Slick with sincerity

On the stump, Joe Lieberman is proving to be good for the Jews and great for Al Gore, even as his critics get louder.

Topics: Religion, George W. Bush, Democratic Party, Dick Cheney, Joe Lieberman, Al Gore,

Slick with sincerity

Sen. Joe Lieberman’s staff was doing everything it could to keep him off the Harley-Davidson. He’s a little guy, Lieberman — 5-foot-9, 170 pounds soaking wet — and his staff feared a photo-op on the order of Michael Dukakis in the tank, and told him so.

Lieberman thought their concerns were silly. It was only a few weeks into Vice President Al Gore’s gutsy selection of Lieberman, an observant Jew, as his running mate, and he was visiting the Harley-Davidson factory in Kansas City, Mo. The campaign advance staff had rolled a Harley into the room so that photos and videos of any interviews would be prettier, the bike a shiny industrial backdrop.

But Lieberman walked into the room and, seeing the bike — and knowing how much it would annoy his staff — asked a Kansas City Star photographer whether he’d like Lieberman to get on the cycle for a photo.

The photographer naturally said yes. Lieberman obliged. His staff winced. Later, he offered to perch himself on the bike for even more shots. (The photographer again accepted.) Then, a Harley employee asked the two-term Connecticut senator if he wanted to get on his hog, grab onto his waist and take a spin around the block. Once again, to his staff’s chagrin, Lieberman said yes, and went out for a spin.

“At this point,” one staffer says, “it was clear to us that he was doing this for our benefit. He was teasing us.” But they didn’t say anything. Finally, hours later, Lieberman couldn’t resist. “So?” he asked. “You haven’t said anything about the motorcycle thing.”

He is what he is: little Joey Lieberman from Stamford, Conn., the first Jew on a major party presidential ticket, a man seemingly at ease with himself, and a political candidate with infectious glee, having the time of his life on the campaign trail.

In an interview with Salon last week, Lieberman seemed to be relishing his new role even as he answered tough questions from his critics: Questions are coming in droves, because for every anecdote of a freewheeling Lieberman hopping on a motorcycle, there is a Republican countercharge that Lieberman, the independent Democratic senator, has sold himself out.

And the attacks have become much more personal. William Bennett, a former Bush secretary of Education, who used to join with Lieberman to bash Hollywood, giving out the “Silver Sewer” award to Tinseltown’s worst, slamming gangsta-rappers and others on the “wrong” side of the cultural crusade, went on the attack last week.

Bennett had been heralding Lieberman’s nomination until he read reports that Lieberman attended a $4.2 million Beverly Hills fundraiser with entertainment moguls. It was there that Lieberman seemed to extend an olive branch to the industry, saying, “It’s true, from time to time we will have been — and will be — critics or noodges. But I promise you this, that we will never, never put the government in the position of telling you by law, through law, what to make. We will nudge you, but we will never become censors.”

Bennett expressed his “disappointment” on the pages of the Wall Street Journal Friday, writing, “I had hoped that Al Gore would become more like my friend Joe Lieberman. Instead, it appears Joe Lieberman has become more, much more, like Al Gore. And for those of us who know and have admired Joe Lieberman, that is a sad thing to behold.”

In an interview with Salon, Bennett’s criticism of Lieberman escalated. Bennett was particularly offended by the jokes of “Seinfeld” co-creator Larry David, who attended the fundraiser. During a monologue, David compared himself favorably to Gov. George W. Bush, saying that, “Like Bush, I, too, found Christ in my 40s. He came into my room one night, and I said: ‘What? No call? You just pop in?’”

Bennett — a thoroughly partisan Republican  says it was as though he’d never known his former cultural crusader.

“There were times when he was standing next to me that I thought he was Amos or Jeremiah,” Bennett says. “Instead, we have ‘Seinfeld.’ — you know, this modern, ironic, ‘noodgy,’ shrugging your shoulders, ‘ha, ha,’ ‘whatever,’ sophisticate approach.”

Bennett says he’s no longer sure Lieberman has the “deep commitment” to the moral cause that he once thought he did. It doesn’t matter that Lieberman spoke at the Senate Commerce Committee a couple of weeks ago, slamming the entertainment industry after a Federal Trade Commission report claimed the industry markets inappropriate content to children. Lieberman, Bennett said, should have “walked out” after David’s joke since it was “tawdry, cheap and ugly,” making light of Bush’s “personal relationship” with Jesus.

