Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman and Vice President Al Gore lost the 2000 presidential election by 538 votes.

Remembering Joe Lieberman: The Orthodox mensch who gently broke barriers in Washington

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Remembering Joe Lieberman: The Orthodox mensch who gently broke barriers in Washington

Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman and Vice President Al Gore lost the 2000 presidential election by 538 votes.

He was an Orthodox Jew in a secular political world. He was a moderate in a political era that stigmatized moderation. His nomination for the vice presidency wasn’t targeted to solidify the Jewish vote as much as it was an appeal to win the ardor of conservative Christians. He was a Democrat who endorsed a Republican presidential candidate. He won election as an independent and then cast the deciding vote to organize the Senate with a Democratic majority. He opposed the Iran nuclear deal that his party’s leadership promoted. He took strong issue stands but was celebrated for his soft personal side.

Joe Lieberman, a few Broward County, Fla. hanging chads from becoming vice president of the United States, nonetheless had a signal American achievement. By not quite fitting in anywhere, he fit in everywhere.

There was nobody in politics like Joseph Isadore Lieberman, then or now.

“If you want an example of a life well-lived and one of purpose,” former Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd, who shared 40 years of public life with Lieberman in Connecticut politics, told me, “Joe Lieberman is a great model for how one person can truly make a difference.”

He was in the fray until the fall that led to his death on March 27 at age 82.

Hours before he died, he and Alan Dershowitz, the emeritus Harvard Law professor and vigorous defender of Israel, polished a letter they prepared to send to the White House. “We are here to say that you can no longer simply count on our vote just because Jews traditionally have voted Democratic,” they planned to tell President Joe Biden. “We are here to say you must earn our vote. We want to continue to support Democratic candidates, but you need to know that if you abandon Israel in order to garner the support of anti-Israel extremists within the Democratic Party, it will be difficult for us to support Democrats who are on the ballot this November.”

Just a week before he died, Lieberman wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal taking issue with the attack Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer – who also is Jewish – mounted on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He argued that while the New York lawmaker “undoubtedly pleased American critics of Israel, for the Israelis it was meaningless, gratuitous, and offensive,” adding that his onetime colleague’s remarks “will have every other democratic ally of the U.S. worrying that America may try to bully our way into its domestic politics.”

Schumer may have absorbed a punch, but when he learned that Lieberman had died, he said that he was “devastated” by the news. This was not senatorial courtesy. It was senatorial high regard.

Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman accepts the vice-presidential nomination at the 2000 Democratic Convention at the Staples Center in Los Angeles./JOSEPH SOHM/SHUTTERSTOCK

Lieberman kept the Sabbath, followed the kashrut laws on diet, and broke the stained-glass ceiling. As a young man, he traveled to the South as part of the Civil Rights Movement, fighting segregation and the denial of voting rights for Blacks. He also fought party bosses, video games, and raunchy music lyrics. He had a fondness for Barney the Dinosaur, the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, and the Frank Sinatra song “My Way.”

Lieberman – “often too much of a centrist for liberals and too wishy-washy for conservatives,” in the characterization of The Tablet, a prominent Jewish website – was a reformer. But he was not a crusader.

His views – on Israel, on national defense, on the comportment of President Bill Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, on former president Barack Obama’s views on Israel – troubled many Jews, who generally leaned more left than Lieberman. But even in his moments of dissent (and there were many), there was respect. His positions may have invited disappointment, but generally they did not court disdain.

“He followed his religion without ostentation or embarrassment,” U.S. Court of Appeals Judge José A. Cabranes, perhaps Lieberman’s closest friend, said in an interview. “He was an American patriot and a defender of our allies and friends around the world, a position you don’t see so much anymore. That made his association with John McCain, and his endorsement of his presidential campaign, entirely comprehensible.”

Cabranes was a pallbearer for Lieberman. So, tellingly, was Mark Wallace. Wallace is the CEO of United Against Nuclear Iran and the Counter Extremism Project.

“Senator Lieberman modeled for us how deep Jewish values and commitment to the Jewish people can be lived out in civic life,” said Rabbi Ronald B.B. Symons, the founding director of the Pittsburgh JCC’s Center for Loving Kindness and Civic Engagement.

It wasn’t only Jews who saluted that aspect of his life, which took its most visible form in strong support for Israel. “Senator Lieberman was the voice of reason and in today’s anti-Israel climate, there doesn’t appear to be anyone of his stature to carry on the fight for Israel’s survival,” retired state district judge Paul Mahoney of Malden wrote me after he read my obituary of Lieberman in the Boston Globe.

Joseph J. Helble spent a year working on Lieberman’s staff as a science and technology policy fellow under the auspices of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His first substantive policy conversation with the senator was on a long-forgotten environmental issue. Two Lieberman staffers were present for a discussion on the matter. But it was to Helble, the engineering professor, to whom the senator turned for a recommendation. He wanted a view based on the science involved.

“I gave him my summary of the facts, walked through the decision I felt the science supported, and then started to say something about the political aspects that also needed to be considered,” said Helble, now the president of Lehigh University. “He held up his hand, gently but firmly asked me to stop, and said, ‘I need you to tell me what you believe the science says’ and to ignore the politics.”

It was in ignoring the politics that Mr. Lieberman’s sense of politics shone through.

“Everyone shook their heads when the two of us cosponsored a bill together,” said former senator Tom Harkin, far more liberal than the Connecticut lawmaker, whose office was close to the Iowan’s. “We often walked over to vote together and we’d have a pleasant chit-chat. He was a real nice guy.”

But, Harkin said, his colleague often went his own way. Perhaps in his final hours, Lieberman reflected on the song he loved so much, and its opening stanza:

And now, the end is near
And so I face the final curtain
My friend, I’ll say it clear
I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain
I’ve lived a life that’s full
I traveled each and every highway
And more, much more than this
I did it my way Θ

David M. Shribman, who won a Pulitzer Prize as Washington bureau chief of the Boston Globe, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and teaches at Carnegie Mellon University and McGill University.

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