The last of his kind: Joe Lieberman passes away at 82

Lieberman represented what no longer exists. He loved country first. Photo Credit: U.S. Senate. 

The untimely and tragic passing of Joe Lieberman on March 27 brought closure to an incredible life, one that saw Lieberman almost achieve the vice presidency save for a few hundred votes in Florida. Lieberman’s life provides wonderful lessons and stories that deserve an appraisal. His Washington Post obituary declares: “Joseph Isadore Lieberman was born in Stamford, Conn., on Feb. 24, 1942, the oldest of three children in an Orthodox Jewish family. His father, a former bakery-truck driver, eventually saved enough to buy a liquor store. His parents impressed upon him the value of education and instilled an ambition to succeed. He was senior class president and senior prom king of his high school.” 

When Lieberman chose to enter politics, he won election to the State Senate first, then ran state-wide for the position of Attorney-General. In 1988, he sought the Senate seat Lowell Weicker, a liberal Republican, held. Lieberman’s character and centrist credentials so impressed America’s leading conservative thinker, William F. Buckley, that Buckley endorsed him over Weicker. Lieberman won the race and sat in the Senate for four terms, retiring in 2012 as an Independent who caucused with the Democratic Party. 

As John Podhoretz observed on the Commentary podcast, Lieberman exemplified the moderation that gained him a spot on the party’s 2000 presidential ticket and the example of how severe the party turned left afterward. Lieberman’s willingness to work across the political aisle on issues ranging from family formation to obscenity to support for the War on Terror pushed him further away from his own party’s centre and closer to the moderate wing of the GOP. Lieberman spent many years travelling with fellow senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham. These friendships put Lieberman at odds with the leadership of his party. 

As a staunch Zionist, Lieberman supported the democratization of the Middle East, reforming the American government after the 2001 attacks, and supporting the Iraq War in 2003. By 2005, the long-time senator faced internal opposition that exploded when President George W. Bush saw him at that winter’s State of the Union, embraced him, and kissed him on the cheek. This display of affection signalled to those on the Left that Lieberman had to be opposed. Moveon.org, the organization committed to a progressive agenda that began in 1998 in reaction to the impeachment of President Clinton, took up the torch. Its website says: “MoveOn members have played a leading role in ending the war in Iraq, passing and defending landmark legislation such as the Affordable Care Act, and advancing racial, economic, and other forms of social justice. Since the 2016 election, we have been a pillar of the Resistance movement working to limit the harm caused by Trump and the GOP while laying the groundwork for progress.” One of its earliest targets became Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman.

In what became a regular occurrence in the Trump era, Joe Lieberman faced a primary challenge because of ideological malfeasance. Ned Lamont, a wealthy, leftist lawyer, defeated Lieberman, forcing the three-term senator to run independently in 2006, just six years after being the party’s vice presidential nominee. Lieberman’s grace under pressure, self-deprecating manner, and trusted experience helped him overcome the odds. It was to be his last term in the Senate. 

Lieberman displayed a gregarious and friendly civility as a public official. He became the lone Democrat who believed it necessary for someone in his party to register disapproval of Bill Clinton’s antics in the Oval Office. He sponsored a censure of Clinton that could have forestalled a failed impeachment and put Congress on record as condemning Clinton instead of defending him. Partisanship sunk his efforts. But his courageous stand moved him into consideration as Al Gore’s running mate once Gore secured the 2000 party nomination. Gore wanted his administration to be serious. Not an indulgent “Boomer” regime that Clinton had overseen. Unfortunately for Lieberman, Gore’s efforts fell a few hundred votes short in Florida, and his 2004 presidential campaign never took off, leaving him short of becoming the only Jewish American president in history.  

In his later senate years and post-senate service, Lieberman cared less about whether you had a D or R after your name. He needed facts to make decisions. Lieberman represented what no longer exists. He loved country first. Over the years, that sentiment moved to love of party, then faction, and now the individual. Most government officials today worry more about themselves. One of the high water marks of his career and politics in America occurred in the 2000 campaign. As part of the debate schedule, Lieberman and Dick Cheney, George W. Bush’s running mate, held a sit-down discussion. The format was relaxed as both men, embodying a cool professional demeanour, exchanged ideas, laughed at each other’s digs, and held a clinic on public civility. We have seen nothing like it since at the national level. 

On a personal level, Lieberman rejected factionalism because he bowed to a greater God. A key issue in the Torah is hatred of idolatry – the worship of many gods or false gods. Lieberman believed in loyalty to one God. Uplifting factionalism or individuals equated to a false altar in Lieberman’s mind. He could not yield his beliefs to those who sought to accumulate, hold, and wield power for their purposes. He lived in Georgetown but would not drive on the Sabbath. If there were hearings or a special vote on a Saturday in Washington, he would walk the 4-5 miles to the Capital. He required Kosher meals at fundraisers and events, often not eating to honour his convictions. He was resolute and passionate in his defence of Israel. 

Lieberman was the last hawkish defender of freedom and American allies near the orbit of Democratic leadership. He was a lone voice in recent years as most liberals and progressives neglected the importance of a democratic global agenda. The tension increased for Lieberman to the point of desperation. He endorsed Republican John McCain for president in 2008. He liked Obama but knew that in matters of importance to Lieberman, Obama would take the country in a dangerous direction. He was right. Obama abandoned the War on Terror, played footsie with Iran, and oversaw the drawdown of American forces on several crucial fronts. In a twist of irony, those former Republican “Never Trump” consultants who pontificate on MSNBC (Stu Stevens, Nicole Wallace, Steve Schmidt) all told John McCain that he could not pick Lieberman as his running mate because it would alienate the Republican base. Lieberman remained stalwart. He was outspoken about Obama’s Iran Nuclear Deal, the former senator stood by Trump when he moved the American embassy to Jerusalem, and his consistency never wavered. 

Like Jeff Flake and Bob Corker later learned, a “Big Sort” had taken over American politics. Whereas the Senate once sat as an ideologically shaded body, it became as aligned as the House of Representatives. At one time, Senators had to appeal to a whole state. States, like the country, used to have pockets of Democratic and Republican support. Winning meant appealing to all sides. As people moved to be with other like-minded voters, states became noticeably Red or Blue. 

The parochial interests in the House became more common in the Senate, meaning horse trading, compromise, or working with the other side disappeared. Lieberman’s situation within the Democratic Party served as a canary in the coal mine. Today, the two sides claim they want fighters who stand up against the other party. In reality, these ideologues seek followers who will not deviate from the Trump doctrines on the right or the progressive dogma of the left.  Joe Lieberman did not abandon his principles. The Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.” Lieberman has done so. May he rest in peace. 


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