Bennett says he’s been at “those same parties in Beverly Hills mansions with those rich sophisticates; they think they’re superior because they have wealth and they’re successful.” Seeing Lieberman buddy up to these people was just too much, he says. “When we were working together, we were trying to shame the industry. Noodging and shaming are not the same thing.”

When I ask if he’s not afraid that his comments might hurt his friendship with Lieberman, he says, “Sure. To the degree that that friendship was based on shared values. But what the hell were we doing the last seven years? ‘Noodging?’ Jesus.”

Standing in a packed union hall — Plumbers Steamfitters Air-conditioning Pipefitters and Refrigeration Union local 719 here — the air and the crowd are thick as various beer-bellied laborers compete for oxygen. But the humidity doesn’t affect Lieberman’s glee, his borscht-belt timing or his sense of competition.

“There’s a man up here who’s holding up one of the most inspired bumper stickers, but since we’re on TV I don’t think I can repeat it,” Lieberman says, laughing about a “No More Bushit” sticker. He leads a round of “Happy Birthday” for 10-year-old Jonathan Deutsch, the son of Rep. Peter Deutsch, D-Fla.

The heat causes Lieberman to sweat profusely, and turns his shirt from powder blue to navy.

It’s a rare moment. Because even as Lieberman’s life, public record and religion are being picked apart by the media, his opponents and even some friends, he doesn’t often sweat. Even during an interview, when Bennett’s harsh charges are brought up.

“I think Bennett was wrong,” he says. “I don’t think I changed the position at all. Maybe in the context of a social evening in somebody’s house I used language that was slightly different … You might say I was polite. But I didn’t change a thing. And the important thing to say to you today is that Al Gore and I are exactly where we were on the Monday that the FTC report came out, the Wednesday of the hearing, and we’re going to be there until they stop marketing to kids.”

Lieberman takes a moment to think about that evening, which has caused this major rift with a man he once called a “very dear friend” — and seems genuinely pleased, even moved, by his time in Los Angeles.

“It was a very interesting night for me, because while I’ve had some contact with folks in the entertainment industry, never as much as on that occasion,” he says. “First off, I was surprised and pleased by the number of folks who came up to me and said, ‘You know, you’re right about this. And keep doing it.’” Maybe eight people did that, he says.

“A number of other people — probably the same number, maybe a few less, because everybody was being polite — came up to me and said, ‘You know, I don’t agree with you, and I’d like to talk to you more about it. Because I think this is really censorship, even though you say it’s not censorship, when you say you’re going to control where we market,’” he says. But then, he says, they would voice support for other issues — “education, healthcare, the environment, choice” — and say they were supporting the ticket.

Lieberman smiles. “So the main point that I’d like to make to my buddy, Bill Bennett, is — first off, in response to the FTC report, Al Gore and I had the strongest response. We said ‘Stop it’ to the entertainment industry, ‘and if you don’t we’re going to ask the FTC to take action and give them legal authority if they think they don’t have it.’”

“I said to them, ‘We’re going to nudge, noodge you — we’re not going to censor you’ – which is what I said at the hearing.”

But Bennett isn’t the first to wonder just how holy Lieberman truly is. Lieberman has long had vocal critics in his home state, where the Connecticut media sees a man who seems to want everything both ways. He gets credit for being the first major Democrat to condemn Clinton’s cigar-spelunking with a vulnerable, 21-year-old White House intern, but then he votes against convicting him for impeachment. He picks a few high-profile issues where he votes against his party so he can profile as a moderate, but essentially has the same voting record as the average Senate Democrat. He condemns the Democratic National Committee for its 1996 fundraising excesses, but then he issues his own report where he is careful to exonerate Gore of wrongdoing.

Some of this can be attributed to the fact that Lieberman has staked out a world that is one of Talmudic debate and high-minded analysis, and not black-and-white, Democrat-or-Republican, with-us-or-against-us consistency. He’s been like this as far back as his days as chairman of the Yale Daily News, volunteering to help register black voters in Mississippi while slamming Yale for not allowing segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace on campus to speak.

