DEMOCRATIC PARTY - REPO-MAN
His Moment of Truth
Joe Lieberman condemned Bill Clinton on national TV, and was anointed his party's moral conscience.
Now he'll learn if that's a blessing or a curse
By Michael Leahy
Sunday, June 29, 2003
He denied himself preparation on the day of the debate in South Carolina, in accordance with the Jewish Sabbath. Maybe that was a good thing. Jabbering campaign aides could not get close. Local pols and ambitious glad-handers received no time at all. That tape of sound bites that doesn't stop running in some candidates' minds before a debate would play less often in his.
While other candidates prepared, he took a walk with his wife and a few friends. Other candidates pumped hands. He sat, he napped, he prayed. Those around him knew better than to breach those rhythms. He did no politicking on the Sabbath. It ended at nightfall, at 8:40, and a few minutes later, he got into a van.
The ride was short, but, still, it did not deliver him to his destination until less than five minutes before the debate began. Then Joseph Lieberman walked onto a stage at the University of South Carolina, to face his eight rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination. "My mind was clear," he later said. "And I'd had a day of rest."
Calm begot calm: He felt confident that a good night was in the offing. His campaign was in its fourth month, and he badly needed a good night, after three months when sometimes, he confessed, it had felt like he was "running into the wind." The wind had been blowing hard from the start, way back in January.
A little Hebrew in the beginning, because you need the Hebrew to understand. "Kiddush Hashem," he said softly to somebody in a New Hampshire restaurant back in winter, and a few heads nearby wheeled, not because they knew Hebrew but because they didn't. He still got that sometimes. Like he was talking Martian. Sometimes when Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, blurted a bit of Hebrew amid non-Jews and less observant Jews alike, there were dim stares, glazed smiles, the politely vacant expressions of the stupefied. You felt the divide then. Not prejudice, not even a disconnect, just a sense that the man came from a place that most of his listeners, sprung from a variety of backgrounds, never had been to, some deeply religious room they'd never have a key to.
His mantle of piety and authenticity has become at once asset and albatross. Whether they like him or not, most see Lieberman as the moralist in the 2004 race for the Demo-cratic presidential nomination, the You-Should-Do-It-This-Way candidate, who has condemned racy sitcoms and raunchy music videos and Bill Clinton's best-known dalliance, and most famously ran with Al Gore in 2000. At this restaurant in Concord, N.H., they'd long heard that, for religious reasons, he typically didn't work on a Saturday, normally wouldn't get on a plane that day, wouldn't even drive. But this phrase, this kiddush Hashem, confounded a couple of them. A pasty guy shuffled slack-jawed over in his boots, bent his head conspiratorially, and mumbled to a reporter: That kiddush deal, is that the dessert thing, man?
"Sanctifying God's name through one's actions": That is kiddush Hashem. It means that, for Lieberman, his religion is inseparable from his politics; that he sees the first thing as forever guiding the second; that, unlike so many congregants of so many faiths -- the flawed, the backsliders -- he does not ever give himself a day off from his religious obli-gations, not so much as an hour of hooky, even if it's in fulfillment of an august politician's most solemn obligations, like dialing up rich people for campaign funds. To be strictly observant in Judaism -- which includes worshiping at synagogue and at home, honoring the Sabbath and keeping a kosher household -- can look demanding even if you are Orthodox, but especially if you are not.
The latter group encompasses most of the people Lieberman has ever met in his life. By all accounts, his first wife, Betty, a Reform Jew, grew weary of the burdens presented by the combination of his devout Orthodoxy and power politics. When he remarried, it was to an Orthodox Jew, a daughter of a rabbi no less, who girlishly called him "Joey" and who -- if not always loving the hours and the comparatively frugal life that accompany most politicians' jobs -- has been his equal in her fierce commitment to religion. His match with Hadassah Lieberman has made his life easier. But he still pays a political price for being observant, as in January, at the start of his presidential candidacy, when he said he would not travel to Iowa that Saturday for a high-profile event where some of his rivals for the Democratic nomination would woo uncommitted activist soldiers. "I'm just not going to do it," he added casually, smiling to ratchet down the solemnity of his vow.
That weekend, while his rivals politicked in Iowa, Joe Lieberman was, as he usually is on a Saturday, with his wife and 15-year-old daughter, Hana, in Washington. That simple tableau fuels Lieberman admirers, many of whom do not share his views on a spectrum of issues -- from his hawkish perspective on Iraq to his support for a "silent moment" in public classrooms -- but believe they have found a man whose principles take priority over his politics.
After Gore lost his bid for the presidency in 2000, it was generally viewed as inevitable that his ex-running mate, in the autumn of his career, would seek the presidency in 2004 if Gore did not, and nearly as certain that Lieberman's vice presidential candidacy would make him the early front-runner in the national polls for the 2004 Democratic nomination. It has worked out that way, though the Lieberman dream scenario hasn't: His slight lead in national surveys hasn't translated to great armies of supporters in key Democratic primary and caucus states, or to the amassing of a pile of campaign gold.
