Remembering my friend, Joe Lieberman

For most progressives, Joe Lieberman will always be a villain. I don't care — he was a total mensch

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published March 29, 2024 12:01PM (EDT)

Joe Lieberman and Matt Rozsa in New York, July 2017 (Photo by Salon)
Joe Lieberman and Matt Rozsa in New York, July 2017 (Photo by Salon)

I remember exactly when Joe Lieberman became my friend — after he scolded me for not heeding the commands of my Jewish mother.

In 2017, I was working on a series of articles for Salon about "centrism," a once-dominant but rapidly fading force in American political life. That May I had interviewed two of the most most prominent remaining centrists, both of whom had to some degree become outcasts from their own political parties. One was Lieberman, a longtime Democratic senator from Connecticut known for his political independence. The other was his good friend Christine Todd Whitman, the former Republican governor of New Jersey. Whitman asked me to extend her greetings to Lieberman, and of course I did so. But I forgot to mention my own mother, a big fan of Lieberman ever since he became Al Gore's running mate in 2000, who had also told me she was eager to express her admiration. 

I tried to make up for this a couple of months later, as I sat down for another interview with Lieberman. During the customary initial chitchat, I told him that my mother had wanted me to say hello to him, but I'd prioritized Whitman instead.

Lieberman gasped in feigned horror. "Oh no, Matt, you shouldn't have done that," he said. "Your mother must always be your first priority. Always!"

I understand the reasons why many liberals and progressives grew to dislike Joe Lieberman, who died on Wednesday at age 82. He won his final Senate campaign in 2006 as a third-party candidate after losing the Democratic nomination, largely over his support for the Iraq war. He supported John McCain over Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election, and was reportedly McCain's first choice as running mate. During the Obama administration, Lieberman was blamed — unfairly or otherwise — for the failure to include a "public option" in the Affordable Care Act. There are other areas of disagreement, no doubt.

But I'm here to pay tribute to Lieberman not as a controversial political figure or as the first Jewish American to appear on a major-party presidential ticket — although that was surely the accomplishment for which he'll be most remembered — but as a warm, caring, profoundly decent man driven by deep religious conviction and a belief in bipartisanship. More than that, I will remember him as my friend, and will always feel grateful for that conversation, among many others.

"Oh no, Matt, you shouldn't have done that," Lieberman scolded. "Your mother must always be your first priority. Always!"

Bipartisanship, for Lieberman, wasn't purely instrumental. It reflected his faith that individuals with a diverse range of philosophies should be able to set aside their differences in the name of solving society's biggest problems. As he once explained to me, being a centrist "doesn't necessarily mean that you are in the policy center all the time, or the ideological center. It means, I think more broadly, that you're willing to compromise, to come to the center, and meet with people of opposite points of view so that you can get something done."

Many politicians say they believe in dialogue and compromise, of course. Joe Lieberman lived it. He understood that we had political differences, both on specific issues and in terms of overall philosophy. He was one of the most conservative figures in the national Democratic Party and, as noted above, frequently made common cause with Republicans. I would describe myself as a democratic socialist.

None of that was a bug in our burgeoning friendship; it was a feature. He liked to tell stories about his friendships with people across the political spectrum: He shared cocktails and conversation with legendary conservative columnist William F. Buckley Jr.; he watched the 2006 mockumentary "Borat" with McCain and Lindsey Graham, two of his best friends in the Senate. That also worked in the opposite direction. He once shared with me how deeply touched he had felt when Lady Gaga dedicated a performance of her song "Speechless" to him, in tribute to his instrumental role in repealing the U.S. military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. That moment delighted his more liberal friends, he said.

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I never asked him about this directly, but I believe that Lieberman connected easily with individuals who held many different points of view partially because of his innate self-confidence. He knew he was intelligent, and believed he had reflected deeply on issues and reached the right conclusions. But he never felt threatened by others who disagreed. Instead, he reacted with curiosity and humility, approaching each human interaction as a potential learning experience.

