[Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: William J. Clinton (1997, Book II)]
[December 15, 1997]
[Pages 1767-1770]
[From the U.S. Government Publishing Office www.gpo.gov]

Remarks Announcing the Appointment of Bill Lann Lee as Acting Assistant 
Attorney General for Civil Rights and an Exchange With Reporters
December 15, 1997

    The President. I want to thank the Attorney General for her support. 
And again, I want to join the Vice President and the Attorney General in 
thanking Isabelle Katz Pinzler for the great job she has done as Acting 
Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. I wish her well as she 
returns to private life, to her husband, her son, and daughter in New 
York City.
    Today it is with a great deal of pride that I name Bill Lann Lee to 
the post of Acting Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights and 
Counselor to the Attorney General for Civil Rights Enforcement. From 
this day forward, he will be America's top civil rights enforcer, 
serving at the helm of the Department of Justice's Civil Rights 

[[Page 1768]]

    It is fitting that this announcement comes on the 206th anniversary 
of the Bill of Rights, our charter of freedom and equality. Our present 
civil rights laws have helped all of us move closer to those timeless 
values. They protect every person from discrimination, especially 
discrimination against women, minorities, Americans with disabilities, 
and victims of hate crimes. They ensure that all Americans have equal 
opportunities to work, to learn, to live, to raise their children in 
communities where they can thrive and grow.
    I can think of no one whose life story and impeccable credentials 
make him more suited to enforcing these laws than Bill Lann Lee. Because 
of his long struggle in this nominating process, his life story has 
become rather well known to millions of Americans. They know now that he 
has lived the American dream and that he embodies American values.
    The son of poor Chinese immigrants who, like millions of other 
Americans, came to this country seeking better futures, and despite 
feeling the sting and frustration of discrimination throughout their 
lives, they were people who never lost faith in America. They settled in 
Harlem, built a small business washing clothes, taught their two sons 
the value of hard work and the limitless possibilities of a good 
education. Bill Lee won a scholarship to Yale and went on to earn a law 
degree from Columbia. His brother became a Baptist minister. I leave it 
to you to decide which one got the better end of the deal. [Laughter]
    Above all, the Lees instilled in their sons a deep and abiding love 
for country and our values. It is this love for America, the faith in 
the American ideal, that inspired Mr. Lee to pursue a career in civil 
rights law. Over a lifetime he has worked tirelessly to end the 
discrimination that keeps us from reaching our greatest potential as a 
    As a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the organization 
founded by the great Thurgood Marshall, Mr. Lee has sought to bring 
people together, to reconcile opposing views, to forge consensus, and to 
find the common ground we all must stand on. His commitment to fairness 
and the dignity of all Americans won the respect and admiration of 
clients and opposing lawyers alike.
    We need more Americans like Bill Lee in the highest offices of 
Government. In the last session of Congress, he was denied the vote he 
deserves on his confirmation because some Senators disagree with his 
views on affirmative action. But his views on affirmative action are my 
views on affirmative action: No quotas, no discrimination, no position 
or benefit for any unqualified person; but mend, don't end affirmative 
action, so that all Americans can have a fair chance at living the 
American dream.
    My constitutional right and responsibility as President is to put in 
office men and women who will further our policies consistent with our 
obligations under the Constitution. Some people want to wait for me to 
appoint someone to this position whom I disagree with. But America 
cannot afford to wait that long. And it would be a long wait indeed. 
[Laughter] The enforcement of our civil rights laws demands strong 
leadership now.
    In the coming months, I will resubmit Mr. Lee's nomination to the 
Senate. I will be pressing very hard for a straight up or down vote, and 
I am confident that once the Senate and the American people are given a 
fair chance to judge Mr. Lee's performance, he will be confirmed.
    While he will have the full authority and support to carry out the 
duties of the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, I still look 
forward to striking the word ``acting'' from his title. He is a 
remarkable American, and I am confident that he will enforce our civil 
rights laws with the same professionalism, honesty, and integrity he has 
exhibited throughout his life and career. He is truly the best person 
for this job.
    Mr. Lee.

[At this point, Mr. Lee made brief remarks.]

    Q. Mr. President, why did you pick acting instead of recess?
    Q. [Inaudible]--Senator Specter has appealed to you----
    Q. Why did you choose to----
    The President. I have two objectives. One is to get Mr. Lee into the 
leadership of the Civil Rights Division as soon as possible. The other 
is to maximize the chances that he can be confirmed in the coming year 
in the Senate. I believe this path is the best way to maximize the 
chance of achieving both objectives.
    Q. Mr. President, do you think that you minimized the problem of 
retaliation that the Republicans threatened by choosing this path?

