Senator Joseph I. Lieberman

Senator Joseph I. Lieberman

One late afternoon in his Washington office, Sen. Joseph Lieberman is answering a line of questions suitable for True Confessions when an assistant, Carleen, breaks in with the news that a Democratic presidential hopeful is one the line. The senator emits a low groan, grimaces, and dutifully goes to the phone. Yes, he tells Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, he likes his "message," but no, he's not ready to make a commitment. He gives Clinton several names of Connecticut people he might try to enlist to support him.

So far, the groan and grimace are the emotional high points of Joes Lieberman's long day, which began officially at 8:30 a.m. at a breakfast fundraiser where he took one sip of decaffeinated coffee. It will not end until 8 p.m. when he and his wife Hadassah will attend a Democratic National Committee fundraising gala. In between, he has helped save the Seawolf submarine program from the budget ax, spoken on crime before an empty Senate chamber, and presented an American flag to a touring Vietnamese soccer team. The wonder is that his first groan came so late in the day.

It is a welcome groan all the same, after nine hours of affable Zen-like calm. Many things have changed about Joe Lieberman in the past decade, but this 1980 line penned by a Hartford Courant still holds: Normally about as animated as a teacup."

Let's get candid here: Joseph Isadore Lieberman, 49, is a profile writer's worst nightmare. He doesn't rant and rave at his staff — heck, he doesn't even raise his voice. He is not given to late night food fights at doughnut shops. He's an Orthodox Jew who will walk five miles from his Washington home to the Senate to cast a vote on the Sabbath (when such things as driving and flipping light switches are forbidden). Similarly, he doesn't campaign on Jewish holy days (he missed 17 of the last 65 campaign days in his nip-and-tuck race against three-term incumbent Sen. Lowell Weicker in 1988). He calls his mother regularly. He won't ever be fished out of Washington's Reflecting Pool four sheets to the wind. He's on good terms with virtually everyone, even those he's bested in hand-to-hand political combat. He was voted one of the most romantic members of the Congress last Valentine's Day by Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill (sources report that the senator gives his wife a bouquet of flowers every Friday).

Say it ain't so, Joe. Nobody's that good. People that nice don't wind up in high places, in Washington or anywhere else. In the American gospel according to Leo Durocher, nice guys finish last. Give us a speck of dirt, won't you, Senator Lieberman? Hardly anyone can think of a bad thing to say about you, except maybe that you're opportunistic, which is less a criticism than part of you job description. So now it's time for the hard questions:

"Senator, have you ever been blind stinking drunk?"

Lieberman laughs and good-naturedly insists on seeing the list of questions to make sure it's actually written down. To find an answer he has to go back a piece, 31 years back. He is a senior at Stamford High School, returning from a party to his home on Strawberry Hill Court, where his mother Marcia still lives. "I was really sick, and my mother heard me and she came downstairs, and she started yelling at me. My two sisters tell the story: They were at the top of the stairs looking down as my mother was leading me up. She was saying something like I had ruined my life. And when I got up stairs, my sisters asked me if I had killed somebody. I remember my father came in — stern, angry — he was very ethical, and he had standards of excellence. When I screwed up it made him unhappy. And while he wasn't a screamer, if I can put it that way, he had a look that could really ice you."

But young Joe Lieberman hardly ever screwed up, and Marcia and Henry Lieberman, who died in 1986, were usually well pleased with their firstborn, the first male on either side of the family in many years. There's a standing family joke that when young Joseph came down for breakfast, his parents would spontaneously burst into applause. If they actually did, they could hardly have been faulted. The 1960 Stamford High School yearbook reads like the Joe Lieberman Story: class president, did most for the school, most likely to succeed, king of the prom, school spirit committee, community service committee, cheer committee (it spread cheer throughout the school), math club, co-founder of the jazz club, school newspaper, school plays, choir, synagogue youth group, honor roll etc. Space does not permit inclusion of the entire Goody Two Shoes rap sheet. It also would seem that time would not permit a body to do all those things, but there it is in black and white.