In the past, one of Lieberman's greatest political assets has been in tapping campaign money as if he had access to an open bank vault. But by the end of March, his paltry $3 million in funds raised in the first quarter of 2003 left him far behind the fundraising successes of a surprising John Edwards and a formidable John Kerry, and even behind late starter Richard Gephardt. It is early in the process, Lieberman's aides point out, and waiting for Gore to announce that he would not run meant he had to begin his fundraisers later than he wanted. But even Lieberman supporters concede his candidacy has been slow to stir anyone in the first months. "People like him, but he seems to be everybody's second choice at this point," said Jeff Woodburn, one of his campaign operatives in New Hampshire, who acknowledged that Lieberman was even his second choice for a while, until Gore decided not to get in. "We think people will be looking for authenticity at some point. But he hasn't raised people's blood pressure; people get more swept up by some of the other candidates' beauty or charm."
His early speeches before activists, at a major Democratic National Committee event in Washington and at Democratic functions in Iowa, fell flat, and his association with Gore, while boosting his name recognition, also reminded many party members that he was part of a losing ticket that they want to forget.
The Iraq war contributed to Lieberman's rough start. He voted to give President Bush the authority to launch it, earning himself the ignominious label of hawk among liberal activists not mollified by the military victory. They're discomfited by Lieberman's long-standing positions on a slew of things: school vouchers, a Star Wars-like antimissile system, Hollywood's debauchery, the place of religion in public life. He is viewed as a centrist, but "centrist" in the Democratic Party's liberal ranks is usually a dirty word -- a synonym for appeaser, hack pol, wimp.
Lieberman's friends try to counter by touting his integrity, hoping to bridge the ideological divide by stockpiling stories about his morality, pushing the authenticity angle.
But there are political dangers to being the authentic man, and in January he was confronted with one -- a pointed question about whether he had undergone an ideological makeover in an effort to win the presidency.
It was less than a week after the formal announcement of his candidacy. He found himself on "Meet the Press," where the show's host, Tim Russert, was turning tough. Only seconds earlier, Lieberman had expressed staunch support for affirmative action, and now Russert read Lieberman's statements of opposition to key aspects of affirmative action in 1995, reminding him how he'd derided "racial preferences" and later in the year addressed the issue on the Senate floor. In that speech, Lieberman said, "Affirmative action is dividing us in ways its creators could never have intended . . . [Americans] don't think it is fair to discriminate against some Americans as a way to make up for historic discrimination against other Americans . . . Two wrongs . . . do not make a right."
For Lieberman to be regarded as someone with reservations about affirmative action would damage his candidacy among blocs of minority voters and liberals; on the other hand, to now look like a fervent supporter might raise questions about his motives.
In the NBC studio, Russert had not finished, recounting that, in 1995, Jesse Jackson had characterized Lieberman's position as -- in Russert's words -- "indistinguishable from Jesse Helms." It could not have been much worse, and then it got worse. Russert shed his interviewer robe to render his own judgment of Lieberman's stance. It had the ring of an indictment: "You have clearly changed your emphasis and your view on affirmative action."
"I have not," Lieberman protested. "In the 199 -- "
He stopped himself in mid-word, not wishing to refer just yet to the '90s, the period when the fallout from his affirmative action positions rained heaviest on him. He turned to the distant past: "Let me go back a little bit. I have devoted a good part of my public life and my private life to making real the promise of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution . . . I marched with Dr. King. I went to Mississippi to fight for the right of African Americans to vote . . . I've fought . . . for equal opportunity." He was segueing now, into the '90s, arguing that all he had opposed about affirmative action was "rigid quotas," and that, in the aftermath, President Bill Clinton and the courts mended the problem, enabling him to vote for affirmative action programs. His position, he concluded, "did not change."
Russert continued pressing him.
The moment reflected a new contentiousness. For most of the last five years, or ever since he condemned Bill Clinton's affair with an intern, Lieberman had enjoyed a flattering public relations ride, particularly on television, a medium where most questions posed to him flowed from the conventional view that Lieberman was a virtuous figure. His charmed status played no small role in his 2000 vice presidential nomination, and survived even the failed campaign's contentious Florida recount battle. But presidential runs inevitably mean a new wave of scrutiny. There have been tough questions, revisited from the 2000 campaign, about a trimming of his once-enthusiastic support for school vouchers, his abandonment of old talk about privatizing part of Social Security, and what some regard as his dampened criticism of Hollywood, once a favorite Lieberman foil.
It is in these moments that the risk reveals itself: So high and far has his aura of authenticity and virtue taken him that it now defines him. If he loses it, he loses his candidacy's best shot -- because, ideologically, he has no chance of becoming beloved within his own party.
