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 gone before.

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 much 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