"It prepared me for these days," is how the senator explains his hectic high school years. It seems like a throwaway line but it isn't. "Joe knew in high school what he wanted to do," insists Bobby Callahan, his classmate and friend. Abe Ribicoff [who was Jewish] was governor of Connecticut back then, Jack Kennedy was running for president — ethnicity in high places was in the air," says Callahan, who is an author living in California. At the risk of jinxing his old buddy, he adds, "I think Joe would love to be the first Jewish president ... He probably will be president someday if he still wants to be."

Callahan is not just telling stories out of school. John Droney Jr., outgoing chairman of the Connecticut Democratic Party, believes Lieberman has the right stuff. Droney"s scenario goes something like this: King-maker Droney imitates John Bailey, the Connecticut party chairman who was credited with helping Kennedy win in 1960; Lieberman imitates Kennedy, jumping from the Senate to the White House. Actually, Droney thinks Lieberman would have to serve as vice president first to get Americans use to the possibility of a Jew in the White House. Kennedy, a Catholic, had a similar scenario in mind in 1956 when he ran for the Democratic vice presidential nomination, but he lost.

It all sounds farfetched, and Lieberman, among others, laughs it off. But why not? As usual, Connecticut's junior senator is at the head of his class. He is widely considered the most prominent and impressive member of the 1988 congressional crop. He works hard and has written a substantial amount of legislation for a freshman, particularly environmental laws, including the creation of Connecticut's first national park, Ridgefield's Weir Farm. Because he is easy to get along with and is more workhorse than show horse, he is well liked and respected by his peers, even by second-term Sen. Christopher Dodd, who regularly has been outpolled and outshone by his fast-starting colleague.

Norman Ornstein, a congressional specialist with the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington research organization, can easily envision Lieberman in higher office: "I wouldn't be at all surprised if I'm looking for real talent in the Democratic Party — people who are going to be national leaders one way or another — Joe Lieberman is going to be on that list. He's an engaging personality. He's clearly got the intellect for it. He clearly has some political sense. That's a heck of a combination."

On a day in late September, the senator and four staffers are deciding how and when they will announce his decision to back controversial Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. As usual, the senator has done his homework, reading every court decision and article that the black conservative has written. Although he stated early on that Thomas would not have been his choice, he has concluded, at least for the time being, that the nominee is legally competent and takes him at his word that his mind is not made up on the abortion issue. The senator also decides to stress two other points in declaring for Thomas: that the process has been unduly politicized and that Thomas said too much, not too little about his views. Lieberman points out that Robert Bork, a professor of his at the Yale Law School, recently reminded him that in 1939 Felix Frankfurter was the first Supreme Court nominee to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee at all.

In the course of the discussion, Lieberman traces the politicization of the nominee process to the Warren Court, which he feels made decisions at odds with the popular will and addressed issues that ranged too far afield. While not exactly in the "Impeach Earl Warren" category, the senator's remarks would likely surprise many of his liberal constituents: Announcing for Thomas would be bad enough, but taking advice from Robert Bork and running down the Warren Court would be viewed as simply too much by lots of let-of-center Democrats. After all, they might argue that the Rehnquist Court, with Thomas on boards, is likely to make abortion rulings that are at odds with the views of the American people (polls show that most support legalized abortion). That majority, not incidentally, includes Lieberman, who favors a woman's right to choose even though he is personally opposed to abortion.

The senator's pro-Thomas announcement was barely a day old when allegations of sexual harassment surfaced in the press. Lieberman quickly became one of a handful of key "swing" Democrats who insisted on a delay in the vote on Thomas so that the charges could be fully examined. If the Republicans pushed for a quick vote, these Democrats warned that their support, and hence confirmation, could not be counted on. The rest is soft-core, prime time Senate history.

The junior senator's handling of the controversial episode was classic Joe Lieberman. He pleased almost everyone at one point or another. First, he backed Thomas, furthering his maverick image and winning points with the White House. Then he fought for delaying the vote, a move approved by liberals and many women. Being the man in the middle (holding the center is the first commandment of politics), Lieberman actually was showered with praise for his conscientiousness by Republican pitbull and Judiciary Committeeman Sen. Orin Hatch. Hatch approved of Lieberman's initiative and thoroughness in calling staffers who had worked with both Thomas and his accuser, Anita Hill, particularly since this mini-investigation turned out favorably for the nominee.

