You Go, Joe

At Sunday-morning services at the Beulah Heights Pentecostal Church in New Haven, the gospel choir is making a joyful noise – so joyful, in fact, that they are oblivious to the fact that several rather prominent politicians are waiting to address the congregation. While some squirm impatiently, Joe Lieberman is caught up in the emotion, rolling his arms in an impromptu dance, singing along with “This Is the Day the Lord Has Made.” As the devoutly religious Lieberman later tells me with sincerity, “I’m always so grateful to have an opportunity for a spiritual experience.”

When the music finally gives way to the campaigning, Bishop Theodore Brooks hails the Connecticut senator. “Can I say it like it ought to be?” Brooks declaims. “Here’s the future president of the United States!” The African-American congregation roars. Lieberman replies, “As my mother would say if she were here, ‘Bishop, from your lips to God’s ears.’ “

Just in case God’s listening, there’s another fervent prayer being offered up these days in Lieberworld (his orbit as nicknamed by staff and supporters): Please let Al Gore sit out the 2004 presidential election.

In a moment of perhaps misguided gratitude, Lieberman announced in January 2001 that he wouldn’t run for the Democratic nomination if Gore did. Moreover, Lieberman has resisted every possible invitation to wiggle out of the pledge. The former veep has said he’ll announce his political plans in January, but who knows if this latest timetable is for real? Senator John McCain, the GOP maverick and Lieberman ally, says, “My advice to Joe is that he shouldn’t wait for Al Gore to make a decision.” Repeat McCain’s words to Lieberman, and he smiles. “I know, John tells me that all the time. But I feel I owe it to Al to wait.”

Lieberman, to put it mildly, would be a rather unusual Democratic candidate for president. On the issues, he’s to the right of just about any prominent Democrat. And then – duh – there is his religion. His Orthodox Judaism caused a sensation when Gore nominated him for vice-president in 2000 – possibly the only shrewd move in that campaign. But will he play as the main attraction? Ask Democratic voters for their top choice if front-runner Gore opts out, and Lieberman, a.k.a. Mr. Name Recognition, not only edges out Democratic congressional leaders Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle but beats in early polls the two men getting the most buzz, patrician Massachusetts senator John Kerry and charismatic North Carolina senator John Edwards.

But influential Democrats almost uniformly downplay Lieberman’s chances on the grounds that he’s just too conservative. He’s a hawk on Iraq, too close to the business community, a crusader against Hollywood violence – all positions that are anathema to liberal Democrats. “Joe Lieberman is far too much to the right to motivate the activists,” says one top New York fund-raiser. “And his religiosity makes people uncomfortable.” A leading Democratic political operative adds, “Joe’s not particularly charismatic, and he’s too conservative to win the black-Hispanic-union-liberal activists.”

The odd thing is that the same views and cultural conservatism that would handicap him in party primaries might serve as assets in a campaign against George W. Bush – if Lieberman managed to get that far. Last week’s GOP landslide certainly demonstrates the country’s disaffection with liberalism. “I think Lieberman has the potential to win swing voters,” says GOP pollster Frank Luntz. “He’s not a doctrinaire Democrat, and he doesn’t sound angry.” Adds former Clinton adviser and bad-boy New York Post columnist Dick Morris, “Lieberman’s trying to be the candidate of the moderate wing of the Democratic Party. We’ll invade Iraq, we’ll win, and Lieberman’s position’s will look good.” He adds that in this religious nation, Lieberman’s piety could play well. “The Christian Coalition is very right-wing, and also generally pro-Jewish. There’s a high level of admiration for Joe.”

To spend time with Lieberman during this trial-run, what-if candidacy is to see a man who is carefully honing his political persona. Lieberman can be charming and quick with a quip (Al From, CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council, has nicknamed him Shecky Lieberman). He’s turned his pledge to Gore into a running shtick. Appearing on Face the Nation, he joked off-camera by asking CBS anchor Bob Schieffer about his career plans: “Are you waiting to see what Gore will do?” “No,” Schieffer replied, “I’m waiting to see what Brokaw does.”

But there’s a steeliness beneath Lieberman’s mild-mannered veneer. Ask Lieberman a tough question, and he’ll often reply, “That’s interesting” – a comment I assumed was aimed to flatter the questioner and stall for time. Then I asked his former chief of staff, lobbyist Michael Lewan, how he could tell when the low-key Lieberman was annoyed. “When he hears you out and says, ‘That’s interesting,’ ” Lewan says, “you know he thinks you’ve said something really stupid, but he doesn’t want to hurt your feelings.”

