On Topic: Joe Lieberman

August 20, 2015
On Topic: Joe Lieberman

Former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman's alarm woke him at 6:55 a.m. on Aug. 7, 2000. He turned on the television to learn--in the same manner as most Americans--that Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore had tapped Lieberman as his running mate.

As the phone at the Liebermans' New Haven, Conn., home rang incessantly, the senior senator from the Constitution State leaned on routine and tradition to pull himself together: he said his morning prayers. Through the chaos of the moment, though, he waited for a call from Gore.

Around 7:30 a.m., a family member answered the phone and informed Lieberman, "It's Al." Lieberman took the call only to find that it was a family friend named Al rather than his soon-to-be running mate.

"Al Gore didn't actually call me himself until 12:30 that day," Lieberman said.

That was one of several whimsical anecdotes Lieberman shared with a capacity crowd at Waco Hall in late April as part of Baylor University President and Chancellor Ken Starr's On Topic series.

This Close

Lieberman, who served four terms in Congress, said his selection as vice presidential candidate came as a bit of a surprise. The night before learning the news, Lieberman’s press secretary informed the senator that--based on information from reliable sources--Gore had selected North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.

"We opened a bottle of wine, and we toasted America," Lieberman said of the scene at the house that night. "Isn't this amazing that we got this close to running for vice president."

"This close" became a reality the next morning. Three months later, "this close" was applied to the presidential election--the closest in U.S. history. When Starr asked Lieberman if he remembered 2000, the senator responded humorously.

"Vaguely," he said to a round of laughter. "No, I remember, and I remember every single hanging ...."

This, of course, brought another round of laughter from the audience.

Lieberman's light-hearted spirit and engaging personality played warmly to the audience, but he and Starr had much heavier topics to discuss: the recent civil unrest in Baltimore, same-sex marriage, President Barack Obama's foreign policy, faith and resting in God.

Current Events

Ten days prior to the On Topic event, protests began in Baltimore over the death of 25-year-old African-American Freddie Gray, who died in police custody after being injured during the arrest. Rioting ensued in Baltimore over the next few weeks. It was one of the most high-profile events in a series of police-related incidents that have incited civil unrest in various American cities.

"There's an inevitable way in which I say to myself, it is 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act," Lieberman said. "It's only six or seven years since an African-American was elected President of the United States. In business and professions, we see the rise of African-American men and women. But these explosions have really been painful to watch. I think it says to us, in one sense, that we’ve come a long way, but we still have a ways to go."

Lieberman said he tries to view such situations by putting himself in the shoes of those involved.

Admittedly, Lieberman said it was difficult to give a clear response to the question of what should be taken from the events in terms of relationships between communities and law enforcement, other than to say there still is work to be done.

Role of Education

Since retiring from Congress in January 2013, Lieberman has been active in higher education while also practicing law in New York City. He serves as The Lieberman Chair of Public Policy and Public Service at Yeshiva University, where he teaches an undergraduate course in political science.

"We set up an education system not to preserve the system, but to educate children," Lieberman said. "I'm a big advocate, therefore, of expanding school choice programs that will give the poorest parents the opportunity to send their kids to the best schools, which any of us would do."

Lieberman was born in Stamford, Conn., in 1942. His father, Henry, was a self-educated Jewish businessman, whose parents emigrated from Poland; his mother's parents also were first-generation Americans from Austria-Hungary.

"I was lucky, blessed from the first second of my life," Lieberman said. "I had two wonderful parents, extremely supportive, motivating."

Lieberman's paternal grandmother died during the flu epidemic of 1918. Henry, therefore, spent seven years in an orphanage before his father (Lieberman's grandfather) remarried and reclaimed Henry. He graduated high school at the beginning of the Great Depression and could not afford college. The hard-working Henry saved fervently to be able to put his children through college.

"It was just a point of pride for him to send us to college and graduate school," Lieberman said. "There was no question that one of the motivating forces in my life was to achieve because of the opportunities that I had, in part, given to me by my father, which he did not have."

Faith, Freedom and Perspective

Lieberman's maternal grandmother lived with the family in Stamford; he referred to her as "a remarkable force" in his life. He recalled a situation as a child when the presence of a nativity scene on city property caused a feud in the community.