Officially, it was Day One, the formal start of the campaign, in his home town of Stamford, Conn., so he consented to a ritual of American politics: He went to a small restaurant to meet diners. It was something he had done since his days as a little-known Connecticut state senator, his aides calling the drop-ins "A Cup of Joe with Joe." With his climb, there had come to be considerably more orchestration to A Cup of Joe with Joe, and now the scene had an ersatz feel, like being inside a mock restaurant on a studio back lot, with the diners pretending to pick at food while patiently preparing for their handshake with the candidate. Outside, playing supporting roles, small knots of protesters stood in sub-freezing temperatures, there largely to condemn his support of Senate authorization for a military action in Iraq. There were Greenpeace members, and a group with a bullhorn from Lyndon LaRouche's party, and some freelancing independents who included a malarial-looking woman shouting scatological things about Lieberman being a closet Republican.
The restaurant was ready, the cameras set up, angles established, TV field producers cueing the talent and the cameras, and the candidate made his way inside. The boom mikes and cameras couldn't pick up all the activity. Lieberman made his way from one table to the next, shaking hands, asking about professions, grinning, finally coming upon a bespectacled, red-haired, genial-looking young man named Chris Sare, who sat at a table in a blue ski jacket. The candidate extended his hand, smiled and said jocularly, "You're not really trying to eat breakfast here, are you?"
The young man grinned, pumped Lieberman's hand and answered: "Joe, you're not really trying to run for president, are you?"
Lieberman turned disgustedly and flicked his hand out of Sare's. His antagonist was a member of the little Lyndon LaRouche band. Guards lifted Sare from his chair like a misplaced campaign placard, and removed him from the diner. Welcome to a presidential campaign, no part of which, if you're a candidate, can ever be scripted enough.
An hour later, he opened his boyhood home to the press and took a seat at the head of the small dining room table, in one of those tableaux devised by the modern presidential campaign to evoke the ghost of the little boy that the candidate once was.
His hair had been blond then; and his face and body full, and fuller still as he became an adolescent and moved into early adulthood, chunky with baby fat, remembered a few college classmates. Now at 61, he was gray and slim, in that way of the smartly aging and ambitiously aerobicized. But you felt the boy's presence. The tiny kitchen where his 88-year-old mother, Marcia, dutifully served store-bought lemon-sesame cookies, the dim den where he'd read the Torah and watched sports on TV, this modest dining room where his late father, Henry, a liquor store owner, had led them in prayer before and after Sabbath meals: All of it invited a visitor to contemplate the improbability of the kid's climb, and the seeds of a dream that had been rooting here for decades.
Now a wave of journalists crowded around the dining room table, a couple of upright microcassette recorders facing Lieberman on a floral-patterned white tablecloth. The candidate leaned forward in his father's old chair, and patiently explained for at least the third time that afternoon that, as an Orthodox Jew, he would not be campaigning on Saturdays. However, the prohibitions against working on the Sabbath, he stressed affably, did not extend to his duties as an elected official. "I do distinguish between political campaigning and public responsibility . . . ," he said softly, alluding to how he'd sometimes worked on Saturdays as Connecticut attorney general and next as a senator who could always walk the 3 1/2 miles from his townhouse, near Georgetown Hospital, to the Capitol. "I must say, with all due respect, I'm asked that question more by the media than I am by voters."
His voice, a slow and mellifluous mono-tone even in excited moments, had slowed further as the day wore on. The voice had become something of an issue: Was it seductive asset or somnolent handicap?
His eyes projected an oceanic blue-green-gray flatness. He is one of those people who, long ago, seemed elderly even at middle age. He sells gravitas.
Now reporters kept pursuing the religious angle -- it wouldn't stop. Here came another question, oy, about whether he would carry on with the traditional Easter Egg Roll on the South Lawn of the White House.
He said that, of course, there would be an Easter Egg Roll, just as there would be a White House Christmas tree, and soon the talk had segued into one of his favorite topics -- values -- about which he said serenely that he thought Democrats "err as a party when we yield [the values] ground to the Republicans."
It had seemed a perfectly pleasant afternoon for him, and then it wasn't. Somebody asked him whether, since his run with Gore, he had trimmed his positions on issues dealing with Hollywood.
The suggestion that he appeased people wrought an instant change in his expression. He sucked in his breath, audibly, and then, as often happened when he was uncomfortable, his teeth clenched and his lower lip fell, exposing his bottom teeth clear down to his gums. His eyes narrowed, a roiling sea now. "I never changed a single thing. I took on Hollywood peddling sex and violence to kids before, during and after the 2000 campaign." He mentioned an event he did just a month earlier, in which he said he'd blasted video games that degraded women. But, then his thoughts drifted back to 2000 and all that the Gore campaign had asked him to do -- and not do. "I'm going to do it my way and be myself, from start to finish."
"He's authentic," concluded one of his aides on the way out, to remind you.
