Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

The Running Mensch

ShareThis

Lieberman steps toward her and gently touches Hawking's shoulder. "It happens to me all the time," he says quietly. She finally exhales, smiles, and welcomes the senator to campus.

Westark is an engineering and technical school that trains people to design and run high-tech manufacturing machinery. To Lieberman, it's an exemplary illustration of the kind of public-private partnership that eight years of a business-friendly Democratic Party have made possible. Lieberman was elected to the Senate in 1988 by running to the right of Connecticut's maverick Republican Lowell Weicker, and as soon as he arrived in Washington, Lieberman aligned himself with the Democratic Leadership Council. The centrist think tank rose to prominence by providing the intellectual platform for Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign, and for pulling the Democrats back to the electorally potent ideological center after years on the liberal fringe. Lieberman succeeded Clinton as the DLC's leader, and had an equally important role in shaping the organization. "Joe was crucial to developing our themes of opportunity, responsibility, and community," says Al From, who founded the DLC and is traveling with his old friend Lieberman through Arkansas today.

On a far less wonky level, the scene at Westark is a striking example of Lieberman's gifts as a campaigner. His voice sounds like a cassette tape played on fading batteries, and he's dressed in the stiff politician's uniform of navy suit, white shirt, and red tie. But he connects easily with a room of fresh-faced 19-year-olds, guiding the discussion from Internet taxation (Lieberman is against it for now) to student loans (he and Al Gore would increase them) to what government can do to keep violent entertainment out of the hands of disturbed youths (not much, the kids tell Lieberman; the responsibility rests with parents).

Lieberman's joy on the campaign trail is immediately evident in the sparkle of his greenish-brown eyes and his easy smile. He regularly wanders to the back of his charter campaign plane, asking how one reporter's dad is doing after heart surgery, posing for photos with network cameramen. At the end of an exhausting campaign day, he invites his staff up to his hotel room for margaritas.

"Everyone keeps saying, 'My God, your dad's so funny,' " says Rebecca Lieberman, who lives in Manhattan and raises money for the Board of Education, and who's traveled with her father occasionally during the campaign. "And it's strange, because I think of him as such a great listener. When I was a kid, we used to take long walks every Saturday, after lunch on Sabbath, and talk -- to be perfectly honest, I did most of the talking. I never remember him not listening to me."

"Has the campaign changed me? I'd like to think that I haven't been affected, in the sense that I'm still me. I may have a better answer for you in two or three months."

Lieberman and Betty Haas, Rebecca's mother and a psychiatric social worker, were divorced in 1981 after sixteen years of marriage. "My mom does not like politics," Rebecca says. "She did not like it when we'd be out to dinner and people would come over to the table; she didn't like the fact that he was busy on the weekends at campaign events. She wanted a different kind of relationship. My parents also have very different levels of religious observance, and did from the beginning. It's by no means what ended their marriage, but it added a source of tension."

It's hard to imagine anyone who didn't enjoy politics marrying Joe Lieberman, who's thrived on the thrill of campaigning since he ran for Stamford High School sophomore-class president (and won). This morning in Little Rock, during a visit to a firehouse, Lieberman grabbed a mop and happily joined in the scrubbing of a fire engine. Then he pretended to consider sliding down a fire pole just to annoy his press aides, who'd grown apoplectic earlier in the week when Lieberman went for a ride on the back of a Harley. On the way back to his car from the firehouse, an advance woman points out some elementary-school kids across the street cavorting during recess, and Lieberman, who is supposed to go straight to the airport, strolls over to the playground as a dozen reporters and cameramen scramble to keep up. "Hey!" a boy yells in greeting. "You were on Nickelodeon! Who are you?"

Lieberman laughs. "Yes," he says dryly. "I made a couple of appearances on Weinerville. It's a very interesting show."

It's a shameless photo op, but Lieberman charms the kids, asking about their favorite subjects ("We hate uniforms!" yells one girl) and whether they have enough computers. "Yeah," a boy responds, "but they're always broken."

"If Al Gore and I are elected," Lieberman says in a mock-portentous voice, "all your computers will work." He pauses for a comic beat. "Uh-oh," he says. "They've got me on tape now!" When a boy asks, "Will you send us some money?" Lieberman laughs and says, "See? They know all about government already!"

Lieberman has been deployed extensively in battleground states like Michigan and Florida, but those close to him think his talents have been somewhat wasted. "He should have been sent to different audiences, instead of reaching for the same old Democratic activists -- not to minimize their importance, but labor-union rallies, those are votes we largely have," says Michael Lewan, a longtime Lieberman adviser. "And Hadassah Lieberman, her story is a compelling one. So they should use that story to reach out to new Americans -- and I don't mean Jews, but Asians and Hispanics, Pakistanis, Vietnamese. She can say to them, 'My story is your story.' The Gore campaign has sent her to women's groups, breast-cancer treatment centers -- all fine, they're important issues, but there was an opportunity to do more."

Lieberman's biggest difficulty, however, came when his pro-business agenda -- and the need to gather buckets of campaign cash from business groups -- collided with his family-values rhetoric. In mid-September, at a Beverly Hills fund-raiser attended by Hollywood executives and stars, days after castigating the entertainment industry on Capitol Hill, Lieberman said, "Al and I have tremendous regard for this industry. It's true from time to time we will be critics, or noodges, but I promise you this: We will never, never put the government in the position of telling you by law, through law, what to make. We will noodge you, but we will never become censors."

In Lieberman's folksy, grandfatherly tones, it sounded like an emphatic wink that business could continue as usual. In interviews and on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal, William Bennett ripped Lieberman as an apostate in the family-values crusade. "I did not realize that when Joe Lieberman and I were denouncing the filth, sewage, and mindless bloodletting of the popular-entertainment industry, calling it what it is -- degrading and dehumanizing -- we were just being 'noodges,' " Bennett fumed.

