The day the phone call came, the nation saw an awestruck, humble man, eyes raised to the horizon, proclaiming with gratitude, ``Miracles happen.''
But Joseph I. Lieberman's ascent to a spot on the Democratic national ticket was no accident of fate. Much as he would thank God, abundantly, for plucking him from the pack, Lieberman had spent much of his adult life maneuvering to the front of the line. From his days at Stamford High School, where he first set his sights on the U.S. Senate, to the well-timed tirade against President Clinton's moral lapses that inscribed him in the country's consciousness, Lieberman climbed to prominence in deliberate, calculated steps, driven by a keen ambition borne of both duty and ego.
``He was able to understand politics at an early age,'' said Joseph J. Fauliso, a Democrat who served with Lieberman in the state Senate. Like many of Lieberman's colleagues, Fauliso viewed last week's news as an inevitable climax to a story that began 30 years ago, when the brazen Yale graduate who had carefully cultivated party leaders took on fellow Democrat Edward L. Marcus in a primary.
``The timing was right, he was prepared for it, and he took advantage of it,'' Fauliso said of the upstart who won that 1970 race. ``That's pretty much what has taken place in his political career, at each step.''
Those who have watched Lieberman's climb from state legislator to attorney general to U.S. senator say he has never been a seat-of-the-pants, go-with-your-gut politician. He agonized publicly over decisions such as whether to support Clarence Thomas' controversial appointment to the Supreme Court in 1991 and Clinton's economic plan two years later, his cautiousness an anomaly in a system that values certitude.
Even as an activist student who ran the Yale newspaper in the 1960s, Lieberman had to be persuaded to join his classmates on a trip to rural Mississippi to help register black voters. Initially, he wanted to stay behind and report on the adventures of other civil rights workers who were venturing into the South in the fall of 1963. Not until two of his mentors persuaded him to make the journey did Lieberman leave the cool, heady sanctuary of Durfee Hall for the hot, gritty danger of Dixie.
``I was grateful that I was motivated by others, and then ultimately decided myself, chose myself, to be involved,'' Lieberman said in an interview for a Yale student's 1992 history thesis. ``It showed me the importance of not being too cautious. When a moment of opportunity comes to make a difference, you should take it.''
But if Lieberman has been slow to recognize opportunity, once he does, he dives in with unparalleled focus. Friends and foes alike grade his political acumen as among the finest of his day. God may have created the man, but Lieberman perfected the candidate.
Before he left for Mississippi, Lieberman tapped out an editorial for the Yale Daily News, in which he quoted a section of the Talmud to explain what was driving him to go. The same blend of ego and duty, infused with religion, continues to sustain the Lieberman miracle today.
``If I am not for myself, who will be?'' the editorial said. ``If I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, when then?''
Into The Mainstream
Like many second-generation American Jews who grew up with family stories of angst and struggle, Joseph Isador Lieberman, an oldest child and only son, felt a desire and a responsibility to excel in the mainstream.
Neither his parents nor his grandparents, who came to America from Poland and Austria in the early 1900s, had attended college. Growing up in Stamford, young Joe idolized his father, a sturdy, easygoing man who drove a bakery truck from New Haven to Bridgeport, at all hours, for $18 a week. The bond between father and son ran so deep that family members recall young Joe stuttering the entire year that his ``Pop,'' Henry, was away in the Army during World War II.
Throughout his career -- and on the day he was selected by Gore -- Lieberman would speak of the sacrifices made by his father, who had opened his own liquor store on Stamford's Hamilton Avenue in 1940 and retired 40 years later.
``Pop was a quiet man, but he spoke to us clearly with his actions. Strength, Principle, Civility,'' Lieberman wrote in a 10-page eulogy that he read at his father's funeral in 1986. ``These are his legacies to us. These were his ideals. These are our inheritance and our responsibility now.''
That sense of responsibility weighed on Lieberman early in life. In his book ``In Praise of Public Life,'' he recalls a ``vaguely understood desire to excel'' that drove him to run for president of his ninth-grade class, a campaign he won using colorful posters scribbled with rock 'n' roll song lyrics. He had pushed himself the same way as a 9-year-old at summer camp, where he had taken charge of a simple arts-and-crafts session and led his fellow campers to build an elaborate miniature golf course.
His push to succeed was not without pain. Friends and family members knew that his relaxed demeanor belied an acute fear of failure. He used to throw up before some Little League games. As a Yale freshman -- a public school kid surrounded by preppies -- his nerves were so ragged that his grades suffered, and he was tormented by thoughts of getting thrown out. While he found strength in his family's religion, Orthodox Judaism also kept him from social events on Friday nights and Saturdays.
Though Lieberman's upbringing had instilled in him an undefined sense of duty, it was John F. Kennedy who propelled him into public service. But while Kennedy might have started the engine, Lieberman still had to steer.
He chose his first political venture by joining the staff of the Yale Daily News. In the absence of a strong student council, the newspaper was considered the gathering place for student leaders in the early '60s. It was here that Lieberman would make his first run for power.