Many years ago, Lieberman began playing to his differences with party activists, speaking past them in hopes of reaching the political center, delivering odes to values, staking out conservative positions on national defense and cultural issues, referring to himself, mantralike, as a "New Democrat" -- which was code for saying he was no paleodemocrat. Major Hollywood contributors generally regard him as a pandering and pious pol. Demo-cratic trial lawyers, tired of his bent toward tort reform, passed him over long ago. Indeed, only the public's perception of him as a redoubtable moral voice, an impression shaped largely by one famous 23-minute oration -- his excoriation of his old friend Bill Clinton for his affair with Monica Lewinsky -- has explained his ascent.
Lieberman had known Clinton since the future president walked precincts for him in 1970 as a Yale law student during Lieberman's first Connecticut campaign, for the state Senate. But he never had been a Clinton mentor, once wryly observing, according to a friend, "Clinton runs around saying that I taught him how to be a politician, when the truth is he was a politician long before I ever met him. He knew everything. He could have taught me."
Clinton was the Mozart of politics, ingenious at his art, and indulged in nearly everything else. As the young man soared, the older man became for a while one more politician linking himself to the prodigy's fortunes. Another friend recalled Lieberman telephoning him in 1991, to ask whether he believed the private rumors of Clinton's extramarital affairs, and whether the rumors would publicly surface and endanger Clinton's presidential chances. Lieberman didn't raise any moral qualm or question, remembered the friend, who guessed that the senator was looking to him for simply a political analysis.
No, the friend said, he didn't think the whispering would hurt, as he doubted any woman would ever expose Clinton.
Not long afterward, in January 1992, Lieberman became the first non-Southern senator to endorse Clinton. Six years later, on September 3, 1998, with Clinton having acknowledged the inappropriateness of his relationship with Lewinsky, a disgusted Lieberman stepped into a nearly empty Senate chamber, which serves in modern politics as little more than a makeshift TV studio on most late afternoons. The next 23 minutes transformed his career. In a voice tinged with regret and mourning, he declared that Bill Clinton's affair with Lewinsky was "disgraceful."
Until then, Senate Democrats had been essentially quiet on the matter, as if to condemn a president of their own party might be the act of betrayal that could topple Clinton. Lieberman looked pained, as if his friendship with Clinton made what followed hard to say, and so all the more affecting. "Such behavior is not just inappropriate. It is immoral . . . [The president's] transgressions . . . should be followed by some measure of public rebuke and accountability."
The condemnation of his old friend and political ally had an emperor-has-no-clothes quality to it: Lieberman simply gave voice to the obvious, to the scathing view that so many other Democrats in the Senate cloakroom privately held but wouldn't yet publicly express -- some out of timidity, thought then-Sen. Bob Kerrey; others because the White House had successfully striven, Kerrey believed, to guilt people out, to leave them convinced that Democrats needed to rally around an embattled Clinton. Taken by surprise, hearing Lieberman over a television monitor in another part of the Capitol, an exultant Kerrey rushed to the floor, to congratulate Lieberman and rise to echo his remarks. By day's end, one of the Senate's deans, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, had delivered his own reproach of Clinton, and the rush was on among Democrats to reap the political benefits of expressing outrage with a puerile presidency. "A lot of members in [Congress] wanted to join in by then," remembered Kerrey.
There can be only one First, and Lieberman was Neil Armstrong to everyone else's Buzz Aldrin. News coverage of the speeches focused almost solely upon Lieberman. His temerity won him the rapt attention of Talk Show Nation. He had emerged as the crisis's only Democratic star, the new moral voice of a party plagued, some thought, by the Boy President.
For Joe Lieberman, it was to be born, really -- plucked from the dark and lifted into the American consciousness, into the Omahas and Chattanoogas and Spokanes, which did not dwell on the careers of little-known New England senators, or on the C-Spanned tedium and bloodletting that is American politics. Taking on a president of his own party, he looked like a subversive -- only a subversive from the political center, one who, in the popular view, had stood up to compromised and craven hacks beholden to party pooh-bahs.
The adulation of newspaper editorials and television commentaries ensued. As viewed by the public, Lieberman became that rarest of public figures -- the authentic man, the one whose voice was no one's but his own. His ascendancy had begun. Without The Speech, as even Lieberman aides acknowledge, everything is different: Lieberman doesn't become the party's antidote to Clinton as a new election approaches, and Al Gore, bent on assiduously running away from Clinton's moral foibles in 2000 while simultaneously touting the Clinton record, likely does not turn for a running mate to the man who'd come to personify centrist Democratic disgust with the scandal-plagued president.
But more remarkable is what didn't occur. Though having delivered a withering critique of a reeling Democratic president, Lieberman didn't suffer with any bloc of his party. Seldom does it work that way in politics, where payback is like a Mafioso code. Even a teary-eyed Hadassah Lieberman had worried about reprisals from Clinton loyalists: "Joey, what are you doing? What's gonna happen?"
What happened in the days just before and after the speech revealed a key Lieberman talent -- his deftness at limiting the number of his enemies. He set out to assuage the nightmares of Demo-cratic leaders, applying a salve to Clinton's wound even while rhetorically slicing him up -- at once a moral crusader and magnanimous mensch.