Within weeks after the Supreme Court decided the last election, while Gore grew a beard and disappeared into self-imposed exile, Lieberman had already begun a thank-you tour of the campaign trail. Since January 2001, he’s gone through airport security more than most traveling salesmen, visiting 31 states – among them New Hampshire (five trips) and money-rich New York (twenty trips). “I decided that I would do everything one could do to get ready to run,” he says. “I have my PAC, I’m looking at people. But it’s true, the day after the election, November 6, I can’t and I won’t begin to hire.”

Lieberman’s two children from his first marriage, Rebecca, 33, who runs a Manhattan-based pro-voting nonprofit, and Matt, 35, a New Haven high-school English teacher, both took leaves from work to join the 2000 campaign. “My dad called the whole family together for Labor Day weekend, and we thought there was going to be a big announcement,” says his daughter Rebecca, “but it turned out he just wanted a family weekend.”

“‘The ones most nervous about me running in the first place were Jews,’ says Lieberman. ‘Because of the whole history, the feeling that Jews will be blamed if things don’t go well.’”

Her brother, Matt, says, “You try not to think about it.”

Hadassah Lieberman, Joe’s second wife and the mother of their 14-year-old daughter, Hani, insists that the waiting is not bothering her. “If the question is, what are our lives going to be down the road, I just say, Deep-breathe.”

The couple has written a chatty campaign memoir with journalist Sarah Crichton, An Amazing Adventure, to be published by Simon & Schuster in January. What’s newsworthy in the book is how Lieberman tries to have it both ways: lavishly praising Gore and yet distancing himself from his former running mate, with numerous if-only-the-Gore-staff-had-listened-to-me critiques. Make no mistake: This is not a man who’s strategizing to be Gore’s No. 2 on the Democratic ticket again. “I haven’t thought about it” is Lieberman’s for-the-record comment.

Now for the shocking revelation, the fruit of dogged investigative reporting, that will blow the lid off Lieberman’s carefully crafted persona: The man’s eaten lobster. Once. “I didn’t like it,” he says, “but maybe that was psychological.” (Yeah, yeah, he didn’t inhale.)

We are sitting in Lieberman’s Senate office – it looks like an uninhabited movie set; the only thing on his desk is a red ball that he throws at the wall as a tension reliever – discussing the role of Judaism in his life. His widowed mother, Marcia, told me in a phone interview that her son had rebelled against his Orthodox Jewish upbringing when he went to Yale (“I confronted him about it,” she said). So I ask him about this un-Orthodox chapter. “It’s interesting,” he begins. “During college, I stopped observing the Sabbath. It was a limited rebellion, because I continued to pray every morning. In law school, I didn’t eat kosher food.”

He was not very observant in 1965 when he married his first wife, Betty Haas, a Reform Jew. (As their daughter, Rebecca, puts it, “My mom came from the kind of Reform family who grew up with a Christmas tree.”) The couple met while interning in Connecticut senator Abe Ribicoff’s office; she went on to become a psychiatric social worker. “We kept a kosher home, so my parents could visit us,” Lieberman says. “I still wasn’t observing the Sabbath. Then, in 1967, my grandmother died.” Lieberman’s maternal grandmother, Minnie Manger, was a deeply religious immigrant and a strong influence. “When she died, it’s trite to say, I felt the torch had been passed,” Lieberman says. “I had an obligation to carry on the religious tradition.”

Lieberman’s renewed interest in burrowing deeper into his faith was one of the wedges that pushed him and Betty apart – they divorced in 1981. As Lieberman became increasingly involved in politics, she resented the public life and his busy work-plus-temple schedule. “They argued,” Rebecca says. “It wasn’t surprising to me when they got divorced.” Matt agrees. “I felt as a kid that the divorce was the right thing,” he says, “because the marriage wasn’t working.” Lieberman himself simply says the couple grew apart. “One of the differences we had was in levels of religious observance,” he says. “But I’m convinced if that was the only difference, we wouldn’t have gotten divorced.” In Lieberman’s 1988 upset of GOP incumbent Senator Lowell Weicker, his religion was mostly discussed in terms of his inability to campaign on Saturdays. But that changed when Gore chose Lieberman for the VP slot.

Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic and a Lieberman pal who attends the same shul, Kesher Israel, says, “Joe has never run for chief rabbi, and he never will. Before the campaign, he was a Democratic senator who happened to be Orthodox. He never hid it, but it wasn’t something he displayed – now, in a conservative time, it has come to be italicized.”

The page 1 picture in the New York Times and Washington Post on October 3 was a dramatic illustration of why Joe Lieberman is the Republican’s favorite Democrat. There he is in the White House Rose Garden, looking approvingly at President Bush in a show of support by legislators for No. 43’s plan to invade Iraq. Lieberman gushed about the president’s “eloquent, powerful, and convincing statement” in favor of deposing Saddam.

