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The Running Mensch

As the presidential race goes down to the wire, Joseph Lieberman is fighting another battle: to stay true to his conscience amid the compromises of a modern campaign. Can the first Orthodox Jewish nominee remain an unorthodox politician?

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The irony is unintentional. The music is chosen simply to pump up the audience so they'll shriek and cheer when Jon Stewart, the host of Comedy Central's Daily Show, makes his entrance for today's taping and announces that his star guest is Senator Joseph Lieberman.

Lieberman is most famous for two things: Being an Orthodox Jew and being an outspoken critic of sex and violence in entertainment. So it's a wonderful incongruity that as Lieberman waits backstage, the TV studio is shaking to the chorus of a 1982 classic-rock hit by Golden Earring: "When the bullet hits the bone! / Uhhh-ah-ahhh / When the bullet hits the bone!"

Minutes later, Stewart (né Liebowitz) introduces Lieberman as "the man who wants to build that bridge to the 59th century." The Connecticut senator walks onstage to applause and begins cracking wise with Stewart, saying he's been studying Ed McMahon to learn vice-presidential obsequiousness.

"I know you're opposed to marketing violent movies and video games to kids, and I agree, that's wrong," Stewart says. "But nudity? C'mon, Senator, can't you cut a brother a break?"

Lieberman laughs, but he doesn't make any promises. As Stewart goes to commercial, Lieberman dashes to a bulletproof limousine that takes him uptown to help raise $7 million for the campaign. He ends the night waving to a sellout crowd at Radio City Music Hall that's come to aid the Democratic cause and see a gala pop concert that includes k.d. lang and three-fifths of the Eagles. "I never would have dreamed," Lieberman says from the stage, smiling but looking somewhat tense, "that I'd be standing here as the opening act -- for Bette Midler!"

In August, when Al Gore boldly selected Joe Lieberman as his running mate, most of the public praise and debate centered on the fact that Lieberman was the first Jew on a major party's national ticket. Was the United States really so mature and tolerant that it was willing to place a man who strictly observed the Sabbath and didn't believe Jesus was the Messiah a heartbeat away from the presidency?

"Do you remember Death of a Salesman? That's Joe Lieberman in this campaign. He's Biff. He is the Jew who has made himself well-liked in the Gentile world."

Lieberman's religion drew the headlines, but the senator's real value to Gore was in his reputation for moral rectitude. And what made Lieberman so appealing was the authenticity of that rectitude: His integrity, bone-deep and consistent, had been demonstrated all his life, from the time, as a Yale student in the early sixties, his idealism took him to Mississippi for civil rights work to his risky, principled criticism of President Clinton's escapades with Monica Lewinsky. Without being sanctimonious about it, Lieberman had become a genuine public-service hero.

Picking Lieberman not only helped Gore "distance" himself from Clinton, it gave him the chance to anchor his ideological boat firmly in the mainstream. But now that Gore has slipped behind George W. Bush in the polls, Lieberman's friends and advisers are complaining that Gore's campaign has misused his greatest centrist asset by having Lieberman play the hackneyed vice-presidential role of attack dog. Worse, they see Lieberman, win or lose, emerging from the election with his good name stained by accusations that he's sacrificed his principles for ambition. "If Joe had his way, he wouldn't take money from Hollywood, because in his heart, he really does have contempt for a lot of what's being turned out out there," says Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic and a Lieberman friend since 1988. "Look, when you run for vice-president, you're working for the ticket. That's his job now. But the criticism has been painful to Joe."

Another close friend, no naïf when it comes to Washington deal-cutting, has nevertheless been troubled by Lieberman's hard bargains. "I think the Gore people have compromised him," he says. "They've compromised him by pushing him to be somebody he isn't, and to say things he doesn't believe."

When Lieberman was introduced as a vice-presidential candidate, he was hyped as Mr. Morality, a title he was never hubristic enough to seek. So his maneuverings -- swallowing his disagreements with Gore over school vouchers and affirmative action, saying he "respects" Louis Farrakhan -- have been magnified by the media and the Republicans. But even without that impossibly lofty standard, Joe Lieberman's candidacy has turned out to be a test -- not only of whether a Jew can run for national office without encountering bigotry, but of whether a politician who lives his life according to a strict moral code can navigate the corruption of modern politics and not come out looking like a sellout or a hypocrite.

"Do you remember Death of a Salesman?" asks a rabbi who knows Joe and Hadassah Lieberman well, and plans to vote Democratic in November. "That's a Yiddish play, basically. It's about a Jewish father trying to teach his son how to get on in the world of the goyim. And do you remember what he's telling him? He tells Biff to be well-liked. That's Joe Lieberman in this campaign. He's Biff. He's a self-made Biff, but he's Biff. He is the Jew who has made himself well-liked in the Gentile world."

Yesterday was L.A., San Jose, then a flight to Texas. Now, after a couple hours of sleep, it's 7:15 in the morning, and Lieberman is sitting in the Cordoba conference room of a McAllen, Texas, Sheraton, relaxing after a live satellite interview with the Today show. Lieberman has been said to resemble Captain Stubing from The Love Boat, but today, in his short-sleeve blue polo shirt, khakis, and clunky lace-up brown walking shoes, his enormous round head sitting atop his skinny frame, he looks more like a grown-up Charlie Brown. He leans back, crossing his legs and sipping hot tea and joking about his white socks. "My small act of rebellion today," he says.


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