While putting the final sheen on his speech, he paused to assure one of the president's best-known defenders. "He told me, 'I don't think this [the speech] will hurt President Clinton in the long run, not at all . . . ,' " said Lanny Davis, a former White House spokesman and longtime Democratic activist who was an old Lieberman friend.
The Lieberman speech would declare that "talk of impeachment and resignation at this time is unjust and unwise," then repeat his anger with Clinton: "While a lesser chorus implores us to 'move on' and get this matter behind us, the transgressions the president has admitted to are too consequential for us to walk away and leave the impression for our children and for our posterity that what he acknowledges he did . . . is acceptable behavior for our nation's leader . . . It is wrong and unacceptable and should be followed by some measure of rebuke and accountability."
Lieberman enabled Democrats "to do a kind of pivot, to condemn [Clinton's] conduct without calling for his removal," Davis said. "I think now -- and a lot of people around the [Clinton] White House thought -- that Joe Lieberman saved Bill Clinton's presidency by giving that speech . . . But Joe could have been destroyed. Clinton was beloved . . . But that's Joe. He went his own way. You go back to his start, and it was the same Joe, from the time he left Stamford."
Stamford led north, just up the interstate, to New Haven and Yale University, 40 minutes away. He came of age in 1960, when he won admission to Yale despite what Jewish students, including Lieberman, saw as a tacit quota that limited their numbers to about 10 percent. It was an era when, on the Yale campus, as his fellow Yalie Lanny Davis recalled, some people made a point of noting when a Jew seemed on the verge of acquiring a high-ranking student position, as if this required a subtle alert. The talk was a way of accentuating the essential difference in a Lieberman, his otherness.
He ate kosher, in a university dining room that made special meals for him and other observant Jews. He quoted the Talmud in a column he wrote for the Yale Daily News about the reasons behind his and other Yale students' trip to Mississippi in October 1963 on behalf of African Americans being denied the right to vote: "As the Talmudic fathers have written with such sagacity, 'If not for myself, who will be? . . . And if not now, when then?' "
Lieberman thrived at Yale, becoming a class luminary, winning admission into a prestigious Yale senior society during the same year he assumed the Yale Daily News chairmanship and, most importantly for a politically ambitious young man, forging friendships with a network of powerful older men in Connecticut, ranging from the new president of Yale, Kingman Brewster Jr. -- whom Lieberman had praised in the college paper's editorial pages -- to members of the state's Democratic machine.
In a style that came to define his career, he took pains to avoid annoying anyone powerful who might help him down the road. When a Yale Daily News columnist lampooned Connecticut Democratic Sen. Thomas Dodd as a rabid Cold War crusader, an aghast Lieberman personally called Dodd's office to apologize and disassociate himself from the column, another student editor remembered. He was flexible -- opportunistically so, some of his classmates thought: He lent his support to influential mavericks and establishment politicians alike. He could endorse New Haven's legendary reform-minded Mayor Richard Lee in an editorial, and a short time later, as a Yale law student supportive of America's military involvement in Vietnam during the war's early years, precociously accept a presidential appointment from the epoch's quintessential politician, serving as an Eastern regional liaison for Lyndon Johnson's Selective Service Commission.
No mentor was more important to him than John Bailey, a bald, blunt, bulging powerhouse who toted a cigar for photographers and reveled in his title as Boss, who'd added to his legend as Connecticut kingmaker by assuming the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee after helping John Kennedy win the White House. Lieberman wrote his Yale thesis about Bailey, soon to be turned into a book, The Power Broker, which by its end served up an unabashed tribute to the kingmaker's style, offering a window onto its young author's embrace of Connecticut politics.
In 1970, he won election to the Connecticut Senate by knocking off a Democratic incumbent, and was on his way to becoming the body's majority leader. But he was not star material, spending all of the '70s stuck in the state Senate, while down in Arkansas one of his young precinct walkers from the first campaign had risen by 1979 to become Gov. Clinton, already heralded as a future national star, presidential material.
After losing a congressional race in 1980, Lieberman was elected, two years later, as Connecticut's attorney general, in a contest memorable largely because he quietly declined to attend his party's nominating convention on a Saturday until the Sabbath had ended.
In 1988, he launched a long-shot bid against the state's idiosyncratic Republican Sen. Lowell Weicker, portraying Weicker as a leftist on foreign policy issues. It seemed an unusual tack for a Democrat, but the party was in flux, soon to be reeling after its third landslide loss in as many presidential elections. Lieberman won in an upset and arrived in Washington, swiftly becoming a leader in a new group of centrist Demo-crats -- including Bill Clinton -- intent on remaking the party.
It was in THE Democratic Leadership Council that Lieberman found a home, and trouble. In 1995, during his tenure as the group's chairman, his criticism of affirmative action programs prompted Jesse Jackson to label him and other affirmative action critics in the party as "Demopublicans," and to deride the DLC as "Democrats for the Leisure Class."
