The Meaning of Lieberman
The Weekly Standard, August 21, 2000
David Tell, for the Editors
In the fall of 1998, Senator Joseph Lieberman became that rarest
thing in the Democratic party: a belated but loud and therefore
noteworthy critic of Bill Clinton's entanglement with Monica Lewinsky.
Obviously, then, by adding Lieberman to his ticket last week, Gore was
attempting "separation" from his controversial patron and mentor:
implicitly condemning the "misdeeds" that got Clinton impeached, rather
than dismissing those misdeeds as irrelevant to -- and therefore
consistent with -- the health of the presidency as an institution.
Or so last week's conventional thinking had it. Insofar as last week's
conventional thinkers weren't distracted (no doubt to the Gore
campaign's immense satisfaction) by Joseph Lieberman's religion.
Lieberman is Jewish, you see. But still Al Gore embraces him!
Announcing his veep pick in Carthage, Tennessee, last Tuesday, Gore
allowed as how "Joe and I come from different regions and different
religious faiths." But "we believe in a common set of ideals," the vice
president generously added. So Gore is prepared to "make history," to
"tear down an old wall of division" -- to bravely go where no goy has
Lieberman himself calls Gore's choice of a Jewish vice president a
"miracle," a testament to Gore's "courage and character and fairness."
Hark, ye woe-beset children of Abraham, ye long-oppressed doctors and
lawyers and brokers and business chieftains and U.S. senators and
editors of the New York Times. Break free the chains in your dark,
exotic ghetto. Al Gore will be your American Moses. He will part the
waters of intolerance and lead you at last to the promised pinnacles of
our public life.
All this is nonsense on stilts. And it almost speaks well of him that
Gore doesn't much bother to pretend he believes it. Lieberman's
Jewishness was inconsequential to Gore's calculations about a running
mate, Democratic campaign aides have since freely let on to the
newspapers. Bill Clinton, not Pharaoh, was the principal demon to be
exorcized, the biggest electoral liability Gore thought had to be
addressed. Lieberman was selected because he is a man of honesty and
probity. Not like Clinton. Lieberman has decried Clinton's dishonesty
and improbity. Not like Gore . . . but should not Gore now get credit
here by association with Lieberman? And cannot Gore's Clinton albatross
thus be removed?
No, actually. Not if the Clinton albatross is correctly conceived.
Joe Lieberman is a right fine fellow, on balance. And a much, much
better-than-average man by current political standards; we would never
suggest otherwise. He is genuinely civil and genuinely smart. And by
appearance and reputation he is large of spirit, too, unusually open to
unfamiliar ideas and uncomfortable truths. But it is precisely this last
quality -- if that's what it is -- that gives us pause about Lieberman
as a vice presidential candidate this year. At least the way Al Gore
means us to perceive Lieberman: as the embodiment of Gore's own,
unspoken views about the meaning of last year's impeachment drama.
It is a sad fact of life in modern Washington that a politician can
earn himself a name for principle not so much for what he winds up
saying and doing when crunch time comes, but merely for how much smoke
of "stricken conscience" he throws up beforehand. Joseph Lieberman is
well known to have flirted over the years with any number of policy
innovations that most other Democrats, Al Gore included, revile:
private-market investment of Social Security contributions, for one
example, and private-school voucher experiments, for another. Late last
week, Lieberman cheerfully and wholly abandoned both ideas -- because
the Gore campaign demanded it of him. Where Social Security is
concerned, in fact, Gore's men appear to have extracted a signed
confession and apology from the senator, evocatively titled "My Private
Journey Away from Privatization." At the end of the day, obedience to
party will out. When Joe Lieberman wrestles with his conscience, it
seems, his conscience sometimes loses.
Which is what happened when Lieberman wrestled with the Lewinsky
scandal. There Lieberman went further than almost any other member of
Congress to prostrate himself before Bill Clinton's assault on the
presidency. It might not have looked that way at the time, and Al Gore
may not want us to remember it that way during the coming campaign.
But it is true nonetheless. Consider, just for starters, Lieberman's
publicized chastisement of Clinton from the Senate floor in early
September 1998. It was a speech entirely devoted to the president's sex
life and attendant public lies. Clinton's adulterous dalliance with
Lewinsky was "immoral," Lieberman announced. And Clinton's
seven-month-long deception about that adultery was "wrong" -- because it
tended to undercut the lessons American parents wish to teach their
children about honesty. But had Clinton's deception also involved
multiple felonies, as the mountain of available evidence clearly
indicated? Had Clinton obstructed justice up and down the federal court
system, and perjured himself to boot? Was Clinton guilty of something
more than immorality, in other words, something that might actually
disqualify him from further service in the Oval Office? That, Joe
Lieberman was unprepared to say: "We do not know enough in fact" to
reach such a conclusion.
This was already a laughable claim when Lieberman made it, and it
would grow all the more laughable as Clinton's impeachment and trial
proceeded. But it was the rhetorical lifeline the president's defenders
stuck to like glue, just the same. If they could not bring themselves to
declare Clinton altogether innocent, they insisted, at minimum, that his
alleged crimes were "not proven." Not proven -- and on that basis every
Democratic senator, and a handful of Republicans, eventually decided
that Bill Clinton was fit to finish his presidential term. No senator
who voted to acquit has ever explicitly revealed what all must privately
have known: that Clinton was as guilty as the sun is bright, and that
they simply did not want or dare to do anything about it.
No senator ever went so far, that is . . . except Joseph Lieberman.
After the impeachment trial was concluded, many senators quietly
published in the Congressional Record lengthy explanations of why they'd
voted as they had. Lieberman's explanation was unique. He had wrestled
with the matter, don't you know -- wrestle, wrestle, wrestle. And after
much tribulation, he had acted to preserve Clinton in office, Lieberman
wrote, not because the impeachment charges against the president were
less than proved, but despite the fact that both those charges were very
probably true. Clinton "made false or misleading statements . . . to a
federal grand jury," according to Joseph Lieberman. Clinton's actions
likely "had the effect of impeding the discovery of evidence in judicial
proceedings." Bill Clinton, in other words, was a felon. And still
Lieberman voted to acquit.
So a man may be a criminal -- a criminal, no less -- and remain
president. There, then: That ugly "principle" is what Joseph Lieberman
truly stood for during the Clinton scandal that engulfed the nation. And
where Lieberman stood . . . well, Al Gore now earnestly wants us to see
that he stood there, too. This alone, it seems to us, is reason enough
to vote against him.
Return to Lieberman page