In the end, truly the very end, the senator went against Thomas, having made up his mind minutes before voting. There were just too many doubts in his mind, he said. Lieberman missed the first roll call because, he said, he wasn't aware the vote was a formal, sit-down affair. By the time his name was called a second time, it was clear Thomas' confirmation was assured. A cynic might argue that Lieberman got the benefit of his "no" vote without incurring any damage by not supporting the White House nominee. In the end, his vote was not necessary. It could be termed the ultimate political ploy: a yes and no vote.

The senator's initial pro-Thomas stance was far from the first instance that left many liberals wondering exactly when Joe Lieberman left the reservation. In January, he worked closely with President Bush to get the force-authorization resolution against Iraq passed in the Senate 52-47. Lieberman was one of only 10 Democrats to vote for it. During his 1988 campaign, he said he approved of the bombing of Libya and the invasion of Grenada, and once elected, he supported Bush's military moves in Panama. In 1989, he also backed the administration's unsuccessful capital gains tax cut proposal even though he had promised a year earlier that he would do so only in the context of a balanced budget. He was one of only six Democrats to vote for what his party's leadership called an unjustified tax break for the rich.

Many liberals insist that this new, hawkish, tough-on-crime, moment-of-silence-in-public-schools, pro-business Joe Lieberman isn't the person they thought they knew. Old Joe was a leftist insurgent against the Vietnam War, pro state income tax (in 1971, for heaven's sake), anti-death penalty, big business-bashing Democrat they could count on not to cozy up to blue bloods like George Herbert Walker Bush. They accuse him of migrating to the right to beat Weicker, because he couldn't outflank Big Lowell from the left. And they say that it worked so well he's stuck with it, even referring to himself as a "populist conservative."

"A lot of people saw Joe's turnaround as opportunistic," says one Democratic state legislator. "That to modify one's position in the course of a campaign is commonplace , but to leap from one side of the fence to the other was relatively rare, and they were surprised Joe Lieberman would take that path."

Bice Clemow, a longtime political observer, views the 1988 Senate race as a crossroads in Lieberman's public career. "I guess if you get ambitious in politics, you jettison some of your baggage as you go across Siberia, and I don't know whether he's doing that or not, but certainly his Senate campaign was a low point in his experience, I would think. It must have been to him, to run that kind of campaign that was really tangential to the issues."

Even Bobby Callahan got a little worried when he turned the TV dial to C-SPAN one night in 1988. There was his old high school buddy and political sidekick — the two had co-chaired Robert Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign in Connecticut — debating Lowell Weicker on what to do about Cuba. Weicker favored reaching out to Havana, while Lieberman urged a continuation of the Cold War with Castro. "The Joe I knew was hardly a raving anti-Communist," says Callahan. "I'd had a couple of beers and was yelling, 'Come on, Joe, never mind this Castro stuff, stop red-baiting the guy.'" Still he retains his faith in Lieberman: "I talked to a couple of old friends about this, and we just trust Joe. His heart has always been true."

There are few professions where one's heart and one's ambition clash as frequently as they do in politics. To do good one had to win. To win one has to convince 50 percent of the people that one is on their side. To accomplish this it is not always wise to lead with one's heart. John Bailey, one of the last great political bosses, knew this, and Joe Lieberman knew John Bailey. In fact, he wrote a book about him, an admiring biography titled "The Power Broker" (Houghton Mifflin, 1966). Lieberman spent the summer of 1964, after graduating from Yale College and before entering Yale Law School, working in Washington for Bailey, who was then Chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

Boss Bailey was not exactly the quintessential liberal. He was to politics what Vince Lombardi was to football: the point of the game was to win. "Bailey's candidates were always cautious in their handling of issues, reaching only so far as seemed necessary to achieve a majority without risking more than could be gained," Lieberman wrote in his book.

In 1970, having graduated from Yale Law, Lieberman began putting Bailey's lessons to good use. Just ask Edward Marcus, who was Lieberman's first political victim. Marcus was the incumbent state senator from New Haven, a Democrat, and the majority leader of the Connecticut Senate in 1970. The 28-year-old upstate unseated the veteran by running a very tough and aggressive campaign (He also benefitted from the fact that it was the first year Yale students were allowed to vote in local primaries). The challenger won by 242 votes.

