The Running Mensch

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.

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.

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.”

The Running Mensch