It makes it easy to pick apart his record, especially during a national election. And especially when he’s had conflicting experiences with some of the most controversial special interest groups. Many of the groups Gore rails against on the stump — insurance companies, the pharmaceutical industry, gun manufacturers — are among those that Lieberman has, at one point, worked with.

It’s Friday, and the press corps is buzzing about a report in the Washington Post suggesting that, despite his advocacy for gun control, Lieberman has worked to help his home state gun manufacturers.

Did Lieberman oppose legislation that would deny gun manufacturers facing litigation the right to claim bankruptcy out of expedience or principle? How could he possibly justify working behind the scenes to keep a Connecticut gun company’s firearms — Colt’s Sporter semiautomatic rifle — off the list of assault weapons Congress was about to ban?

Lieberman and his staffers have thoughtful justifications and explanations, of course. Working with liberal Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., he “wasn’t trying to keep it [Colt's rifle] off the list, he was trying to make sure they got a fair evaluation,” says Dan Gerstein, Lieberman’s Senate press secretary, now full time on the campaign in Nashville, Tenn. Gerstein says that Lieberman didn’t push Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the author of the assault weapons ban, “to take it off the list, he just wanted to have the ATF make the decision, rather than some Senate staffers. I won’t deny, however, that the senator was going to bat for a company with 1,000 employees that was facing bankruptcy.”

Colt’s made certain modifications to the Sporter so that the hometown gun was not put on the verboten list. “All he and Dodd did was make sure that Colt’s got a fair shake,” Gerstein says. “The ATF reviewed it and it didn’t meet the criteria.”

As for the lawsuit bill, “In the cases that were cited, I thought these were really very unfair attempts to deprive manufacturers, in my state and elsewhere, of due process in the courts,” Lieberman told ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Friday. “These lawsuits are going forward. Let the courts decide them, but let’s not sort of step in and try to deprive the manufacturers of rights that every other manufacturer would have if they were sued in court.”

Other inconsistencies abound.

He stands behind Gore’s opposition to school vouchers, after supporting experimental school voucher programs — some of the same programs Gore slammed primary opponent Bill Bradley for supporting. And, again, he’ll decry Hollywood’s “culture of carnage,” as he did at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing one day, then schmooze with Hollywood producers the next, taking millions of dollars in cash for the Democrats.

His allies counter that in Washington, a handful of incidents of rank politics is hardly damning. That’s not exactly a rousing defense, but in a town ruled by a vacillating moral relativism, it comes off as high praise. Even Bennett, when asked if he’s holding Lieberman to a higher standard than he holds others, says, “Absolutely,” adding that they’re “all the higher standards he set for himself.”

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On the campaign trail, no one seems to care all that much — if at all — about these shades of gray. The public may relate more to Lieberman’s gray areas than the polarized rhetoric of the ticket leaders. His complicated feelings on impeachment — at once condemning, but ultimately forgiving — surely reflect the vast number of Americans better than other politicians.

And unlike Gore, Gov. George W. Bush or Bush’s running mate, former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, Lieberman actually seems like a real person. Also unlike the other three, he seems genuinely adored by his staff and the press corps that follows him.

Gore and Cheney can barely conceal their contempt for reporters. Bush does a decent if somewhat transparent job of pretending to like the media, while referring to them in the crudest terms when he thinks no one else is listening. Conversely, Lieberman not only seems to like reporters, he just seems to like people.

And while Gore can seem artificial and cutthroat, Bush narcissistic and petulant, and Cheney nasty and as empathetic as your average comptroller, Lieberman does come across as a mensch, as it were. Like Sen. John McCain earlier in the year, Lieberman throws out a bit of honesty and it can be disarming to reporters, who are so used to matter-of-fact spin and obfuscation.

I ask Lieberman about a topic that, for instance, both Bush and Cheney have responded to with anger and dismissal: how he avoided military service in Vietnam. Lieberman, a military hawk in the Senate, avoided service by receiving both student deferments and a parental deferment, just like Cheney did. So how can he reconcile being such a hawk, and at the time, an admirer of John F. Kennedy’s “muscular internationalism,” while being so unwilling to put his money where his mouth is?