"This all seems to focus around my choice of words," Lieberman tells me genially two weeks later. "If Bill felt noodge was a softer or less demanding verb, he's obviously never been noodged, as I have, by someone like my mother. I take noodged to mean persistently criticized until you change your behavior. Look, the whole system is too loaded down with money of all dimensions. The one protection that exists is the disclosure requirements, so you can look at our contributions; you can look at the Bush-Cheney contributions and say, 'Gee, they're getting a lot of money from the oil industry.' I only wish Bush and Cheney would noodge the oil industry to do better as much as Al Gore and I are going to noodge Hollywood to do better. So the money problem is just unfortunately inherent in the system."

Lieberman has also taken heat, much of it from fellow Democrats, for not abandoning his concurrent campaign to retain his Senate seat. Lieberman sincerely believes that quitting the Connecticut campaign at this late date would disenfranchise Democratic voters. But there's another, far more emotional and human reason behind his seemingly selfish two-campaigns-at-once stance: Since his boyhood in Stamford, Lieberman imagined himself a senator from Connecticut. He can't bring himself to abandon the job, even if clinging to it might marginally damage his odds of being elected to an even higher office. "Being senator is what he loved, and loves," Rebecca Lieberman says. "That was his dream job."

Last night, in a quaint Kentucky town, Lieberman debated Dick Cheney at Centre College. The tone was gentlemanly, befitting the rolling, genteel horse country surrounding the campus. Then, at 3 a.m., he flew to Orlando so he could join Al Gore later in the morning under a broiling sun at a downtown rally inside the Disney Amphitheater.

Diagonally across the street, police are keeping close watch on about 200 Arab-American demonstrators. The protesters wave poster-size versions of the excruciating newspaper photos of a 12-year-old boy in Ramallah crouching behind his father moments before being shot to death in Palestinian-Israeli crossfire. "All we're asking for is that the U.S. be evenhanded in negotiations, instead of being an extension of Israel's foreign-policy machine," says Taleb Salhab, spokesman for the Arab American Community Center.

Kareem Ahmab is more blunt in his assessment. "We don't want Gore," the 18-year-old says. "His vice-president is Jewish, so of course he'd be more on the Israeli side."

After the campaign rally, Lieberman walks across the street to a hotel for a meeting, the Secret Service carefully shielding him from the protesters two blocks away. But Lieberman noticed them earlier. "If I could have gone over to them, first I would have listened, to see what questions they had," he says later. "Then I would have said what I truly believe, that it's a tragedy on both sides. The Israelis and the Palestinians are going to live side by side for a long time to come, and the question is whether they're going to live in peace or in war. And there's no question that for the people on both sides, it is better to live in peace, so anything we can do to encourage that is not only in their interest, but of course stability in the Middle East is in our interest, too."

Despite the recent violence, Lieberman sticks to the view that dealing with Yasser Arafat is the right diplomatic path. "No, President Clinton was not mistaken at all in his approach," Lieberman says. "Remember that while the United States has historically played a significant mediating role in the peace process, the critical decision in this current peace process was made first by Rabin and then by Arafat. And we encouraged both, but Rabin had this profound sense that history was moving in a direction which was going nowhere good -- for Israel, which he was most concerned about, but also for the Palestinians. I remember I was with him once when he gave this metaphor, that either you could view history as a river that flows where it wants to flow, or, as a leader, you could step in and try to affect the course of the river. Which he did. And he engaged Arafat, and then we engaged Arafat. I've come to know Arafat pretty well myself. Every time I go to the Middle East, I visit him, assuming he's there. I see him quite often when he comes here. The last time I saw him, which was in June, when I was in the region, I told him, 'I don't think you're going to have a leader in Israel after Barak who will be as forthcoming in the peace process as Barak is prepared to be. And I plead with you to seize this moment of opportunity.' Well, it didn't happen at Camp David, and now it's not happened, either. So I would not say it is cause to turn away from Arafat, because he is the unparalleled leader of the Palestinian people. If we want peace, we have to work with him."

As wise a negotiating course as that may be in the Middle East, it's also strikingly consistent with Lieberman's personality. Ask friends and colleagues to describe one thing that puzzles them about Lieberman, and they all mention his inability to lose his temper, and how he's determined never to lose a friend. "For the most part, that's true," Hadassah Lieberman says. "He'll come home after a long, tiring day and he's always positive, always upbeat. But he does lose his temper; it's rare, though. What's funny is that he picked me as his wife -- he didn't pick an even-keeled person."

An old friend isn't so sure about the benefit of Lieberman's placidity. "Joe has a very rare gift for making someone with whom he's had a conversation feel they're in agreement," says the friend. "The negative side of it is, there is a kind of agreeability to Joe that's much deeper. It's his greatest political weakness: He doesn't like making enemies. And in his line of work, if you don't make enemies, you're not doing something right."

Lieberman's knowledge of a history larger than the last news cycle, and of his role in it, allows him to maintain a calm, pastoral tone in the face of accusations, from foes and friends alike, that he's tarnished his integrity. "I haven't changed a single policy position," he says firmly. "But has the campaign changed me? I'd like to think that I haven't been affected, in the sense that I'm still me. In some senses, I've been doing things on a national scale in the last three months that are quite similar to things I've been doing in Connecticut for 30 years. In some ways, I feel it's a culmination of everything."

Joe Lieberman pauses. He's thoughtful and humble enough to admit he doesn't know, sitting here inside the campaign bubble, the ultimate effect these months will have on his soul. "I may," he says, "have a better answer for you in two or three months, when I have some perspective."


Related:

Advertising
[an error occurred while processing this directive]
Advertising