That didn't mean you were going to change his mind, as I discovered on several occasions. But it meant that his mind, and his heart, were sincerely open to you.

When our distant ancestors in Jewish central Europe coined the word "mensch," they had people like Joe Lieberman in mind.

We often talked about our shared Jewish heritage, and the important role it played in our lives. Lieberman was refreshingly frank in discussing his own privilege, admitting that he had experienced very little overt antisemitism. After Gore chose him as vice-presidential running mate in 2000, he recalled, he was relieved by the total absence of bigotry in the general public's response. But he also understood that prejudices run deep in human society, and that Jews are always vulnerable to the resurgence of hate. I believe that, for him, moderate or centrist politics presented a moral and logical antidote to that historical problem, encouraging empathy and moving dialogue away from the ideological extremes where antisemitism and other forms of hate are likely to thrive.

"Throughout history, whenever extremists begin to gain power, they inevitably come for the Jews," I emailed Lieberman less than a month ago. "Antisemitism is a barometer in that way."

"Yes," he replied over his iPhone. "Sadly yes."

I once wrote an article for Salon about how Lieberman's vice-presidential nomination in 2000 changed my life, many years before I would meet him: 

It is hard to capture in words what this meant to a Jewish kid who had nearly been murdered as a so-called "Christ-killer" three years earlier. On some level, it felt as if America's vice president wasn't just elevating Lieberman, but sending a message to Jews like me that he was watching our back. As a child, I had associated Jewishness with feeling rejected; Gore helped me see that, for millions of Americans, it was something to be embraced. By accepting Gore's offer, Lieberman showed that it also wasn't something to be afraid of displaying to the world.

I'm sorry that I never got the a chance to talk with Lieberman about Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's recent speech calling on Israelis to remove Benjamin Netanyahu from power amid the chaos and carnage of the Gaza war. Lieberman had criticized Schumer (while calling him a "friend"), arguing that it was inappropriate for Americans to interfere in the domestic politics of a democratic ally. I can sympathize with that principle, but I wish I'd asked him how he really felt about Netanyahu's prosecution of the war, which has alienated so many people around the world, including Jews. 

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To be clear, I didn't disagree with Lieberman's broader concerns about rising antisemitism. We shared the view that college campuses have become breeding grounds for Jew-hatred, with many students using opposition to Israel or support for a Palestinian state as an excuse for expressing vile opinions. But that concern also fit into Lieberman's larger open-mindedness. Last year, I shared with him an article I wrote about my great-uncle, a Jewish World War II veteran who helped liberate a Nazi concentration camp, and also a lifelong liberal who believed that "people can criticize Israel in good faith without being antisemitic" and that it was important for people like him to speak out against "the Israeli government's mistreatment of Palestinians." Lieberman may or may not have disagreed with that premise; I'll never know. He told me at the time that the article was "a poignant and powerful story and is very well-written."

As I process my grief about my friend's passing, I understand full well — as he also understood — that he will always be, at best, a controversial figure for progressives. That has nothing to do with the man I got to know. I marvel at his kindness, at the fundamental decency that drove him to pursue a friendship with an awkward, autistic reporter with sometimes divergent political views. The Yiddish term "mensch" occurs to me. When our distant ancestors in Jewish central Europe coined that word, they had people like Joe Lieberman in mind. 

Lieberman once told me that John F. Kennedy's election as the first Roman Catholic president, coupled with Abraham Ribicoff's 1954 election as the first (and only) Jewish governor of Connecticut, "gave me confidence that doors had opened for me." He then added, "I'm gratified that you had that same reaction, albeit at a different time in a different way, to my 2000 campaign."

I'm sure he wished he could have met Kennedy, whom he fervently campaigned for as a teenager in 1960 and viewed as his political hero. In that one sense, I was luckier than Joe Lieberman: I got to meet my hero. I even became his friend.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Antisemitism Centrists Commentary Democrats Israel Jewish Jews Joe Lieberman Moderates Progressives R.i.p.