“I have a certain amount of guilt, looking back to it, about the fact that I didn’t” enlist, he says.

A politician admitting guilt? About not going to Vietnam?

Then the politician in him, the loyal veep nominee, steps up: “I admire Al for enlisting,” he says.

But aside from Lieberman’s seeming honesty or general niceness, there’s another factor he seems to be using to his advantage: his religion.

Voter after voter is reminded — sometimes subtly, sometimes not — of the groundbreaking nature of his nomination. Democrats are doing all they can to sell Lieberman’s Jewishness as a reason to vote for the ticket.

In introducing Lieberman to largely non-Jewish crowds, Democratic officials constantly tell the audience about what a gutsy choice Lieberman was because he’s a Jew. At the union rally, state Attorney General Bob Butterworth asked the crowd, “Wasn’t that amazing when Al Gore selected Joe Lieberman as his running mate? That’s what got the momentum going!”

It’s not ineffective. There is something weird going out there among crowds who turn out for Lieberman. Jews are proud, of course, and are turning out for fundraisers and events in droves. But more that that, Lieberman’s nomination seems to have touched a lot of non-Jews.

As I followed Lieberman throughout Florida’s politically crucial and competitive Interstate 4 corridor — the high-tech suburban wedge between Daytona Beach and Orlando, packed with independent-minded transplants from Midwestern swing states — I was amazed at how many non-Jews seemed mesmerized by him. And it seemed to have little to do with his political views.

They seemed to like the idea of supporting someone who was different from them. Maybe it lets them feel good about themselves. It’s not unlike the public admiration afforded Gen. Colin Powell, despite knowing precious little about him. Americans don’t identify Powell as black, they identify him as a serious general who happens to be black. Likewise, Lieberman is a devout, moral man of faith who happens to be Jewish.

In this, Lieberman tries to make his victory, and Jewish America’s pride, one for every minority group to share. He repeats to audiences a call he received from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who told him that “when a barrier is shattered for one group, a window of opportunity is opened for all.” At the union rally he takes it one step further, suggesting that perhaps he’s paving the way for the female African-American union official, Glenda Linton, who introduced him.

At other times, he mentions his nomination as possibly paving the way for presidencies of Florida Democratic Congress members who are on hand — Deutsch and Bob Wexler, who are Jewish, and Alcee Hastings, an African-American former federal judge who was impeached by the House in 1988.

Those around him revel in his Jewishness, kvelling, if you will. In Nashville, the Gore HQ jokingly refers to Lieberman’s airplane as “El Al Gore,” or “Air Force Jew.” A Christian Secret Service agent expresses a fondness for the Jewish Sabbath, since it’s a guaranteed weekly day off.

“Just 48 more hours ’til Shabbat,” the agent says Wednesday evening.

Here and there, of course, even questions about the consistency of his religious observance are being questioned. Two Fridays ago, Lieberman went on the “Don Imus Show” where he was asked whether, as an observant Jew, he opposes intermarriage. He said that the Torah didn’t oppose intermarriage, that Jews married Jews out of natural desire for continuity more than because of any rule. Several rabbis disagreed, and some commentators condemned him.

“You know, when I thought back to that, I should have said, as someone else said, ‘Don, you know, I’m not running for chief rabbi, I’m running for vice president,’” Lieberman says to me.

And as we were talking last week, as I interviewed him in an office at Cirent Semiconductor in Orlando, Fla., a reporter in the temporary press room was working on a story in which the somewhat, er, less feminist aspects of Orthodox Judaism were to be dissected — that women cannot become rabbis, cannot read from the Torah, must sit separately from the men. In the last few days, he’s been hit with questions about the mehitzah, the partition in Orthodox synagogues separating men from women; Imus asked him about certain anachronistic verses of the Birchot HaShachar, part of the morning prayers, in which the man praying thanks God for not making him a woman.

Lieberman said that “for quite a long time I have skipped that one,” which has been changed in conservative synagogues so that the prayer thanks God “for making me as I am.”