[[Page 1769]]

    The President. Well, I don't know about that. I think that 
retaliation is not only inappropriate and unwarranted, it would be 
wrong. As far as the pace of confirmation of judges, I don't think it's 
been adequate to date anyway. The Senate has a constitutional 
responsibility to consider these judges in a timely fashion, and I want 
them to do much better, not worse.
    But you know, no President can proceed in office and do the duty 
that the Constitution imposes if you spend your time worrying about 
retaliation. I think this is an honorable decision which gives the 
Senate a chance to consider Mr. Lee again, something which I believe 
would not have happened if I had done it in another way. That's what I 
want to do. And I want to work with the Senate in a positive way, but I 
can't be worried about retaliation. I have to do what I think is right.
    Q. The Senate also appealed to you on constitutional grounds as 
well, saying that you shouldn't do this under Articles I or II. How do 
you respond to that? And if Mr. Lee wants to step up, why did you want 
to step into such a political firestorm that was caused by your 
    The President. Well, first of all, I have been very judicious in the 
use of recess appointments. If you look at my record as compared with 
every President--I've gone back all the way to President Ford, and he 
was just here a little less than 2\1/2\ years. But I have been very 
disciplined in the use of these appointments. President Reagan and 
President Bush made far more recess appointments than I have.
    I have done my best to work with the United States Senate in an 
entirely constitutional way. But we had to get somebody into the Civil 
Rights Division. And I'm not sure anybody could have been confirmed if 
the test is that I have to appoint someone who disagrees with me on 
affirmative action, which seemed to be what some of the Senators are 
saying. And I just couldn't imagine getting anybody more qualified than 
Bill Lee. So I decided we needed to go on and do what I thought was 
right for the country.
    Q. But, sir, why should this not be seen as an act of defiance 
against the advise and consent process in the Senate?
    The President. Well, first of all, the Senate did not decline--they 
did not reject his appointment. The Senate never even got a chance to 
vote on his appointment. And if the Senate had rejected his appointment, 
I would not--even though I would have bitterly disagreed with it, I 
certainly would not have named him to this position. I believe that the 
Senate, if given a chance to vote on him, will embrace his appointment. 
And I believe after he's been there a few months, he'll have even more 
votes. So that's what I hope will happen and what I believe we have a 
chance to have happen now.
    Q. Isn't it like having one hand tied behind his back to start this 
job politically as an acting----
    The President. No. Absolutely not. He has the full authority of the 
office. And you have seen here, he has the full confidence of the 
Attorney General and the President. That's all he needs.
    Q. But, Mr. President, you still have those that are opposing him. 
And what if the same thing were to happen that happened this year? 
What's the next step?
    The President. He'll be the Acting Attorney General for Civil 
Rights, and he'll be enforcing the civil rights laws.
    Q. Why do you think politics were at play in this issue, sir? You 
and your top aides are saying that politics were responsible for the 
opposition. Why could it not--why do you not accept it as just an honest 
disagreement on issues?
    The President. Because I was elected President, and I didn't make 
any secret of my position on affirmative action. I might say also, this 
administration has done a lot to change the affirmative action laws to 
eliminate some of the abuses that I thought existed. But we can never be 
in a position of saying that a President shouldn't have someone in 
office who agrees with him. Now, that doesn't mean every--if a President 
makes an appointment that's way outside the mainstream of established 
legal thought or somebody who has a lack of experience or someone who 
has otherwise demonstrated an unfitness for office, then the Senate may 
reject that person, who parenthetically may be agreeing with the 
    But none of those elements were here--none, not a single one. And 
that's why I thought this was the right thing to do, and I still feel 
that way. I feel more strongly than I did the day I nominated him.
    Q. What is the name of your dog? [Laughter]
    Q. When will you submit the nomination again?

[[Page 1770]]

    The President. What did you say?
    Q. When will you submit the nomination again?
    The President. Oh, I don't know. Early next year, in a timely 
    Q. Your appointment to Mexico as a Mexican Ambassador was also 
blocked. Did you decide with this that enough is enough and that you 
were going to take a stand on this? Why was there a difference in the 
decision to put Lee in there without confirming him?
    The President. Because I think under these circumstances we actually 
have a chance to get him confirmed. The Ambassador position to Mexico 
was entirely different. And normally you don't appoint a recess--you 
don't make a recess appointment, for example, of an Ambassador unless 
there is some understanding that that person will actually be confirmed 
when the time comes for the confirmation. The facts were different.
    Q. Is there any difference between the way an Acting Assistant 
Attorney General does his job and a fully nominated and confirmed 
Assistant Attorney General can do his job? Is there any difference 
between the two?
    The President. I do not believe there is any difference at all as 
long as the Acting Attorney General--the Acting Assistant Attorney 
General has the confidence and support of the Attorney General and the 
confidence and support of the President. And that is the message today. 
I think he's in great shape, and I can't wait for him to go to work.

President's New Dog

    Q. What's the answer to the big question in this country? What's the 
name of your dog? [Laughter]
    The President. First of all, let me thank--I want to thank 
everybody, all these kids that came in all over the country. I've never 
gotten so many suggestions in my life. And some of them were quite 
hilarious, Advise and Consent. A child yesterday said I should name the 
dog Top Secret, so I could run around the White House saying, ``Top 
Secret, Top Secret.'' [Laughter]
    Q. What do you call him now?
    The President. Anyway, I got all these names, and we had a little 
family conference last night. We got down to two names, and we selected 
one. And I think I'll announce it tomorrow at the press conference. 
    Thank you.

Note: The President spoke at 12:45 p.m. in the Oval Office at the White 
House. In his remarks, he referred to former Gov. William F. Weld of 
Massachusetts, whose nomination to be Ambassador to Mexico was withdrawn 
on September 18.