He had run against Bob Dole who had helped fight for our country. It became obvious to many that the job of president no longer relied mainly on character. We as a country had re-elected a draft-dodger, possibly former pot smoker as president. Many were probably appalled at this. (They had probably supported Dole for these same reasons.) This opened the eyes of many people who realized that character is no longer the issue. The American people prefer a good business leader over a moral leader. Americans want the economy to remain strong more than they want to be able to look to the president as a role model. The impeachment proceedings further emphasized this preference since people as a whole wanted him to remain in office, and his popularity rose as more information surfaced.

I’m not sure whether the rhetoric is good or bad in the sense that it perpetuates the desire for a business leader over a moral leader. It is possible that as a country we made the wrong choice, and this will only be evident in the distant future. It is also possible that if we continue electing business leaders that we could have a great economy and that very important decisions could be made regarding health care, and insurance, since most business leaders deal with the issue of insurance with their employees. Is it possible that strong business leaders today will run for election tomorrow? Can the American people see Ted Turner or Bill Gates as president?

Overall, Ruff’s rhetoric was good for individuals and society in the short term, but we will have to wait and see how the presidency changes in the long term.


Apple Jr., R. W.; Hyde, in Closing, Demands Senate ‘Cleanse Office’; New York Times, Late Edition; February 9, 1999.

Benac, Nancy; Ruff hanging tough in ‘lightning rod’ counsel’s job; AP Online; June 5, 1998.

Excerpts from White Houses counsel Charles Ruff’s opening presentation in the Senate Impeachment trial of President Clinton, Minneapolis Star Tribune, © 1999 Star Tribune, January 20, 1999.

Frankel, Bruce; For the defense; People Weekly; February 1, 1999.

Lawyers Cover Familiar Turf in Final Statements, USA Today, © 1999 USA Today, February 9, 1999.

Rather, Dan and Schieffer, Bob; The Impeachment Trial: The President’s Defense; CBS Evening News with Dan Rather, CBS, January 19, 1999.

Testimony of Charles Ruff before the House Judiciary Committee, Federal News Service, Section: Capitol Hill Hearing with White House Personnel, Lexis- Nexis Congressional Universe (total 38,523 words and 63 pages).

Wheeler, Larry; Impeachment Proceedings Made History of Lowest, Highest Order; Gannet News Service, February 11, 1999.

Whittle, Richard and Jackson, David; White House Pleads Clinton’s Case As GOP Unveils Articles of Impeachment; Dallas Morning News, December 9, 1998.