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The Running Mensch


But his left foot is tapping rapidly and anxiously. There's three weeks to go before Election Day, and, as Lieberman says in all his public appearances, the race is the closest presidential contest since the election of his political hero, John F. Kennedy.

I mention a text Lieberman studied closely when he was a child, a book of rabbinic aphorisms that he still turns to regularly for guidance. The Hebrew title is Pirké Avot, which translates to Ethics of the Fathers. "And mothers, I suppose you could say," Lieberman adds.

One of the book's injunctions is "Love work; despise lordliness; and do not become overly familiar with the government." Lieberman chuckles. "I took the first two thirds of that," he says. "I can't cite the historical context in which that particular rule was enunciated, but you gotta remember, a lot of these rabbinic sayings came in the context of a government that was not friendly. America is such a unique context in the history of the world. Jews and everyone else have an opportunity -- the government is 'us,' not 'them.' "

In the broader sense, though, the maxim seems to warn against becoming an insider. "I've never felt the skepticism implied in that ruling," Lieberman says. "There's a whole trend of thinking in the Jewish ethics that I have studied which is all about service. There's a famous passage in Jeremiah. It's variously interpreted, but it says, 'Seek the well-being and peace of the community in which you live' -- this was written from the diaspora -- 'because from its well-being and peace, you will find your freedom.' The skepticism toward government that that particular rabbi expressed a long time ago seems irrelevant to the American context. We're painting on a very different canvas here. It's a very hopeful, open canvas."

Though Lieberman is deeply serious about his faith, abiding by its rules while crisscrossing the country can prove tricky. Most Fridays, he plans to arrive home in Washington before sundown, but recently he was scheduled to finish his week with a mid-afternoon event in Miami Beach, leaving plenty of time for him to reach a friend's home before the beginning of Shabbos. Then stormy weather diverted his charter flight to Fort Lauderdale. The candidate, his aides, and his traveling press contingent sprinted from the plane, dragging their luggage, and leaped into the waiting motorcade. Then the cars carrying Lieberman and his security detail, trailed by minivans carrying the press, zoomed south on I-95, speedometers poking past 100 mph. Lieberman insisted on making his scheduled appearance at a Miami Beach school, but cut his remarks short in order to beat the sunset. The crowd loved him even more.

"Joe is probably the most real person I've ever met in politics," says William Daley, son of the muscular Chicago mayor and currently Gore's campaign chairman. Delaware's Joeseph Biden has served with Lieberman in the Senate for twelve years but doesn't mention any important legislation or rousing oratory when asked to describe his friend. "If you had a serious dilemma in your family -- what to do about whether Mom goes to the home; your kid has a drug problem; your marriage is in trouble -- and you're gonna call in one friend from the outside, who do you call in?" Biden says. "You ask Joe Lieberman to come into your living room. Literally, not figuratively. There's a wisdom about Joe that's incredibly valuable."

Wieseltier has talked with Lieberman every Saturday for much of the past decade, and it's given him a detailed insight into the depth of Lieberman's thought process. "Here's a perfect example of how Joe's brain works," Wieseltier says. "He knows that the Jewish tradition represents a spectacular obstacle toward the legitimation of gay marriage. But it didn't surprise me at the vice-presidential debate when he said he had an open mind on the question, because I remember one morning in shul we spent about a half-hour discussing that. Joe couldn't just say that because homosexuality is explicitly forbidden by Jewish law, there is nothing else he needs to think or know about the subject. The tradition he loves deeply gives him one solution, but then there are the moral quandaries of everyday American life, which includes a lot of gay people. The point about Joe is, he's not only interested in the final answer."

For all the media discussion of Lieberman's Orthodoxy, the subject rarely comes up in discussions with voters. "Well," says Rebecca Lieberman, his 31-year-old daughter, "people are always asking for the Gore-Lieberman pins that are in Hebrew. They're very hard to find."

Hadassah Lieberman, child of Holocaust survivors, says she and her husband never forget the symbolic significance of this campaign. "In Nashville, at Joe's introductory speech, it was incredibly moving," she says. "When I went out there and introduced Joe, I felt as if I was fortified by my own history and by so many people who were not alive to be on that stage with me. There are times Joe and I look into each other's eyes and it all comes in front of us."

But since his August speech in a Detroit church, when Lieberman called for a larger role for religion in political life, he has muted his references, frequently mentioning God but remaining assiduously nondenominational in his conversations. In a tiny house in Odessa, Texas, in a cramped living room decorated with crucifixes, a Bible open to a passage from Judges, and framed prints of the Last Supper, Lieberman meets with a group of poor Hispanic women. The women blame their neighborhood's high incidence of cancer on a nearby petrochemical plant, a plant owned by one of George Bush's wealthy backers. "When we take care of the environment, we take care of God's creation," Lieberman tells the women. It's a line he uses frequently when talking about his work as Connecticut's attorney general, but today he doesn't go as far as he has in the past, when he'd mention the Babylonian Talmud as a source of his environmental consciousness.

Norma Nuñez lingers with her neighbors after Lieberman and his pack of reporters have crossed her dusty front lawn and climbed back into their air-conditioned vehicles. She knows Lieberman came to Odessa to talk about her thyroid cancer because it will make Bush look bad. But she believes Lieberman would be here even without the cameras. "We're nobody," Nuñez says. "And this man really does care about us."

Tears are brimming in the girl's eyes. She takes a deep breath to compose herself, then opens her mouth to speak, but no words come out.

Marianne Hawking is an honors student in computer animation at Westark College, in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and also the school's star basketball player. The college president selected Hawking to introduce Lieberman to the crowd assembled for today's question-and-answer session, but staring into the bank of local TV cameras, panic seizing her tongue, Hawking looks as if she may never speak again.

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