And what were the transcendent issues of this epic internecine confrontation? "I don't think there were any real issues," recalls Marcus, who supported Lieberman in 1988. "I think the issue was Joe wanted to be a state senator and I wanted to keep my seat."

In a quarter century in politics, Joe Lieberman has won three primaries and eight elections. Of the latter, there were five in a row to the state senate starting in 1970, two for state attorney general in 1982 and 1986, and finally the big one to the U.S. Senate in 1988. He has lost but once, a 1980 contest for the 3rd District congressional seat. And he was ahead until Ronald Reagan's late-emerging coattails swept Lieberman's opponent, Lawrence DeNardis, to victory. Lieberman learned a lot from that defeat, including never to tie himself too closely to the party establishment, at least in the perception of the voters. He had run a safe "we're way ahead in the polls" campaign, but when President Carter took a tumble he took Lieberman with him.

It was then that Lieberman, who has succeeded at virtually everything he had ever attempted, learned the value of failure. "It was very painful," he recalls. "Honestly, it was gut-wrenching. If you want me to be psychoanalytical — I should save this for years later — I remember the night of the election coming back to my parents' house and I remember being surprised that they seemed okay. I knew they really wanted me to win but at some level I felt — it's a very powerful memory for me — that they would be decimated, very deeply upset. Clearly they were hurt, too, but they were all right. They were still my parents. It was okay. It was a very important experience for me and it liberated me. It enabled me to take the risks I took in running for attorney general and against Weicker."

The year after the 1980 defeat, Lieberman's marriage of 16 years ended in divorce. He shared custody of his two children, Matthew and Rebecca, who are now, respectively, at Yale Law School and working for a nonprofit in New York. In 1983, he married Hadassah Freilich of Riverdale, N.Y., whom he had met through a mutual friend. They shuttle between Washington and New Haven and have a three-year-old daughter, Hana, whose impressionistic paintings grace a corner of the senator's office. Hadassah works as a consultant for the National Research Council in Washington.

The period after his defeat was clearly an unsettled time for Lieberman. He did some commentating for Connecticut Public Television, updated his biography of John Bailey, and was a lobbyist at the state capitol for the beer industry. "People kept talking to me as if I had just died — there was such sadness and condolences," he recalls. The golden boy of Connecticut politics was no longer inexorably bound for glory. His next defeat might well be his last. But by July 1981, he had decided to get right back up on the political horse, making the curious announcement that he would be running but hadn't decided which one it would be. He didn't rule out the governorship. Four months later, he announced for attorney general. He would be the top vote getter in Connecticut in his two campaigns for that post, winning with a whopping 65 percent in 1986.

True confessions continue. "Senator, did you ever go through a period of rebellion?"

"At college — and this was probably a form of rebellion — I stopped observing some of the religious laws. I didn't observe the Sabbath for a period of years. Then, when I got married and had children, I came back to it." This is not exactly your basic 1960s "off the pigs" behavior. If Lieberman was an activist of sorts early on, he also was a very traditional person who respected authority, order and family values. For example, his sister Ellen Lieberman insists that she, Joe and their sister Rietta never fought. Never.

And if Jow Lieberman was widely thought of as a liberal in the 1970s, it is not clear that he was uniformly so or that he was comfortable with the label. As early as 1974, he was pointing out that his voting record in Hartford wasn't that much different from that of conservative Democrats. Sure, he voted for the state income tax in 1971, but like most of his peers at the Capitol he pulled a quick 180-degree turn and never pushed for it again, even after he became Senate majority leader in 1975. Indeed, 20 years later he would jump loudly onto the "ax the tax" bandwagon against Gov. Weicker's income levy. A last-minute statement from the senator declaring protesters "right" was read at the huge rally in Harford, earning him the title "the seesaw senator" from The Hartford Courant, but cheers from the crowd.

