Derry, New Hampshire — Joe Lieberman’s tumultuous eight-year odyssey from Democratic standard-bearer to liberal pariah reached what may well be its apotheosis this week as he glad-handed his way through a 1950s themed diner stumping for John McCain and let slip he’s been reading biographies — plural?! — of Ronald Reagan.
“I always liked Reagan, but something he said is really resonating with me recently: ‘I didn’t leave the Democratic party, the Democratic party left me,’” Lieberman said, pausing to add one of his trademark sighs before continuing. “On foreign policy and defense…I really just don’t feel like I’ve changed.”
Times have changed, however, even if Lieberman hasn’t. In 2000 he was Al Gore’s running mate, The Historic Choice. A mere four years later “Joementum” transmogrified into “Nomentum” with Lieberman reduced to spinning his fifth place finish in the 2004 New Hampshire Democratic primary as part of a “three way tie for third.” By 2006 liberal bloggers, angered by his support for a robust foreign policy, made running Lieberman out of the Senate a national left-wing call-to-arms. Connecticut Democrats answered, handing the primary to Ned Lamont. The netroots’ victory was sweet but short, as their not-pal Joey rose from ruin to win the general as an independent.
Lieberman insists his endorsement of McCain is an “affirmative action” — a Freudian slip, perhaps — and “not at all negative toward anyone.” When pressed, however, Lieberman will admit that being denied re-nomination by Democrats “liberated” him to endorse across party lines.
As he took the Maryann’s Diner booth by booth in New Hampshire-chic tan workbooks, framed portraits of Lucille Ball, Roy Orbison, Buddy Hall, and other legends of the 50s and 60s observed his progress silently from the wall, Lieberman didn’t look the least bit conflicted over his decision to jump the partisan fence.
Whether commiserating with a cast-encased man at one table or pulling up a chair to discuss thorny immigration and health-care issues at another, Lieberman displayed an adept personal political touch without ever failing to use his “in” with people to trumpet McCain’s “clarity of judgment under pressure,” or the Arizona senator’s readiness to be “Commander in Chief on Day One,” or tell a story of McCain inspiring foreign leaders and peoples on one of the many overseas trips the pair have taken together. Later in the day, when McCain answered a reporter’s question too modestly, Lieberman intervened. “Please, allow me to blow your horn a little more than you just did…” he began.
Regulars munching on sandwiches such as the Pink Cadillac (pastrami on rye with sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, and Russian dressing) and Big Bopper (half-a-pound of beef on a bulky roll with sautéed onion, pepper, and mushroom) looked on bemused as McCain diehards buttonholed their favorite Democrat. The enthusiasm for the Connecticut senator certainly outpaced what met him in these same snowy environs four years ago. “You’re the only Democrat I would ever even think of voting for,” a woman festooned with McCain campaign stickers reading Never Surrender gushed.
“You know, in 2004 everywhere I campaigned we got such positive feedback and then I didn’t do so well on primary night,” Lieberman laughed a few minutes later, smiling. “We joke now maybe those people saying all those nice things to us were Republicans.”
That might be one of those funny-because-it’s-true things. On this day, at least, you had a better chance of seeing the Virgin Mary’s likeness in one of Maryann’s omelets than someone in a vintage Sore Loserman t-shirt. “We’re an equal opportunity diner,” Maryann’s owner Bill Andreoli, who hosted Lieberman back in 2000 and 2004 as well, cracked. Bill Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, and Ron Paul had all stopped by in recent weeks, he noted, and Hillary had a visit planned for Saturday. Such is the bipartisan nature of New Hampshire primary business.
The only hiccup in this Lieberman lovefest was a Ron Paul acolyte outside who was optimistic enough to think he could convert fans of the most pro-war Democrat, to the most antiwar Republican, with a large sign and some flyers.
The Connecticut senator was so smooth and on message, in fact, that the question of whether he was angling for the vice-presidential nod on a bipartisan unity ticket arose more than once. “Nah, [McCain’s] got better judgment than that and I got that bug out of my system,” he joked. A bit later Lieberman responded to a similar suggestion in mock, buoyant protest: “I’m just a warm-up act!”
As if to validate this assessment, McCain arrived moments later to a raucous reception. After another stroll around Maryann’s, he and Lieberman retired to a boxed off dining room to eat, chat with locals and sign a few autographs with those meddling reporters held at bay. A school-marmish McCain staffer sternly warned photographers with lenses glued to the window that McCain was not to be photographed while eating under any circumstances. When Lieberman signed a baseball one cynical reporter snorted in a far-fetched conspiratorial tone, “You can pick that up on ebay in an hour.”
On a wall behind the senators hung a faux street sign reading Memory Lane, an address McCain, recalling his late surge 18-point victory in 2000, must dream of returning to nightly. Memory Lane for Lieberman must be a bit more complicated place, but watching him glide around McCain campaign events with such a Zen-like calm you’d never guess all the bridges burned and boundaries crossed en route to this, his 2008 moment.
–Shawn Macomber, a contributing editor at The American Spectator is writing a book on the Global Class War.