Pander bear

In his big, warm-and-fuzzy debut to the nation, Joseph Lieberman did a great impression of a Republican impersonating a Democrat.

By Alicia Montgomery
Published August 17, 2000 4:51AM (EDT)

Michael Jordan's theme song, "I Believe I Can Fly," floated through the arena in an empty-podium moment before Joseph Lieberman's acceptance speech, and it proved to be the only clever call in an evening of well-intentioned Democratic bungles.

After all, it would take a political Michael Jordan to pull off what what the Democrats needed to do Wednesday night. Lieberman had to convince the party's left wing that his family-values reputation didn't keep him from being a liberal, without alienating the centrists so crucial to the last two presidential campaigns. He had to emphasize his Jewishness enough to make Al Gore seem brave for choosing him, but not so much to alienate closet anti-Semites. He had to project the folksy warmth that Gore's been trying to fake his entire career.

So, could he do it? Could modest Joe Lieberman come up with the Gore campaign's long-distance, nothing-but-net shot?

No. But he made an honorable attempt. No doubt, Connecticut citizens will look back on his performance with pride when he starts his next term as their senator, a job he wisely decided to keep.

The speech itself was a clumsy hybrid of liberal tenets in conservative clothes. If they listened selectively, conservatives could have found a lot to like in Lieberman's rhetoric: Faith and family were recurring themes, and the Connecticut Democrat at times seemed more in love with the opposition than with his own party members. Lieberman praised Ronald Reagan's commitment to faith, and he twice mentioned reform crusader Sen. John McCain. That was one more mention than President Bill Clinton earned.

Yet behind the conservative window dressing, there was the same old liberal list, with an overwarm embrace of every special interest within earshot. The big wet kiss was reserved for African-Americans, with a Martin Luther King Jr. name drop, a reminder of Lieberman's work in the civil rights movement and an earnest pledge on affirmative action to "mend it, but please don't end it."

After enthusiastically receiving the rah-rahs at the beginning of his speech, Lieberman settled into his sweet and low rhythm, and more than once his quiet voice battled the white noise of the stadium. Though his sincerity shined through, there was little punch to the piety.

At least the crowd did its job. They cheered lustily, interrupted Lieberman more than once with standing ovations, and laughed as long and loud as they could at all his jokes and Bush bashes. Republican viewers should have been pleased as well, as Lieberman helpfully recalled several items in Bush's platform, praising them as well-intentioned but incomplete. Lieberman also assisted the audience by gesturing with his hands and slightly raising his voice toward the end of his remarks so they wouldn't have to guess when to applaud. In a final, cloying touch, "Pride: In the Name of Love," U2's tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., played for the family wave and departure.

At the Clinton conventions, Democrats pretended to be Republicans. At the George W. Bush show in Philadelphia, Republicans pretended to be Democrats. Gore's people went one better: Wednesday night in Los Angeles, Democrats pretended to be Republicans pretending to be Democrats.

If Bush's attack on the Democratic base was a head fake, they bought it hook, line and sinker, answering every GOP pander with a bigger and better one of their own. For the GOP's Condoleezza Rice vouching for Bush's compassion, there was Renee Mullins, daughter of Texas hate-crime victim James Byrd, suggesting no such thing. For lovely Latino Republican George P. Bush, there was actor Jimmy Smits. For the Republicans' meaningless celebrity spotlight for professional wrestler The Rock, there was a surprisingly uncompelling turn by tough-guy actor Tommy Lee Jones. The only memorable part of Jones' ramble was a cringe-worthy reference to the lovey-doveyness of the Gore marriage. "To this day, when they come to our house, they sit in each other's laps, hold hands, and even smooch occasionally -- like the kids they have always been." (Yuck.)

Even the introduction to the introduction was aimed at the heart of the base. Georgia congressman and civil rights pioneer John Lewis went out of his way to mention Lieberman's freedom rides and early support of Martin Luther King Jr., assuring jittery African-Americans that "I know Joe Lieberman. He is my brother."

Lewis was followed on stage by the wannabe-veep's wife. With the audience making a joyful noise, blue Hadassah signs shot up from everywhere in the crowd with choreographed perfection -- just "Hadassah," an imitation of Hillary's single-name campaign. But the rest of her performance was a smiling indictment of Hillary's legacy. As the cheer roared on, Hadassah clutched her hands at her heart, demonstrating lady-like modesty and awe. She looked lovingly into the crowd, so struck was she by the response. What a contrast with the first lady's Evita-like command performance Monday. "Wow!" she exclaimed, just as the previously released transcript promised. To her credit, Hadassah followed up with an ad-libbed trio of "thank yous" and another "wow."

Her speech was appropriately demure. References to her family's Holocaust heritage were left for her husband to make. After all, he wears the pants. Excited by the "overwhelming and gratifying" party support, she told the audience what a decent, faithful and loving partner her "Joey" had been. She made way onstage for "the love of my life ... Joe Lieberman."

Things started off so well, with the theme of the Oscar-winning "Chariots of Fire" playing in the background. The reference to the underdog story of a Jewish track star in caste-conscious England surely made film buffs feel smart for noticing the reference. Lieberman kissed his wife twice, and they traveled the stage embracing and waving to the faithful. The red-and-white Lieberman signs flapped vigorously through the air, and the cheer was sustained and piercing.

Too bad about the speech.

Everything after was just as disappointing. There was the mumbling Tommy Lee Jones, of course. But another closing act came from Gore's daughter, Karenna Gore Shiff. She's been the campaign's token Gen Xer, who has clearly inherited her father's hunger for coolness, but also has the charm to turn the trick. Unfortunately, Karenna overdid it. Pretty in lilac, she moved her hands like a marionette and shook her shiny blond hair for emphasis, assuring everyone how great her dad was.

She even displayed her dad's penchant for exaggeration, explaining how Daddy Gore taught his kids "to do your own physical labor and clean up your own mess." (What, you're left to wonder, constituted "physical labor" in the house of a senator and, later, vice president?) When Gore made a "surprise" appearance at the end, it nearly seemed authentic by comparison.

It wasn't Lieberman's night, though he was the starring act. It was almost -- but not quite -- Bush's night, and his party should get a script writing credit for the evening's progress-and-principle program. Ultimately, it was Gore's night, a bittersweet victory for a guy who could never figure out what he wanted to do until he saw someone else do it first.

Alicia Montgomery

Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

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