columnU.S. News

A politician who was also a role model

Joe Lieberman was almost U.S. vice president. But his real distinction was as a politician who stuck to his principles and showed how to be a faithful Jew in the public square.

Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman accepts the vice-presidential nomination at the 2000 Democratic Convention at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Credit: Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock.
Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman accepts the vice-presidential nomination at the 2000 Democratic Convention at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Credit: Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

In a life full of accomplishments, Joe Lieberman will almost certainly be best remembered as the answer to a trivia question. Even more significant was his role as a supporting player in one of the most intense political controversies as well as one of the great “what ifs” in American history. But as much as the 2000 presidential election—during which he became Al Gore’s running mate and the first Jew ever to achieve such a distinction—and its denouement over recounts in Florida was his moment in the sun, his life should be recalled with honor and affection for much more than that.

As someone who not only followed his career but covered him as an editor in his home state of Connecticut for several years, I got to know him not just as a public figure but as a person. And, as such, I can say without reservation that he was that rare breed of politician who was a mensch and a role model, both as a Jew and as an American.

Lieberman, who died this week at the age of 82, was a career politician who served a total of 40 years in various elected positions, including state senator, Connecticut state attorney general and U.S. senator. That’s the sort of résumé that nowadays is regarded by many, if not most, Americans with distrust. While politicians have always been viewed with some wariness, by the third decade of the 21st century, we’ve come to associate much of our governing class with some of the worst characteristics of our public life: mendacity, avarice, cynicism, a lack of principles and utter contempt for the people they are supposed to serve.

A faithful Jew

Lieberman was a throwback to an earlier, gentler era of American politics when those who engaged in public service were not all assumed to be liars, crooks and scoundrels. He was a man who was not prepared to change his positions merely to gain a momentary advantage or win elections. We took him as we found him, and when that wasn’t good enough to retain office, he thanked the voters for the privilege of serving them and moved on.

And what made that truly remarkable was that it was also reflected in the public observance of his faith. By the time Lieberman was first sworn into the U.S. Senate in January 1989, there had been many other Jews who had served in that body, as well as in the U.S. House of Representatives and prominent federal positions. Some of them, though not all, expressed pride in their heritage and faith. But what made Lieberman special was that he observed Shabbat and kept kosher while performing his duties. And he did so without fuss or making any special demands on the institution. As he wrote in his 2011 book The Gift of Rest, if he had to walk to the Capitol or walk home from it, then that’s what he did.

More than anyone else, Lieberman normalized not just being a Jew in the public square but being a faithful Jew. And when then-Vice President Al Gore chose him to be his vice-presidential nominee in 2000, he seemed to embody the truth that not only was America a safe haven for Jews as well as the freest and most successful Diaspora community in history, but also a place where a Jew could aspire to the highest offices in the land.

As the first Jew on a major party presidential ticket, he’s the answer to a trivia question. And who knows how or whether history would have been different if he had been elected. The election that year was narrowly decided when George W. Bush defeated Gore by 537 votes in Florida, thereby gaining an Electoral College victory. The nation has since grappled with other such controversies and even worse arguments about them than those that transfixed the nation while that outcome was disputed in recounts and litigation. It only ended when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Florida couldn’t—as Gore and Lieberman wished—only conduct recounts in the counties where they were looking for more votes. To their credit, the two men conceded, and the nation moved on.

Principle over party

We can never know whether America or the world would have been better off had Gore and Lieberman been in charge in the years that followed, or how they might have handled the challenges related to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 (the theorem of the fallacy of the predetermined outcome notwithstanding) and the dangers of Islamist terror.

But in the years to follow, as Lieberman continued to serve in the Senate, he showed the country what it meant to put principle over party.

Lieberman was the kind of moderate Democrat that today is almost, if not completely extinct: a consistent liberal on domestic issues but a hawk when it came to national security. As such, he supported Bush’s decision to go to war not just in Afghanistan, where the 9/11 Al-Qaeda plotters had used as a base, but also in Iraq, to topple the tyrannical, terrorist-supporting regime of Saddam Hussein.

For Lieberman, Iraq was a central issue. He believed in the American mission to make the region and the world safer by eliminating the rogue regime in Baghdad. He also thought it right to try to foster democracy in the Arab world.

Initially, he was one of many Democrats to take this stand. But as the war in Iraq dragged on amid a bloody and costly Islamist insurgency, most in his party, including then Sens. Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton, changed their tune.

Lieberman’s support for the war was probably not the only reason why his bid for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination fell flat. In the 1990s, centrists like Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Joe Lieberman dominated the Democratic Party. But in the 21st century, it drifted to the left, and Lieberman’s foreign-policy stands were no longer appealing.