The paper's chairman when Lieberman joined the staff was a conservative known for writing long-winded, chastising editorials that made many on the staff bristle. During staff discussions, Lieberman, then a liberal student, would spend hours trying to bridge the gap between the right and the left. His consensus-building, which seemed to come naturally, worked to his advantage: In the fall of 1962, he ran for chairman unopposed.
Then, as now, the committed activist was slower to rise than the thoughtful intellectual. When he learned that some of his Yale companions planned to go to Mississippi to register voters, Lieberman at first was reluctant to make the 25-hour drive. Only after being persuaded by civil rights activist Allard Lowenstein and Yale Chaplain William Sloane Coffin -- two towering figures at the time -- did Lieberman sign on.
``Joe wanted to write about it in the paper, but Coffin was very eager that he go and lead and get other people to go,'' Yale grad Gary Saxonhouse said in an interview for the 1992 history thesis.
Saxonhouse, one of 63 students who went to Mississippi in 1963, recalled that Coffin ``played to Joe's idealism;'' Lieberman eventually embraced the challenge.
Whether Lieberman was driven by his head or his heart, the trip left an indelible impression. Although the worst his group suffered was a gas tank clogged with dirt and rocks, students who went later were beaten, hauled off to jail or shot at. The black people he had come to support were terrorized with impunity.
``I saw real evil," Lieberman said in the thesis interview. "I saw the ability and courage of people to use the political system in this country in a way that can't be imagined today.''
Once grounded in politics, Lieberman began the work of crafting his own political persona.
He chose his role models carefully.
In 1963, with Yale administrators encouraging students to secure summer internships in Washington, D.C., Lieberman made a smart political choice: He asked to work for newly elected U.S. Sen. Abe Ribicoff.
``The opportunity to work for Ribicoff, to listen to him to watch him and learn from him, was a truly formative experience,'' Lieberman later wrote. ``And he taught me about what he called ``the integrity of compromise'' -- that it is usually better to compromise to make progress than to remain inflexible and therefore unproductive.''
Soon after the internship, Lieberman signed up for a special Yale program that allowed him to work on a yearlong project in lieu of classes. Lieberman chose to spend his entire year studying -- and courting -- John Bailey, the Connecticut Democratic chairman who helped get Ribicoff to the Senate and was known generally as picking candidates and getting them elected.
In 1963 and 1964, Lieberman would spend several months shadowing Bailey, recording his political wisdom, and getting to know Bailey's cohorts. Lieberman produced a thesis he would later turn into a flattering full-length biography called ``The Power Broker.''
Bailey, in turn, became so enamored with young Lieberman that he asked him to work at the National Democratic Convention in 1964 and on preparations for that fall's election.
Lieberman would later describe the thesis experience as a ``priceless'' political lesson. But it would also become immeasurably valuable to his own political future. While attending Yale Law School, he also was breaking into the inner circle of Connecticut politics.
``We got a call from Bailey about this smart young kid who wanted to get into politics,'' recalled Leon Medvedow, a New Haven Democratic Party leader. ``He was a young liberal go-getter.'' He said Lieberman was not interested in running for city alderman -- the usual starting point. ``He wanted to start right at the state Senate.''
Lieberman, who made New Haven his permanent home, took a job with a local firm and spearheaded a statewide support group for Bobby Kennedy's brief presidential campaign. Then, in 1970, the anti-war liberal took on incumbent Ed Marcus, running well to the left of the then-Senate majority leader who had fallen out of favor with Bailey. It was a risk, but a calculated one: Backed by Bailey and Ribicoff -- and a $30,000 war chest that was larger than any state Senate challenger had ever raised -- the political neophyte had little to lose.
Rob Schwartz, who would become Lieberman's chief of staff, said the young politician knew the value of his early contacts with mentors.
``Human nature being what it is, people like people who listen to them, who show them respect,'' Schwartz said.
In the state Senate, Lieberman championed classic liberal proposals such as more aid to local schools.
``He knew the issues that would help to elevate himself politically,'' including the environment and women's issues, said Fauliso, the former lieutenant governor. ``He was one who was very much interested in polls.''
Fauliso said Lieberman's gentle demeanor, as much as his political astuteness, led to his rapid rise to the post of majority leader. ``He was a listener,'' Fauliso said.
Lieberman's string of successes snapped in 1980, when he lost a bid for a congressional seat. It was a stunning setback for those who knew how carefully the tentative Lieberman weighed every move. Just two years before, he had gained enough Democratic convention support to force a primary for lieutenant governor against then-Democratic House Majority Leader William A. O'Neill -- but chose to pass.
Schwartz said that while Lieberman talked of wanting to follow Ella Grasso as governor, he settled instead on the congressional seat, which had opened up unexpectedly. With uncharacteristic boldness, he announced his candidacy before examining the district -- a region that was leaning to the right, and one in which Lieberman had little name recognition outside New Haven.