Perhaps the most dramatic change in Joe Lieberman's political beliefs has been over the death penalty. He was once a passionate opponent, voting against it in Hartford in 1973 and 1980. In 1973, six years out of law school, he uttered these unequivocal words to his Senate colleagues in Hartford:

"Why, in a country which holds human rights to be sacred and believes that every human being possesses dignity and worth, is there such haste to pass laws which license the state deliberately to put some of its members to death? The answer I suspect is that we are afraid. Street crime is part of our daily lives. Revolting crimes such as mass murder and hijackings occur with frightening regularity. People have the feeling that they are not safe anywhere anymore. It goes without saying that we are anxious to fine some deterrent to these crimes, but I suggest that we should be just as anxious that in our fear and frustration we do not respond with more emotion than logic, we do not give a breast-beating legislative response to public emotion by passing a law which is unconstitutional, which multiplies the defects of our previous statute, and which will not help in deterring the crimes which our constituents — which the public — are really concerned about."

Today he is for the death penalty and traces his change of heart to sometime in the 1970s: "To state it simplistically, I went from being a law school student who had been studied the decisions of the Warren Court about criminal rights to being a person living in a society in which there was a lot of crime ... In a sense, almost as a moral statement about the values of society, you have to say that certain criminal acts are so outrageous, so unacceptable that those who commit them are put to death."

So a few old-line liberals grouse and Joe Lieberman keeps getting elected. Yet the irony of the "Where have you gone, Joe Lieberman?" debate is that the senator — this "populist conservative" — still votes overwhelmingly for the liberal agenda. Americans for Democratic Action, the leftist watchdog group, gave his voting record a 75 our of 100 in 1989 and 83 in 1990. Sen. Christopher Dodd, whom no one is accusing of waxing conservative, could only muster a 61 from the ADA last year. The wonder is not that Lieberman has changes some views over his career — who hasn't after all — but that he can get away with sounding in tune with these conservative times while voting like a good Northeastern liberal.

The answer lies in Lieberman's extraordinary ability to get a "message" across, to zero in on a few key concerns of the electorate and address them in a way that satisfies the vast majority. This is no small accomplishment in an age in which most leading Democrats are stumbling about in the darkness. "There's a lot of jockeying going on within the Democratic Party, a lot of talk about message," says Bill Curry, Connecticut's comptroller and Lieberman's friend from their days together in the state Senate. "Message connotes how we say what we think rather than what we think. I think there is more division within the party on what the message should be than on policy itself."

Here's how Lieberman explains it: "We've got to be able to convince people — and it's not going to be easy against George Bush — that we care as a party as much as he does about protecting Americans from threats from abroad, and also protecting Americans from threats of criminals at home. To me, those are not the most important issues ... but they are the threshold issues that we've got to gain some minimal level of public confidence on to get to the important issues — which are the domestic issues, where we have always been strong."

Just as there is some confusion over who Joe Lieberman the politician is, there is a certain mystery about the man himself. He is an easy person to like. He treats people well, and his staff, which has changed little in three years, seems genuinely fond of, and devoted to him. Take Jimmy O'Connell, a New Haven policeman who for 18 years scheduled his days off and vacations so he could drive Lieberman around during his various election campaigns — free of charge except for the past three years when he has received a salary. The senator whom O'Connell and other supporters describe is a thoughtful, conscientious man virtually above politics, a la the celluloid Mr. Smith going to Washington.

He has seemed so for a long time now. In high school, Joe Lieberman was "Mr. Personality," who always had a kind word for everyone and who tirelessly strove for the commonweal. Everyone remembers someone like that, a classmate who never seemed quite real — not phony necessarily, but a person who by week's end would have accomplished, with apparent ease, twice as much as anyone else. And no one knew exactly how he did it, much less why.

One has to ask Joe Lieberman several times to get closer to the reason. He talks of John F, Kennedy, of the Jewish ethic of bettering the world, of his parents' example of involvement in community affairs. All good stock answers. Then he speaks of his father, a second-generation American who had to go to work instead of college; who graduated from New Haven's Hillhouse High School straight into the teeth of the Great Depression, who would read and listen to classic music on WQXR at his Hamilton Avenue liquor store in Stamford; who would discuss the world's problems with the family at dinner; and who expected the world of his son. "Part of what I felt from my father was that he was giving me all of the opportunities, working hard for me at the liquor store, so that in some sense I could accomplish things he wasn't given a chance to accomplish," he says.