Other Democrats, including future presidential rival John Kerry, had raised questions about aspects of affirmative action. But no other high-ranking Senate Democrat was as voluble or vociferous on the subject as Lieberman, who had turned a concern into his new cause: "The current system of group preferences has to end. They were only intended to be temporary, aimed at combating racism. But it's actually fueling division between the races."
Within a year, Lieberman's allies argued the controversy had faded away, that Bill Clinton's "mend it, don't end it" approach to affirmative action had resolved Lieberman's concerns, as evidenced by a series of votes in support of affirmative action programs. In 1996, his speeches about affirmative action waned.
By late 1998, having skewered Bill Clinton, Lieberman was Mr. Values. It seemed unlikely that the affirmative action rancor, which had receded to a speck on the political horizon, would plague him again. But, on the eve of the 2000 Democratic National Convention, the phone rang and Al Gore asked him if he wanted to join the national ticket. Soon, California Congresswoman Maxine Waters raised the issue of Lieberman's affirmative action statements.
Waters declared she might not be able to support a ticket with Lieberman on it, that she and others wanted a face-to-face meeting with him. Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings worried aloud about black voters "staying home on Election Day."
The controversy had to be defused quickly. Two key African American leaders within the party, Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile and D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton -- a longtime Lieberman friend and a fellow graduate of Yale Law -- lobbied black convention delegates on Lieberman's behalf. Jesse Jackson issued a statement of support. Lieberman assuaged Waters's worries in a private meeting, after which he provided a similarly unequivocal message of assurance to the convention's black caucus: "I have supported affirmative action. I do support affirmative action. And I will support affirmative action."
The crisis died. But few skeptics have forgotten in the years since, nor have they allowed Lieberman to forget.
Not long ago, sitting in his Senate office, he was asked what effect, if any, the legacy of quotas against Jews at elite institutions like Yale had on his thinking about affirmative action. He sighed, Gore-like, and crossed his legs, uncrossed them. His private Senate office was preternaturally tranquil. But Joe Lieberman was anything but serene. "Look," he said, "the quota was unfair. That was, of course, a negative quota, a reverse quota. That was a quota that said only so many of a given group [could] get in, not that you gotta get in so many of a group that has been discriminated against." And then, thinking of two friends' speculation that the old quota affected his feelings about affirmative action, he said, "I must tell you I have never made that link."
He said his views on affirmative action were largely influenced by the testimony of a building contractor appearing before the Senate's Small Business Committee, who challenged "set-aside" programs designed to ensure that minority contractors get a share of government business. "He was white," recalled Lieberman of the contractor. "He made the argument that he didn't have a chance to fairly compete for federal government work because there was a quota system. I was troubled by it."
But he was distracted, his mind still back there with thoughts of his Yale days. He stared at the carpet. How far did he want to go with all this? "There is a separate question about the questions I raised in '95 . . . ," he said. "Let me say, affirmatively, that, you know, the words don't always come out -- looking back at them -- exactly the way you'd want them to. I'm human. I have flaws . . . This was not a comfortable period for me . . . I was asking some questions . . . I was grappling . . . The important point to me is where I ended up."
He cited his support of the University of Michigan's affirmative action program, a line he would utter often in the weeks following. Finally, he settled here on how he wanted to link his past with the prickly present. "Your shirt is close to you, but your skin is even closer," he said, employing one of his favorite metaphors, explaining that the old quotas made him passionate about "the whole quest for equality -- clearly because of my own sense of discrimination against Jews."
That seemed the end of the discussion. But, several weeks later, he had to deal with the issue once more. His once-good friend William Bennett -- the conservative Republican who had long before joined forces with Lieberman in a crusade against what the two men regarded as degrading Hollywood programming -- disputed Lieberman's long-standing claim that his old concerns with affirmative action stemmed merely from his opposition to "rigid [racial] quotas."
Bennett claimed that, in private conversations, Lieberman had talked at length of his opposition to all racial preferences, not merely quotas. "He was talking about plain preference by race," Bennett said. "He believed that you don't give extra points for one race and no points for another race . . . We used the same phrases in our talks: 'We shouldn't count by races. You shouldn't get any points because of your race.' "
"I have no recollection of any such conversation," Lieberman responded, noting he had talked to Bennett only once since the end of the 2000 campaign, when their friendship, he said, ruptured over Bennett's "hurtful" and "unfair attacks" against him.
The affirmative action issue has the potential to haunt Lieberman if a rival raises it when the race gets hot. Should that happen, Lanny Davis said, he had some advice: "If anybody has a problem with it, he better talk about it."