The next time I saw Lieberman, I asked why he was so effusive about the man he hopes to beat in 2004. “I didn’t have a text there,” he replied testily. “I’ve felt this way about Iraq for more than a decade. I thought it was real important to have a show of bipartisan support, which will strengthen our hand in the U.N. and might even send a message to Old Saddam over there.”

Lieberman has had a number of defining moments as a politician: He scored with the family-values crowd by scolding Hollywood and successfully pushing for the TV V-chip; he was the first Democrat to publicly excoriate his old pal Bill Clinton for l’affaire Lewinsky. And this fall, while Democrats like Tom Daschle and John Kerry twisted themselves into knots trying to reconcile their doubts about the war, Lieberman, who in 1991 co-sponsored the first Gulf War resolution to invade Iraq, had no such crisis. “I’m convinced that if we don’t deal with Saddam,” he says, “he’ll do terrible damage to us and other countries in the region.”

Lieberman has crafted an image as a man more interested in getting things done than in scoring partisan points. But as one prominent Washington Democrat says, “Lieberman is not popular in the Senate. When you have 50 Democrats working on a bill, he’ll be the first to go and try to cut a deal with the Republicans. He wants to be the Guy, to be a player.”

In October, after GOP Senate minority leader Trent Lott let loose on the Senate floor with a scathing attack on Daschle (“Now, I’m not questioning anyone’s patriotism”), Lieberman went over and shook Lott’s hand. What was that about? Lieberman explained that Lott had consulted him before making those remarks and had pulled some punches, adding, “Lord knows what else he would have said.”

During the debate over the Iraq resolution, Maryland Democratic senator Paul Sarbanes became enraged at Lieberman for blocking a Democratic alternative, yelling, “It is painful to see a former attorney and attorney general of the state of Connecticut twist and turn the words of this well-crafted amendment.” Lieberman tried to defuse the moment by joking – “Let me relieve you of your pain” – but Sarbanes continued to seethe.

Former SEC chairman Arthur Levitt’s new book, Take On the Street, attacks Lieberman for halting an effort to require companies to treat stock options as an expense – a rule that might have discouraged the greedy executive behavior that characterized the Enron scandal. Levitt says, “Joe Lieberman almost single-handedly blocked it. I’ve never been able to figure out why he did it.”

Ask Lieberman about such criticism, and he goes on auto-pilot. “I’m a Democrat who is pro-business and pro-growth. In the early nineties, the ability to own a piece of a business was important to new companies starting to attract talent… . Expensing options would have made them less attractive to companies, and fewer would have been issued… . The executives abused a good idea.” Lieberman, who in August belatedly proposed his own legislation to reform stock options, does not exactly sound contrite.

Traveling with Lieberman is not for the faint of heart. On one October Sunday, he raced from New Haven to West Simsbury to his birthplace of Stamford to Long Island to attend fund-raisers and to Queens to appear with Carl McCall. Our three-car caravan careered down the highways at 95 miles per hour, forcing other cars off the road. At one stop, in an effort to get Lieberman to slow down, I joked, “I’m not as sure as you are that God is on our side.” He laughed, but the speedometer remained sky-high.

Lieberman, astonishingly, never wears a seatbelt. “It’s a bad habit I picked up,” he says. During the 2000 campaign, he obviously got used to living in “the bubble” – that protective zone where the Secret Service and staff are responsible for safety and logistics so the great man doesn’t have to pay attention. When the trooper put on his siren in gridlock traffic to make the cars part, Lieberman confessed, “This where I turn away and hope nobody recognizes me.” While in Stamford, he took a side trip to visit his energetic 88-year-old mother, Marcia, at her white stucco home of 52 years, on a block where neighboring homes are being demolished for a hospital expansion. “Joseph, help me get the cups and saucers down for coffee,” she says, bustling about the humble linoleum kitchen, and her son smiles and says to me, “Only my mother calls me Joseph.” This is the room where his father, Henry, a liquor-store owner, used to read the New York Times and discuss world events with Joe and his two sisters. The living room, with handsome mahogany furniture, is where Joe planned his first winning political race as a ninth-grader for class president, using a poster of himself perched on the roof of his house with the slogan VOTE FOR ME OR I’LL JUMP.

Even though the Lieberman-family bio was a staple of the 2000 campaign – his father, who grew up in an orphanage, once made dawn deliveries from a bread truck; his mother had to help support her family after her dad died; Joe was the first to attend college and after Yale law school became a state senator and then Connecticut attorney general – it’s still touching to see the modest home where his journey began.