Unlike most veteran Democrats, Lieberman didn’t shift his positions to be in sync with the party’s angry and increasingly more liberal, if not leftist, grassroots. He stuck to his position on Iraq, and it led to Connecticut Democrats rejecting him when he ran for re-election to the Senate in 2006. The fact that he was able to win in November by running as an independent testified to his centrist appeal.

In the years that followed, he again fell out with his party when he chose to support the presidential campaign of his friend and Senate colleague John McCain in 2008 rather than support Barack Obama, the man that Democrats had chosen. Although he was reliably liberal on other issues, such as helping to provide the slim margin of victory enabling the passage of Obamacare in 2010, it made no difference. Democrats never forgave him for the sin of backing a Republican and an unpopular war, and in 2012, when the presence of a viable Republican candidate rendered another independent run unlikely, he left politics and returned to private life.

Willing to take a stand

The thread of his life was consistent. He was known for taking strong, principled positions and sticking to them, even when they weren’t popular. That could be seen in his active participation in the civil-rights movement in the 1960s by volunteering to help blacks register to vote in the still-segregated South. It was also evident in his September 1998 speech on the floor of the Senate when he broke with most in his party by condemning President Bill Clinton’s lies and marital infidelity in the Monica Lewinsky affair as “immoral,” “disgraceful” and “damaging to the country.” It continued not just with his stand on the Iraq war but after his time as an active politician when he joined the “no labels” movement that called for a return to centrist governance in a time when rabid and extremist partisanship had come to dominate both major parties.

Lieberman was no plaster saint; he was a pragmatic workaday politician. Some of his fellow Connecticut Democrats resented him in the 1990s. And he was not always in the right.

One Jewish Democrat bitterly complained publicly that Lieberman had tried to keep him from running for statewide office in 1994 when the senator was up for re-election because he claimed that he didn’t want too many Jews on the ballot, though it turned out that the only Democrats who won that year in the state were the Jewish candidates. That same year, others in the state noted ruefully that while Lieberman was a supporter of school choice that would have allowed funding for families who choose private and religious schools, he failed to help those working for passage of a law that would have implemented such a process in Connecticut. That groundbreaking effort failed by only one vote in the legislature.

He remained a supporter of the Iraq War and publicly defended it last year on the 20th anniversary of the invasion long after other backers of the effort conceded it was a terrible mistake. Contrary to his assertion, our collective memories of that disastrous conflict are not mistaken. Leaving aside the folly of trying to impose democracy on cultures that reject it, he never acknowledged (as other past backers of the war did) that while toppling Saddam was a good thing, it not only threw Iraq into chaos but allowed the equally sinister Islamist regime in Iran to become more powerful and dangerous.

His embrace of “no labels” independent politics reflected his basic moderation and political instincts. While we may long for an era where centrism prevails, in 2024, the only thing left in the middle of the road is roadkill. In today’s bifurcated political culture, one has to choose one side or the other. Lieberman’s time as a political player had passed. But if that is so, it doesn’t reflect well on American society.

Whether you agreed with him on the issues or not, anyone who knew him could testify to the fact that he was a genuinely nice man in a profession not so well known for that trait. Unlike most politicians, he was comfortable in his own skin, and didn’t seem to act and speak as if gaining every bit of possible publicity and getting even with foes were his primary goals in life. He was decent and respectful to political foes and the press alike.

Faith in the public square

The fact that he was a man of faith and a proud Jew was part of that decency. His rise in public life to the point where he might have been only a heartbeat from the presidency reflected a sea change in American politics, in which Republicans and Democrats believed that public practice of faith was a proper reflection of both the character of the American nation and protected by the Constitution. That consensus has faded, and the role of religion in public life has unfortunately become a source of controversy.

Still, the example he provided of living a fully Jewish life while serving in the Senate is especially important now as antisemitism is on the rise, and Jews are increasingly finding themselves worried about displaying their faith and identity in public. The fact that one of Lieberman’s last public utterances was to condemn his old colleague, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s disgraceful speech condemning Israel and calling for the ouster of its government, in an op-ed published in The Wall Street Journal showed how he was still putting principle—support for Israel and the idea of that being a bipartisan concept—first.

Throughout my career, I’ve met many politicians and learned that they are, as a group, like most people—a mix of good, bad and indifferent. But I’ve known none who was Joe Lieberman’s equal as a human being and a model of what we ought to want in a public figure as well as a source of pride to Jews. In a time when political decency and a willingness to befriend and work with members of the other party is out of fashion, we may not soon see his like again. May his memory be for a blessing.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him: @jonathans_tobin.

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