To know how Joe Lieberman has survived this long, to realize how much his skills with people can compensate for a seemingly unbridgeable difference in ideologies, it is instructive to picture an African American woman made livid by Lieberman one Sunday morning in late 1999. As Gore's campaign manager, Donna Brazile had been watching a television talk show when she heard Lieberman criticizing the "politics of identity" and its prominent Democratic adherents, which indirectly meant Brazile, who had made no secret of her belief that the party, at its strongest, stood on the pillars of four loyal constituencies -- union members, ethnic minorities, environmentalists, and gays and lesbians. Lieberman made clear that he thought the politics of identity was divisive and a certain loser with voters. Seething, Brazile called Eleanor Holmes Norton, who suggested Brazile call Lieberman that day and convey her displeasure.
"Just call him?" Brazile asked skeptically. "On a Sunday?"
Yes, Norton said. He'll take your call.
Brazile reached Lieberman, who, to her surprise, simply listened for a while before saying, as Brazile recalled, "Let's get to know each other and break bread together. "
Break bread together?
"He was friendly," she said, "but he didn't patronize me. He said -- and this part I really remember -- 'Look, we're trying to keep the party together and away from group politics.' We became friends out of that spat."
So tight became their bond, that Brazile emerged as a key Lieberman ally at the most contentious moment of the 2000 convention, when he needed to assuage Maxine Waters and other African Americans dismayed by Gore's choice of him for the No. 2 spot on the ticket. Brazile and Norton helped arrange a private meeting for Lieberman with Waters and other key black caucus members at the convention. By its end, Waters had committed to step before a throng of black delegates and announce that Lieberman's explanation about his affirmative action stance satisfied her concerns.
When Lieberman talked to Brazile during the campaign, it was seldom about politics, more about whether she was taking care of herself: You getting some sleep? You eating? What are you going to do after this? "What meant a lot to me -- and I know to other people in the campaign, too -- was that he doesn't treat you like the hired help, which is how a lot of politicians treat [aides]," she recounted. "There was much more talking with him than I had with Al Gore . . . Gore is a very different soul, different style. He cared, he was somebody I respected, but Lieberman has more of a common touch. That's what draws you to him."
However, she became exasperated with her friend, early in 2001, when he told her that he had pledged not to run for president if Gore did.
Brazile groaned, "You never make a pledge like that in life."
She knew that, even if Gore didn't run, Lieberman's vow put him at a disadvantage against likely candidates in assembling an organization and raising money. Last December, she was watching "60 Minutes" when Gore finally ruled himself out as a candidate. No sooner had the show ended than her phone rang and she picked it up.
"Did you see it?" Lieberman asked on the other end. "What do you think?"
"You're free, baby," she said.
But it will not be as easy to win. It doesn't help that old Gore loyalists, remembering Lieberman's performance in the 2000 campaign, are split over the worthiness of his politics and style, some signing on as aides, others sniping from the wings. Just a week or so into the campaign, Lieberman and his wife, according to two former Gore aides, had begun complaining about the Gore campaign's themes, particularly the "People Versus the Powerful" slogan, arguing vigorously at a post-convention meeting that Lieberman's DLC connections and his legislative support of the Connecticut business community made him ill-suited to argue on behalf of a populist theme.
After their loss, when Lieberman went public with his criticism of the Gore strategy at a post-election meeting of the DLC, Gore did not hesitate in hitting back. Asked about it recently, Lieberman casually denied a frostiness to their relationship, offering that he and Gore "talk periodically. I consider Al a good friend." But he acknowledged that when he asked Gore for his endorsement, Gore was noncommittal. "I said to him I didn't expect it immediately," Lieberman added.
Lieberman critics from the Gore camp cited his performance against Republican vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney as representative of his most vexing shortcoming. From the start of the Cheney debate, he was the portrait of earnestness and self-effacement, telling viewers in the first minutes that his mother had advised him to stay positive and then, prompted by a Cheney joke about his voice, promising America that he would not sing. Lieberman was genteel throughout, gently rebutting but never putting Cheney on the defensive, with the result that Cheney emerged as a candidate unscathed, primed for a last month of attacks against Gore.
"Lieberman's job wasn't to walk out and be so classy that newspapers would suggest the ticket was upside down," said a former Gore aide. "His job was to defang Cheney. We know [Gore] didn't shine in the debates either, but [Lieberman] was uncomfortable doing the things we needed him most to do.
"The military ballot issue [during the Florida recount] was certainly not his most helpful moment. He was very uncomfortable about making the case [for disqualifying late-arriving military ballots]. He went on with Russert [on 'Meet the Press'] and he absolutely retreated."
Hearing the Gore operatives' criticism, Lanny Davis fumed: "Lieberman did exactly what Al Gore and the top people in the Gore campaign wanted him to do at every turn. What a few [ex-Gore aides] say now is . . . revisionist history."
Still, Davis knows Lieberman has a problem with the Democratic left, convinced it yearns for a charismatic candidate ideologically pure. He wonders whether Lieberman's centrist leanings have the potential to be his undoing, in a race where so many liberal voters carry suspicions of him. What group of Democrats constitutes Lieberman's most loyal constituency? he was asked, to which Davis hmmmmed, hmmmmed some more, answering, "Thoughtful voters."