In the dining room, Marcia Lieberman has laid out a babka and a chocolate cake on the lace-covered table, and she cannot resist the Jewish-mom shtick: “Joseph, you aren’t eating, are you watching your diet?” “Mom, I don’t want to look too jowly on camera,” he says, before happily accepting and devouring a large piece of cake. They have an easy, teasing rapport. She tells me, “I wasn’t overcome with grief after the election, because I’m a fatalist. God lets things happen on his own time.”

GOP pollster Frank Luntz heard some disturbing anti-Semitic remarks from focus groups during the 2000 election. Luntz, then consulting for MSNBC, said an Arkansas small-town mayor announced, “If Joe Lieberman were a Christian Jew, I could vote for him, but he’s one of those religious Jews, so I can’t.” GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway, then consulting for ABC, said people complained in code words after the VP debate that “Lieberman doesn’t have the look of a president. He sounds like a whiner.”

Does Lieberman worry his religion will be a problem in a presidential campaign? “It’s who I am, and I got this way not from being in a focus group,” he says. I mention to Lieberman that I often heard Jews complain that he was “too Jewish.” The senator seems more amused than offended. “Oh, no question, the ones most nervous about me running in the first place were Jews,” he says. “Because of the whole history, the feeling that Jews will be blamed if things don’t go well.” He adds, “Why should Jews be blamed any more than Protestants from Texas should be blamed if Bush doesn’t do something right? I say to people, ‘The non-Jews are willing to judge me on my merits – why not the Jews?’ “

It’s a rainy morning in Washington when I arrive at Lieberman’s brick house, one of the more unassuming abodes in this plush gated community in Georgetown with manicured lawns and a neighborhood pool, a bit of safe suburbia in the city. Hadassah greets me at the door, a slender woman in khakis and a black knit shirt with a weary smile. “We could sit in the living room and have a conversation,” she suggests, waving toward the cheerful space with a comfy couch, an Oriental rug, and a piano, but then changes her mind, saying, “It’s better if we sit in the kitchen with the tape recorder out and I remember it’s an interview.”

Hadassah was described as unscripted and warm on the campaign trail but seems guarded and tense today. I ask whether religion was an important connection between her and Joe (they married in 1983). “He spent Shabbat the same way I did, and kept a kosher home. But had I not been interested in him, those facts wouldn’t have mattered,” she snaps. Was she annoyed by the teasing about her unusual name during the campaign, the comedians who joked that the couple has children named B’nai B’rith and United Jewish Appeal? She replies in an icy voice, “Joe will tell you I have a great sense of humor about everything but my name.”

Lieberman teases that his wife is more conservative than he is – “Hadassah calls herself my right wing” – and people who know them say she’s a strong influence. “A lot of Joe’s anti-Hollywood stuff comes from Hadassah,” says a longtime acquaintance. “Her ‘Joey, darling,’ walk-three-feet-behind-him act is bullshit – she’s a real steel magnolia, the iron hand in the velvet glove.”

At the Manchester, New Hampshire, Democratic headquarters, TV reporters and cameramen give Lieberman the full rock-star treatment as he steps out of an SUV. Inside, giving a rousing get-out-the-vote speech, he has a larger-than-life aura even as he stands on an upturned plastic box (he later tells me, “I like to say I’m 5 feet 91⁄2 inches, but I think I’ve shrunk. But Bush isn’t that tall. He’s lowered the bar for presidential height”). He’s looser today, and his rhetoric is more charged up. “The Republicans can’t tell the difference between their right hand and their far right hand,” he jokes. “We’ve got a president who has shown leadership on the war on terrorism, but that’s all. We pay our presidents to lead us on more than one issue at a time.”

Peter Burling, the Democratic leader of the New Hampshire House, enthuses afterward, “This guy is for real.” Adds Peter Sullivan, a Democratic state representative, “I’ll be leaning toward voting for him – if he runs.”

And so the countdown to Al Gore’s decision continues: “Most of the time I think there’s no way he’ll do it and this is all about promoting his book,” says one former aide. “But he’s been in Iowa, campaigning for other people, and you don’t do that unless you want something back.” A financier who stays in touch with Gore opines: “I think the chance of Gore running is at 75 percent.”

Under that scenario, Lieberman’s out of the game. Or is he? Another Gore confidant suggests an entirely new, and plausible, possibility: “I think Gore will run, but he’ll cut Joe free from the pledge. He’ll say, Joe, do what you want. That way, Gore would feel no obligation to name Joe VP again.”

I track Lieberman down at the NASDAQ headquarters in Times Square, where he’s just given a speech, and run the scenario by him. Would he run under these circumstances? “I hadn’t heard that,” he says, his expression startled. “I hate not to answer your question, but I haven’t thought about it.” He starts to turn away, then flashes a grin and throws up his hands, saying, “Anything is possible!”

You Go, Joe