Joe was definitely the prince," says Bobby Callahan. "Not that he didn't earn it, but there's no question that he was the special one. They cherished the daughters, too, but Joe was definitely something special. He always had the inclination to leadership, this discipline, this drive." Callahan insists that the household in which the three Lieberman children never fought was not a grim, oppressive place, anything but. "They had a great sense of humor, they were just a wonderful, warm family ... a lot of love, a lot of support, a lot of cousins. It was always a happy house, just a terrific place to grow up in. They could be serious and disciplined without making anyone around them feel uncomfortable."

If Joe Lieberman was showered with love, it was also clear that a great deal was expected of him. He was expected not to fight with his younger sisters and he didn't. In fourth grade, he was the one to whom the teacher looked to come to the aid of the little girl in class who had epileptic seizures. Joe would put a large rubber eraser between her teeth so she couldn't hurt herself. A whole class and a teacher to boot, and Joe was the one.

Almost all the members of the Stamford High School Class of 1960 had a likely career path bestowed upon them in the yearbook — except Joe Lieberman. The blurb for the girl pictured next to him reads: "Future plans see her as a bookkeeper or payroll clerk." The student who was so clearly the most goal-oriented in the entire school could inspire only this stock prediction: "A successful future assured." It's not that Joe didn't know what he wanted to be; it's more likely that his goal was so extravagant that he couldn't say it out loud.

There is no question that Joe Lieberman is sort of an adult Boy Scout: thoughtful, affable, intelligent, effective and kind, perhaps to a fault. And that fault would lie would lie underneath all those admittedly admirable qualities. He dutifully, methodically does his service to his state and nation — garnering, to be sure, considerable recognition, prestige and power in the process — much the same way he did for his old school. But where, some wonder, is the passion? Where does the heart truly lie nowadays? And how true is the heart, after a quarter of a century in politics?

Says a man who served with him in the state Senate: "He's always considerate, he's very decent in his personal relations with people, almost gentle, and that's quite winning in a hardball game. People often don't give a shit about each other in this business ... but it's as if it's too polished an exterior — no rough edges. I want to see the real human being."

Joe Lieberman and Bobby Callahan were an odd couple. When Bobby wasn't eating over at the Liebermans' house on Friday night (being the official Sabbath TV-turner-oner, he was a handy guy to have around), he was often heading for Port Chester, just over the New York border, where the drinking age was 18. He says he barely made it out of Stamford High School with his diploma before he did a hitch in the Army. Joe rarely if ever headed for the border with Bobby, and he liked to have a good time in his own way and he took Bobby just as he was. "I was halfway out the door and Joe was halfway to heaven," he recalls. "He saw things in me that my other friends didn't."

And Bobby saw things in Joe that no one else did either: "I once saw him with his guard down, some insecurities showing — maybe he was 17. I know he needed good friends and a roustabout Irish guy like myself when he got a little bit nervous and scared about his image, to slap him around and say, 'Come on, babe, you're terrific.' I think there were two Joes: this guy who had learned to make everybody else happy around him, who at times didn't know how to make himself happy. And questioned his own continuing ability to make everyone happy. And wondered if he wasn't going to fail everybody, because he had set expectations about himself in the eyes of his family and friends and peers he couldn't fulfill."

After he won his Senate seat in 1988, Lieberman toured Connecticut to thank the voters. In his hometown, outside his old high school, he was met with full favorite-son honors, including cheerleaders and the marching band. "I got to tell you I just welled up and cried. I don't know what all that means. I loved Stamford High School," he recalls. He punctuates these comments with "This sounds so soupy" and "This sounds so hokey."

Maybe so, but Stamford and the rest of the country in 1960 had a hokey quality as well. In 1960, Joe Lieberman and half of America could fall head over heels for a certain rich politician from Massachusetts. It was a time when the words "failure" and "America" didn't coexist. The Russians may have been ahead of us in space and there may have been a "missile gap" that helped Kennedy get elected, but the nation was determined to show the Reds a thing or two. It was a time when no one could imagine what the cost of victory might be, or how different America might be three decades later.

A classmate of Lieberman's could state in the yearbook that Joe's best friend was "the senior class." In so many ways, that America was so hokey and so appealing. Who wouldn't cry?