Is that a big bloc?
"Not very," he said.
As the South Carolina debate approached in early May, skepticism deepened about Lieberman's campaign -- and skepticism in politics, if unchecked, has a way of swiftly becoming an omen, a death blow. Some party activists had come to view the mensch as a milquetoast.
Consequently, the South Carolina stage offered an opportunity to show "he could throw elbows," as one Lieberman aide later put it, even as a few of his most loyal supporters, remembering the Cheney debate, worried that he had no instinct for a political brawl.
The doubters had overlooked Lieberman's past, the old skills in debate that had claimed no less a formidable prey than Lowell Weicker, during Lieberman's race for the Senate in 1988. Running to the right of Weicker, offering himself as an anti-communist crusader, he accused Weicker during a debate of being an "advocate of Castro": "I met a Republican the other day who said to me, 'Senator Weicker seems unable to say anything bad about Fidel Castro and unable to say anything good about President Reagan' . . . As far as I can tell, [Weicker] has become the Senate's number one patron of Fidel Castro . . . I know, from public records, that Mr. Castro gave him $100 worth of Cuban cigars to bring back with him . . . There are two people in office whom [the Cuban exiles] want out of office. One is Fidel Castro, and the other is Lowell P. Weicker."
Ten years later, by the time of his somberly delivered speech about Bill Clinton's missteps, his image had evolved into that of a soft-spoken and gentlemanly Senate dean. He had done much to sustain the persona, and now he found difficulty in trying to step out of it.
But he turned tough at the South Carolina debate. Lieberman criticized former Vermont governor Howard Dean for opposing the war in Iraq, suggesting he was naive about Saddam Hussein. His voice seemed a tad quicker and more compelling on this night, in no danger of making anyone nod off. "No Democrat will be elected president in 2004 who is not strong on defense," he declared, "and this war was a test of that strength."
In a few more minutes, he revealed the benefits, in a crowded presidential field, of honoring a lesser-known political tenet: The enemy of my enemy is my enemy, too. He took on Dean and Kerry simultaneously, scolding them for squabbling over issues of character and foreign policy, and describing Kerry's position on Iraq with an eyebrow-raising A-word: "I think that both [Dean and Kerry] have sent an uncertain message -- one in principled opposition to the war, Governor Dean; the other [Kerry] an ambivalence about the war which does not -- will not -- give the people confidence about our party's willingness to make the tough decisions . . ."
His advisers loved hearing "ambivalence." A fighting word, it would seize reporters' attention. By the next day, the media consensus seemed to be that Lieberman had enjoyed the debate's best performance, having followed up his chiding of Dean and Kerry by zinging another major rival, Richard Gephardt, whose national health care proposal came under attack from candidates on both wings. Gephardt had been daring, but daringness generally gets punished in presidential primaries. Lieberman, whose aides had announced that his health care proposal would not be coming out until summer, claimed that Gephardt's plan would require the draining of money from the Medicare and Social Security trust funds. "We are not going to solve these problems with the kind of big-spending Democratic ideas of the past," he said, a sound bite to be replayed often on television news programs the following day.
Buoyed by his performance, Lieberman and his aides would later tout a few new endorsements from Democratic officeholders around the country, a lieutenant governor here, a state attorney general there. But the South Carolina debate would not change much else in the following days. Lieberman's fundraising position against that of his formidable opponents remained roughly the same, a top aide would acknowledge. Florida Sen. Bob Graham's entrance in the race would continue to slow fundraising in a state once expected to be a gold mine for Lieberman. Having trailed Edwards, Kerry and Gephardt in the money race during the last accounting, Lieberman would likely trail them again in the next quarter, the aide said, knowing that this would likely lead to more talk that Lieberman's centrist posture -- his "conservative image," as his friend Donna Brazile, who is sitting out the 2004 campaign, ruefully put it -- still hampers him in a party where those C-words might be every bit as damning in a Democratic primary season as any A-word.
His aides take comfort in knowing that no one in the race looks like a clear front-runner. But Lieberman has his own burdens; for none of his rivals so trades on values and propriety as Lieberman, and there is both risk and reward in such an image. The reward came, at least for one night, in South Carolina. Leaving the debate, he walked to the van, and, as he stepped inside the back seat, an aide blurted, "We think it was a home run."
"It felt like a home run," Lieberman said softly.
Afterward, at a supporter's house, the candidate lounged on a couch, coatless and tieless, looking like a model of contained excitement, thought an aide. He watched a tape of the debate, staring at himself skewering Gephardt, listening to an aide chime in, "That was a good moment." He had to smile at that. It had been a good night, but the euphoria in the room was tempered: He would need many more good nights. Others chattered about the campaign's next stops, the next moves. He spoke casually to his host and a visiting congressman, grabbed some food and looked back at the television, content to rest. He understood the benefits of rest.
Michael Leahy is a staff writer for the Magazine. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article at 1 p.m. Monday on www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.