"I remember her saying, 'I don't understand this,'" he reminisced. "'America is so good to us. Nobody bothers us when we want to observe our religion. Why should I be upset if Christians want to put their nativity scene on the town green?' She just didn’t get it."

Lieberman said that influenced him. This is reflected in his views about same-sex marriage and the legal ramifications before the U.S. Supreme Court in June. Primarily, the question of whether there will be a religious exemption for rabbis, priests and pastors who refuse to perform same-sex marriages.

“It's an important, and obviously, a sensitive issue, and people are going to disagree and disagree strongly on it," Lieberman said. "I would support anything to protect the religious freedom of people who disagreed. In other words, you shouldn't be able to force a clergyman to perform a same-sex marriage they don’t want to perform."

Witness to Change

Lieberman, who holds Bachelor of Arts degrees in political science and economics and a Juris Doctor degree from Yale University, has witnessed change numerous times in his life. Perhaps never more personally than when he was selected as Gore’s running mate.

San Antonio-native Catherine "Kiki" McLean was assigned by the Gore campaign as Lieberman's press secretary. Shortly after noon the day on which his selection was made public, Lieberman prepared to leave his New Haven house with his wife, Hadassah. McLean presented the public spotlight that was about to be cast on Lieberman.

"She said, 'he reaction to your selection has been extraordinarily positive. As you exit the house, please do not talk to the media,'" Lieberman said, "In other words, 'Don't screw it up.'"

But Lieberman found it difficult to deny his engaging personality, especially with people he knew--even those in the media.

"I come out of the house, and straight ahead, in our azalea bushes, are two guys that I've known from the Connecticut media for only about 30 years," Lieberman said. "They call my name. So what do I do? Of course, I go over and talk to them. What can I do?"

Just as he could not hide his personable charm, Lieberman could not hide his faith. His maternal grandmother, whom he called Baba, Yiddish for grandma, was, in many respects, his strongest link to the Jewish faith. Baba was a Holocaust survivor; her death in 1967 pulled him back into the faith.

"I left some of my religious observances during my college years," Lieberman admitted. "But I came back to it step by step afterward. Baba passed away, and I had this link in the chain of Jewish history that was taken out."

Lieberman said he was faced with the question of whether he was going to "fill in that link" or simply be observant.

"The Saturday after she passed away, for the first time in, oh, three or four years, I went to the synagogue that happened to be right across the street from where I was living," he said. "God made it easy for me in that occasion. I came back, and I've since been religious."

Faith and Politics

Lieberman's faith was a question for Gore's campaign in 2000. According to Lieberman, Gore did some political research on the matter before selecting the Connecticut congressman, asking both Christians and Jews if America was ready for a Jewish person to be vice president. Gore revealed the results of his research in their first meeting after Lieberman's selection.

"He said, 'A lot of the Jews were very anxious, and they worried that there'd be an adverse reaction,'" Liberman said. "'Everyone of the Christians I talked to said there would be absolutely no problem.' And then Gore, with a touch of good humor, which maybe wasn't seen enough in that campaign, said, 'So, since I know that there are so many million more Christians than Jews in America, I was able to choose you.'"

Lieberman said the Jewish reaction comes from Jewish history and the Christian reaction is reflective of the America’s acceptance of Jews and people of other faiths.

"The reality is that the confidence that Gore had that the American people would not vote for or against me based on my religion was justified because of our ticket," Lieberman said.

Lieberman reflected on his vice presidential run in his 2003-published book, An Amazing Adventure. One aspect of his reflection was how some in the Democratic Party were uncomfortable with how he openly talked about his faith.

"I'm afraid, within the Democratic Party, a group of people are aggressively secular," he said. "But I felt that this is, one, who I am, but, two, that there were a lot of people out there who shared that point of view. Gore was a pretty religious person himself, though he didn't talk about it hardly at all. I didn't want to be stifled, but I also thought it was foolish, even politically, to do that."

Such was reflected in a speech he made at an African-American church in Detroit early in the campaign. He spoke about the role of religion in America, pointing back to the founders' religious beliefs represented in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and their views on the basis of human rights.