Republican Lawrence J. DeNardis blitzed Lieberman with a series of TV ads that portrayed him as a high-taxing, big-spending liberal. Lieberman, taking his consultants' advice, didn't fight back; he was buried.
He was devastated by the defeat, which coincided with his divorce from his first wife. But soon Lieberman, saying he was tired of people treating him as if he were dead, set about making his own miracle.
A year after his defeat, he surprised the state political world by announcing he was going to run for attorney general, even if the Democratic incumbent decided to run again. It was 11 months before the next election, and the attorney general was ``kind of a sleepy position,'' recalled Republican lobbyist Jay Malcynsky.
``Not many people saw that office as a political springboard,'' said Roger Dove, a Democratic lobbyist in the 1980s. ``But Joe did, and it resurrected his career.''
During his six-year tenure as attorney general, a renewed, tough-guy Lieberman vaulted the office -- and himself -- into the headlines. When Texaco and Getty announced a merger of their oil companies, Connecticut was one of the first states to file a lawsuit against the Federal Trade Commission, demanding access to documents about the merger. Under Lieberman, the office also took on some of the big supermarket chains for price-fixing -- an action that brought in millions of dollars in settlements for consumers.
``Joe raised the profile of the office -- and at the same time the profile of Joe Lieberman,'' Malcynski said.
It was the old Talmud adage: For himself, but never for himself alone.
Winds of Change
By the late 1980s, Lieberman was ready for a change. O'Neill had succeeded Grasso after illness forced her to resign, leaving no opening there. Lieberman took aim at Republican U.S. Sen. Lowell P. Weicker.
Weicker's maverick reputation, starting with his early calls for Richard Nixon's impeachment, had made him a legendary figure in and outside of Connecticut. Challenging him was seen as a long shot. But by running just to Weicker's right and portraying him in ads as a slow-footed, out-of-touch bear, Lieberman toppled the giant.
In the Senate, Lieberman has driven to the outposts of his party, but he has never left town. From the start, he reached out to his Republican counterparts in ways that surprised them. Witness January 1989, just two weeks after he was sworn in: President-elect George Bush was being inaugurated, and with the Democrats controlling Congress, Washington was prepared for some serious partisan strife.
On Bush's inaugural day, Lieberman did the politically unthinkable. He went to the Connecticut Republicans' reception. And they loved him.
It was brash, but it was telling: Lieberman saw advantages to bipartisanship that sometimes eluded his colleagues. To cement relationships with the Connecticut House delegation, he invited each member, including Republicans, to lunch in the Senate Dining Room -- something rarely done for members of the opposing party.
His biggest coup was with Rep. Nancy L. Johnson, R-6th District. She had already been in Congress six years and had won a national reputation as a voice for abortion rights -- but she had never been in the Senate dining room. ``I knew that day Nancy Johnson would not run against Joe Lieberman,'' former Lieberman aide Michael Lewan said.
Bipartisanship notwithstanding, Lieberman remained a reliable vote for the Democratic leadership on most matters. But he began carving out a niche in the middle on others, including Social Security and school vouchers. He has been a consistent supporter of abortion rights, environmental protection and other causes espoused by party liberals. Still, in 1991, he broke ranks with his party when he became one of 10 Democrats to vote to authorize troops for the Gulf War in January 1991.
His political persona was not always polished. At times, he came across as a waffler who wanted it both ways. In October 1991, he announced that he would support the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court, despite the fact that some of Thomas' views seemed antithetical to Lieberman's own. But days later, when the charges of sexual harassment exploded, he was suddenly undecided, and his public ruminations about the bind he was in were drawing national media attention. Eventually, he voted no -- when it was clear his yes vote was not needed.
Similarly, in 1993, when the Senate would take the biggest vote yet of the Clinton presidency -- a $496 billion package of spending cuts and tax increases -- there was Lieberman again, just days before the vote, with very public misgivings. He got lots of national attention as he tried to decide what to do.
Lieberman's staff quietly advised him the act was wearing. The Courant was calling him "Hamlet on the Potomac." Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., warned his colleague, "There is political risk if you look tormented. You cannot make yourself the issue." And so Lieberman voted with Clinton, eventually -- just as he would later vote against impeaching the president, even after his famous speech. His public hand-wringing had earned him the moniker of conscience of the Senate.
In 12 years, Lieberman developed a practical politics that sometimes straddled party lines. Was he a liberal, scrambling to the right when he felt the sands of the mainstream shift that way, or an independent thinker, driven by a heightened sense of morality? In short: Was it ego or duty that created the Lieberman of today?
``I've tried to be open to new ideas,'' Lieberman said of his political evolution Friday. ``You make progress by adopting new ideas. They can change history.''
This story was reported by Courant Staff Writers David Lightman, Lisa Chedekel, Mike McIntire, Tom Puleo, Janice D'Arcy, Jon Lender and Dave Altimari. It was written by Chedekel.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times