HL 184 – Joe Lieberman: A Classic Liberal and a Real Mensch

April 1, 2024

Home | Blog | HL 184 – Joe Lieberman: A Classic Liberal and a Real Mensch

Regular readers of Hopelessly Liberal know that the enterprise is defining and promoting classic American liberalism, as the best way toward forming that more perfect union.

The reason I occasionally eulogize certain especially great liberals is to show how their lives exemplified those principles.  As with, for example, Sidney Poitier in HL 149 on January 10, 2022.

With Joe Lieberman, I won’t pretend to have had a close friendship nor diminish the friendly relationship we had for 42 years.  Since readers have many good obits to read, including an excellent one in The New York Times, here I will just point to a few events and personal moments that typify Joe’s liberalism and menschlichkeit.

Joe called to introduce himself in 1982 as a candidate to become Connecticut’s AG and asked for help defining his opposition to Cablevision and the Dolan family bullies who in Connecticut, as New York, used their cable monopolies to deprive subscribers of watching big games as leverage in contract disputes with content providers.  That and collaboration later when Joe became AG, on many antitrust cases against predatory airlines, pharmaceutical companies, consumer electronics manufacturers, Visa, Mastercard and insurance companies cemented the work relationship and paved the way for a personal one, that continued until Joe’s death Wednesday.

In the last of those antitrust cases, against major insurers, reinsurers and many lead syndicates at jolly old Lloyd’s of London, Joe, then busy running for the U.S. Senate had failed to join a major multistate effort that garnered front page headlines.  Due to his absence, he had been caricatured in Connecticut’s biggest daily – The Hartford Courant – lying in a bed caressing the Hartford Stag while holding a Travelers Insurance umbrella.  Joe called me and asked to be intervened in a week and I had him in the plaintiffs’ part of the caption less than 24 hours later.

As a liberal and proponent of capitalism Joe believed that protecting constituents from anticompetitive, unfair and deceptive practices was necessary to allow the marketplace to work for people like him, from working and lower middle-class backgrounds.  Doing that really well led to monumental electoral victories in both state and federal elections – including his 67 percent majority in the 1994 senatorial election.

Joe & Hadassah Lieberman

During the AG years I experienced the way Joe and his wonderful wife, Hadassah, took care of friends and colleagues on a very personal level.  They would make sure that Joe’s staff had something fun to do and someone to break bread with after long workdays on the road.  I received and complied with requests in this regard more than once.  One day they gave my young son (but not me) an incredible ride on a seaplane around the San Juans and Bainbridge Island.  And years later Joe called me and received support for his son, in Matt’s quixotic attempt to be elected as North Carolina’s junior U.S. Senator.

After Joe got to the Senate, work collaboration ended, save my occasional Senate testimony on an issue Joe had special expertise in and some SCOTUS nominations.

In 1991 he listened to my protest of his initial support for Clarence Thomas.  I accused Joe of Yale Chauvinism and capitulation to Republican sleight of hand when they were playing the “race card”.  In the end Joe either saw the light or heard the testimony of Anita Hill about just one of the many illiberal tendencies of the nominee and voted against confirmation.

In 1998 I asked Joe to justify his sharp criticism of Bill Clinton on the Senate floor for the Lewinsky “affair” and lying about it, while the President was abroad.  Not the criticism but its timing.  I also privately registered my complaint against his consistent advocacy of special accommodations for religious observance by workers, rather than the strict neutrality and solid wall between church and state that most liberals believe was the wise intent of the First Amendment’s framers.

In each case my complaint got a calm, polite and well-reasoned explanation of Joe’s position.  None convinced me.  But the emphatic verdict of history was that Joe’s Senate floor criticism of Bill Clinton on September 3, 1998, not merely saved Clinton’s presidency but accelerated the administration’s recovery to effectiveness.  Clinton left office wildly popular and his Vice-President, Al Gore, put Joe on the Democratic ticket for the 2000 election.  Not in spite of but largely because of that Senate speech and its tough love effect.

Ned Lamont & Joe Lieberman

But what about those two widely known and criticized events in Joe’s career.  His 2003 support for America’s invasion of Iraq and his 2008 backing for the candidacy of Senator John McCain over his Democratic senatorial colleague Barack Obama.

In 2003 most Democratic members of Congress were still reeling from September 11, 2001, and credulous while accepting the Bush administration’s claims that Saddam Hussein had and was preparing to use weapons of mass destruction.  Those claims were believed even by insiders as well-informed and incredulous as Colin Powell and of course Senator Hillary Clinton.  But Joe’s then typical and consensus support for the invasion of Iraq was the basis for the successful challenge of Joe’s candidacy in the 2006 Democratic senate primary by Ned Lamont.  Who Joe, running as an independent, later defeated in the general election.

It may be enough to point out that Lamont (now Governor of Connecticut) eulogized Joe at the funeral in Stamford, Connecticut, that I attended Friday.  Yeah, well but how could Joe have backed John McCain over the historic candidacy of Barack Obama in 2008.

Joe Lieberman & John McCain

Not the choice this liberal would have made, but no one elected me AG or Senator or put me on the ticket that won a plurality of the votes in the 2000 presidential election.  And, unlike Joe Lieberman, I merely read about but never went down south to help register voters during the most dangerous period of the early 1960s civil rights campaigns.

John McCain was one of Joe’s closest friends.  Their work across the aisle on very important legislation was the reason for that support.  Including the leadership role in establishing the Department of Homeland Security after 9/11 and their work on Obamacare for which Joe provided the 60th and determinative vote.

At McCain’s funeral in 2018, Joe spoke about this patriotic work, giving McCain all of the credit.  Joe also spoke about their friendship and about their shared love of Jerusalem.  Not just the ancient or contemporary physical city but Jerusalem “the visionary symbol of the dreams that all people share and the destiny that we all desire. . . the original shining city on the hill.”  You can watch Joe’s tribute to McCain on September 1, 2018, but, more importantly, you should watch how it was received by the Obamas, the Clintons, the Bush’s and McCain’s family.  Joe wished and prayed McCain a home in that Jerusalem and I wish Joe a room in that home there near his friend.


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