"That all came from a religious belief, the self-evident truth that these rights are the endowment not of the philosophers of the Enlightenment or even the great Jefferson, but of our creator, of God," Lieberman said.

In the speech, he outlined religion's important role in key points of American history such as the Civil Rights movement. He borrowed from George Washington, who in his farewell address said, "And let us caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion." Lieberman said he addressed how "the Constitution promises freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. I’ve always felt that," he said.

Lieberman said the response within the church was 'very good," but that the campaign manager asked if he had "gone crazy."

Outside the Party Lines

In 2006, Greenwich, Conn., businessman Ned Lamont, an anti-war candidate, edged Lieberman in the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate seat from Connecticut. Lieberman announced a month before the primary that he would file papers to run as an independent should he lose the primary, claiming loyalties to his state and country that ran greater than those to the Democratic Party.

In November, Lieberman won the general election on the "Connecticut for Lieberman" ticket, clearing Lamont by roughly 10 percent and Republican candidate Alan Schlesinger by slightly more than 40 percent. He returned to the Senate for his fourth term.

Part of the reason for Lamont's challenge was Lieberman's unwillingness to toe the party line in regards to views about President George W. Bush’s foreign affairs agenda, particularly the Iraq War.

A strong proponent of Israel, Lieberman has stood by his views on America's policies and practices in the Middle East. Starr asked Lieberman about his views on current issues in the region.

"President Obama didn't create all these problems," Lieberman said immediately. "But in my opinion, the foreign policy he's followed in the Middle East and around the world has gravely exacerbated the problems."

Lieberman said it is not an uncommon trend--a president trying too hard to distinguish himself from his predecessor. He said President Obama's entire focus seemed to be one of disengagement.

"That was a terrible mistake," Lieberman said. "Presidents, by their declaration of policy, cannot stop history, and in fact, sometimes, as in this case, they can make the flow of history worse...

"The Middle East continues to be important to us. In too many places there, the Islamic extremists have taken over. We talk about ethnic cleansing. There is a religious cleansing of Christians in the Middle East that is horrific. It's very hard to find a Christian community in--maybe some still remain in Lebanon, but other than that--the only Christian community in the Middle East is really in Israel."

U.S., Israel and Foreign Policy

Lieberman said the Obama administration has dug America into a deep hole in the region and "unnecessarily compromised the one solid relationship we have, which is Israel." He said Israel depends more on the U.S. than vice versa and that America has other allies in the region, but that there is a broader picture to view.

"Can anyone doubt that the one nation we could always rely on to land our planes, to house our soldiers, to dock our ships, to fight with us, is Israel?" Lieberman asked.

Lieberman called the current situation between America and Israel "an unacceptable and highly personalized battle" between President Obama and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He said he hopes both leaders rebuild the relationship but that the first move must come from President Obama.

Starr asked Lieberman what specifically he would urge President Obama to do. Lieberman suggested a Camp David meeting between the Obamas and Netanyahus.

"Just to try to talk it out, person to person, family to family, because it's in both of their interests to make this relationship better," Lieberman said. "The second is to discuss the way in which Israel can assist us in the rest of the Middle East."

Lieberman admitted there are limitations in that regard because many Arab countries will not tolerate open assistance from Israel.

Advice for Students

Before leaving Waco Hall, Lieberman took a handful of submitted questions from the audience, presented by outgoing Baylor Student Body President Dominic Edwards. The last question asked what advice the former senator has for college students.

"Don't let your college years go by without appreciating that they will be probably four or five of the best years of your life," Lieberman said. "You can miss that while you're at college. Secondly, really be grateful you're at a wonderful university. You really are."

He also encouraged young people to enjoy the world in which they live, despite apparent problems.

"The opportunities your generation will have are phenomenal," he said. "You also happen to be blessed to be living in the greatest country in the world. There's no other country where as few people are trying to get out and as many people are trying to get in as the United States of America."

Lieberman readdressed changes he's seen, calling technological advances in his lifetime mind-boggling. But he said there is more to come.

You're going to see advances through medical progress and the use of the Internet and other IT and communications breakthroughs that we can't even imagine now that will be astounding," he said.

"Get into it. Go out there. Take your faith with you as a guide, and then go out there and throw yourself into this world. Go forward with confidence."