Two years ago, Senator Joe Lieberman and Vice President Al Gore met at a large hall in Stamford, Connecticut, to kick off their national campaign against Bush-Cheney. That bloodletting (“George Bush not only should not become the next president, he should be run out of the State of Texas” — the speaker from the AFL-CIO) was done before one thousand spectators and nine television cameras. The kickoff on Monday for Sen. Lieberman’s presidential campaign was done before 30 cameras at Stamford High School, in a hall so crowded that this reporter was not able even to hold his clipboard perpendicularly.
But then there was not that much to report. The candidate was introduced by the president of the senior class of the high school, an urbane young African-American who advised the assembly that he was greeting Mr. Lieberman as “one president to another president.” The crowd howled, because young Joe Lieberman had been president of his class. Much later in the program, answering a question from a reporter, Sen. Lieberman reminisced that “in my campaign in 1960 — ” he was stopped by laughter-”I mean, in 2000. In 1960 I was campaigning for president of my class.”
Joe Lieberman has been campaigning for many years, for state senator, for state attorney general, for U.S. senator, for vice president, and now for president. His speech at Stamford High School was a stumpish stump speech. He spoke of the meaning for America that he himself should have risen to his high standing from modest auspices as a Jewish schoolboy, headed for Yale, the Yale Law School, and now with visions of the White House in 2005.
He needed, of course, to bite into dissatisfactions with the reigning political administration, and of course did so. America is threatened at this moment in its history, he said, by terrorists, and by a recession. As regards the former, he said he believed in a strong America, capable of meeting threats wherever they were launched, or regestating. He listed American engagements in the postwar period, in Berlin, Korea, Vietnam, and, he added, “Iraq.” For this indirect commitment to President Bush’s announced intentions in Iraq he got slightly less than the applause volume he had been getting after every stanza of his routine obeisance to patriotism, duty, opportunity, and indeed, God. The proposed expedition to Iraq troubles some Democrats. On the matter of the recession, the only thing he did was to recite the routine dissatisfactions with Mr. Bush’s tax program.
A high point in Lieberman’s life is his explicit devotion to his creed. The Stamford Advocate recorded that as a senior at high school he walked to the senior prom rather than drive to it, in violation of Sabbath laws. He said that whatever else changed in America, he would not change, that he would proceed in life as he was, and that his faith was “at the center of who I am.”
When introduced, the high-school principal said of Lieberman that he had been rated as the “greatest personality in Washington.” By that, he explained, he meant to say that Lieberman always had something pleasant to say to everyone, and that no doubt there were persons in the room for whom he had done favors.
There is no question about the animating benevolence of Joe Lieberman. But it is also true that when he signed on with Al Gore, his servility to his patron was judged, by some, to be excessive. He modified his stands in favor of vouchers for private schools, modified his advocacy of privatizing a part of Social Security. He had already temporized on the gravity of Bill Clinton’s misconduct. And his call on Hollywood to mitigate the sex and violence or invoke “legal restrictions” was entirely neutralized. In Hollywood he promised that if elected, his ticket would go no further than to “noodge you” on sex and violence. The Washington Post published an editorial entitled, “Where’s the Old Joe Lieberman?”
Well, the old Joe Lieberman is now the old-new Joe Lieberman, charming his way through another political challenge. He is certainly the outstanding moderate on the Democratic presidential scene, and the difference in partisan tone of his appearance with Mr. Gore in 2000, and alone today, 2003, is worth noting. He will probably have to bite harder in the days ahead as primary contests approach. But it is also possible that he will find moderation itself a better way to have access to the voters.