T H E   W H I T E   H O U S E

President Announces Bill Lann Lee as Acting Assistant General for Civil Rights

Help Site Map Text Only

Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release December 15, 1997


Oval Office

12:45 P.M. EST

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 Pensler 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 Division.

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 and 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 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 people.

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 define 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. 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. (Applause.)

MR. LEE: Thank you, Mr. President. Thank you, Mr. Vice President. Mr. President, it is a great honor to serve as head of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice.

I want to thank Attorney General Reno for the steadfast confidence she has placed in me. I look forward to working with her closely. I also wish to thank my mother, Pui Jen Lee; my wife Carolyn; my children, Angela, Mark and Nicholas; my brother Reverend Ernest Lee there; and his wife, Vivian, and their children, Peter and Katie. I also want to thank the many friends and colleagues and supporters who have helped make this possible.

I am the son of immigrants. My parents came to this country in search of the American Dream. They became citizens by dint of hard work, respect for the law, and an unshakable belief in our country's most cherished ideals. That the President has chosen me for this position of trust and responsibility redeems my parents' hope and faith that the American Dream can come true for all Americans.

All Americans deserve the opportunity to work hard, to enjoy the fruits of their labor, and build lives for their families. Discrimination because of race, religion, ethnicity, disability, age or gender should never be allowed to stifle the potential of any citizen. America has traveled and is still traveling a long, hard road to redeem this commitment to equal justice. It is a path haunted by the ghosts of slavery, Civil War, Jim Crow and internment; a path littered with desecrated churches and synagogues, persistent intolerance and bigotry. However, our progress as a nation has been marked by a succession of civil rights laws, standposts that rise above political party and endure as lasting, bipartisan achievements.

It was President Eisenhower who signed the first modern Civil Rights Act --the Civil Rights Act of 1957, preventing interference with the right to vote and establishing the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. It was Presidents Kennedy and Johnson who worked to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 -- laws that safeguard the right of citizens to vote, to work, to use public accommodations and to go to school. It was President Bush who signed the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, recognizing that individuals with disabilities shall have access to American society.

The solemn duty of the Civil Rights Division is to enforce the letter and spirit of the civil rights laws. Without proper enforcement, these laws are merely empty promises . Every time the division prosecutes a civil rights enforcement case America strives to make real the promise of equal opportunity for all.

I want to offer special thanks to Isabelle Katz Pensler, who has been the division's Acting Assistant Attorney General for nearly a year. The division has truly been diligent under her leadership.

In closing, I wish to say it will be a great privilege to serve the lawyers and staff of the Civil Rights Division. The division's lawyers include some of the most talented and dedicated individuals that I have ever met. I am honored to join and promise to continue their proud tradition of steadfast, nonpartisan law enforcement. With God's help, I pledge to enforce, without fear or favor, our nation's civil rights laws on behalf of all of the American people.

Thank you. (Applause.)

Q Mr. President, why did you pick acting instead of recess?

Q -- 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?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I don't know about that. What I -- 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 and 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 nomination?

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 ever President -- I've gone back all the way to President Ford, and he was just here a little less than two and a half 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 who 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 President.

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?

THE PRESIDENT: Oh, I don't know. Early next year, in a timely fashion.

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 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.

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. (Laughter and applause.)

Thank you.

1:02 P.M. EST

President and First Lady | Vice President and Mrs. Gore
Record of Progress | The Briefing Room
Gateway to Government | Contacting the White House
White House for Kids | White House History
White House Tours | Help | Text Only

Privacy Statement

What's New - December 1997

Kennedy Center Honors Reception

Space Medal Ceremony

Baldrige Awards Ceremony

Race Outreach Meeting

Statement on Bosnia

Human Rights Day

President Clinton Visits the Bronx

Drug Interdiction

Acting Assistant General for Civil Rights

1997 National Medals of Science and Technology

152nd Press Conference

Historic Climate Change Agreement Reached in Kyoto

Building One America for the 21st Century