But clearly the analysis of his observance is reaching a critical mass of some sort, though he expresses this without an ounce of irritation. “Some of these questions are very understandable and I think are important for me to answer — that is, ones that relate directly to my job. Like, ‘Will you work on the Sabbath?’ And of course, the answer is yes, I won’t do politics, but matters of community interest, well-being and national security, obviously I will. But some of these other questions, which are also a reflection of curiosity … there’s a certain point at which you have to say it’s not relevant.”

There were the charges from detractors about how Lieberman was, horror or horrors, supposedly seen drinking water on a minor fast day that most Jews have probably never even heard of, Tisha B’Av. But such nit-picking goes both ways: The Chicago Tribune had to print a correction after one of its reporters erroneously wrote that, at a campaign stop, Lieberman ate a cheesesteak — a supremely unkosher treat that Lieberman had actually declined.

It can be argued that Lieberman makes all issues regarding his religion relevant in the way he throws out “God bless you” like he was at a sneeze-a-thon. And he’s been heralded by both Democrats and evangelical Christians precisely because of — not despite of — his Jewishness.

Even the Anti-Defamation League weighed in at the end of August, saying that Lieberman’s frequent invocations of God was suggesting “that one cannot be a moral person without being a religious person, an affront to many highly ethical citizens.”

But none of these questions seem to have Lieberman frazzled.

He seems more comfortable on the stump than Bush, Gore or Cheney. He’s at ease enough that he often breaks into song: Sinatra’s “My Way” on NBC’s “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” for instance. In his first race, for ninth-grade class president, he leaned heavily on pop music, lifting song lyrics from popular tunes of the day.

“I’m not against rock music,” he says. “The stuff I’m focused on today is eons, I mean miles and miles away from Bill Haley and the Comets. And the [Five] Satins” – and then he starts to sing — “In the still … of the night …”

It’s classic Lieberman, the man with the record of legitimate moderation delivered with a schmeer of schtick. There are no rumors of wild or experimental drug use, of a young Joe Lieberman struggling to “find” himself.

But true moderates chafe at either party’s partisan poles. They require a candidate to be totally pro-choice or totally pro-life, totally pro-gun or totally anti-gun — choices that Gore has struggled to navigate as he has moved from congressman to senator to vice president. Lieberman faces that same awkward leap now. The man with the complicated views on school choice and gun control, among others, now heralds his commitment to “choice.” But in 1991, he voted in favor of parental notification and against the use of federal funds for abortion except in cases when the life of the mother was at stake.

In his fifth book, “In Praise of Public Life,” published this year, Lieberman derided the polarized nature of Washington by slamming what a friend of his has termed “the ‘Crossfire-ization’ of our politics, in which confrontation is required, screaming is encouraged and more heat than light is generated. The ‘Crossfire-ization,’ he writes, “undercuts the cooperation among elected officials that is necessary for them to accomplish anything” and “encourages political leaders to behave in ways that are most likely to turn off the public, deepening its disengagement from government.”

But will it work? Bush and Cheney are presently knee-deep in that kind of politics and polarization — Cheney in particular has been slamming Gore for making things up “out of whole cloth.” And their poll numbers are rising. Gore, for his part, seems to be holding back out of necessity; he already has such a reputation for nasty attacks, and he needs to seem nice.

Still, all three of the others embody the politics Lieberman has spoken and written against; Cheney’s wife, former National Endowment for the Humanities director Lynne Cheney, was even a “Crossfire” host.

So much of Lieberman’s appeal is that he seems like a nice guy, one more at ease being himself than Gore, Bush or Cheney. It’s one of the reasons you hear Gore continually refer to the Gore-Lieberman campaign, while Bush mentions Cheney sparingly.

But as he prepares for his debate with Cheney on Oct. 5 at Centre College in Danville, Ky., his aides were still unsure how to best market him to America. Cheney will no doubt go on the attack, picking apart Gore and picking apart the many ways in which Lieberman and Gore have disagreed on various issues. And a debate’s 30-second response times don’t lend themselves well to Talmudic dissertations.

But maybe the anti-pol pol Lieberman, slick in his sincerity, can best make his case. After all, Lieberman on the stump seems eager to bring his menschlkite, his essential goodness, to the fore, repeatedly proclaiming that he and Gore “are not going to launch a negative personal attack against” Bush and Cheney, since “I think the public is sick of that kind of politics.” That line always gets huge applause.

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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