Moderating and Moralizing, Lieberman Toils in the Center


Joe Lieberman is a man of the middle.

For him it is a righteous place where he melds viewpoints to find a voice.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Oct. 21, 2000 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday October 21, 2000 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 5 Foreign Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Buckley background--A story Friday about Democratic vice presidential nominee Joseph I. Lieberman incorrectly characterized the ethnic and religious background of writer William F. Buckley. He is Irish Catholic.

Since he was 13, Lieberman has studied the Talmud, which prompts the examination of what different outlooks have in common. In college, where quotas stamped him an outsider, he rose as a leader by bringing together those around him. His political mentor was a Connecticut ward-heeler who ruled by sharing power with his opponents. As majority leader of his state Senate, he had to reach across the aisle to get things done.

He came to Washington at the start of a blood feud between Democrats and Republicans, and found allies among other Democrats who believed their survival lay at the political center. He engaged in odd-couple politics with conservatives of both parties--with a leading Republican moralist to jab at Hollywood, then with a Louisiana Democrat to fight for education reform.

Most famously, Lieberman scolded his president on the floor of the Senate for his prevarications about an affair with a White House intern. Lieberman’s speech, which stopped short of asking the president to step down, helped save the president’s job and showed his party the way out of scandal.


Due in large part to his moderating and moralizing, Lieberman became Al Gore’s choice for a running mate--and a star among Jewish people. Their immigrant story of persecution and dislocation left an indelible mark on Lieberman, and his appreciation for what America had provided his family would forever propel him.

Still, there were losses, public and private, that stalled his high-reaching life plan. In a short period, he was divorced and lost an election by allowing himself to be pushed to the left. But political adaptability and religious conviction brought him back. He remarried, to a woman who deeply shared his conservative faith and went on to defeat a Republican icon in the U.S. Senate by ridiculing his demeanor and outflanking him on the right.

After he was sworn in as a U.S. senator, his wife, whose family survived the Holocaust, thrust her fist into the air and declared with defiance: “Take that, Hitler.”

Like many politicians, Joseph Isador Lieberman, 58, is a man of principle and of calculation. But does he gravitate to the center because it is correct--or because it makes him successful? What is uppermost: to be fair-minded or to win?

That is the Lieberman question.

“I’ve wanted to do the right thing, but I’ve wanted to make things happen,” Lieberman answers in an interview. “Hopefully it doesn’t require too much compromise of principle, hopefully no compromise of principle. But it does require compromise of position.”

Lieberman is ambitious, but he is so high-minded that he usually avoids giving offense. He courts adversaries with intelligence, not browbeating. That courtship is the story of his life. And it suggests dimensions to the Lieberman answer.


Strong Sense of Self Built From Childhood

When Marcia and Henry Lieberman took their newborn son to a small house wedged between a junkyard and the railroad tracks in Stamford, Conn., they brought him to the center of a close-knit world.

Cousins lived across the street. Agudath Sholom, a red-brick Orthodox synagogue, was a half-mile away. The family-owned package store, as liquor stores are called in New England, was on nearby Hamilton Avenue. Stamford High, where Joe would be elected prom king, was a few blocks from the synagogue.

Until Joe was 8, the Liebermans lived with Marcia’s mother, Minnie Manger. A pious woman, her memories of central Europe gave the boy a view of an uglier past, of anti-Semitism and deprivation. But in this new land, her grandson was the doted-upon prince, surrounded by affection and enriched by rules of comportment. The family walked to synagogue. Rituals marked a year. Prayer began meals. The children were indulged.

Joseph Ehrenkranz, the family rabbi, remembers admonishing Marcia for allowing Joe and his two younger sisters to watch television until they fell asleep, then carrying them to bed.

“Everybody was criticizing her because there was no discipline in that house,” he said. “But she felt she was giving them a desire to excel. Everything else would fall into place.”

In the same way Pauline Gore and Barbara Bush provided ballast for their sons’ political character, the outgoing Marcia shaped Joe’s sense of self. Possessed of self-confidence and sociability, she opened her home to his friends, urging on them homemade nut bread and ruggalach.


While his father, Henry, was less religious than his wife, he held strong opinions. For 40 years, this former orphan who received little formal education spent quiet afternoons in Hamilton Liquors reading books and listening to Strauss’ tone poems and to Brahms’ Third Symphony.

In his memoir, Lieberman described his longing to make his father proud: “There was no way in the world I was going to let him down. I had to succeed.”

Rabbi Ehrenkranz was the first of many male mentors who would shape Lieberman’s life. The rabbi taught young Joe to neither assimilate into the non-Jewish world nor adhere entirely to an insulated life of study and prayer. The way of the “centrist,” as modern Orthodox Jews are sometimes called, was to be engaged in the world but to keep the commandments and their covenant with God at the core of everything they did.

So the rabbi taught Joe and others preparing for their bar mitzvahs to read Hebrew, but he also took them to ballgames and Broadway shows. “They had to be part of the world and use their innate qualities to improve it,” he said.

Judaism allowed for Lieberman’s ego drive but demanded that he use it and other gifts for good purpose.

He also became a student of the Talmud. While he is no scholar, he spent time every week reading the Talmudic text, in which learned rabbis examine the relationship between Jewish laws and practical situations. A central goal is finding “what differing views have in common and what unites them,” Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, a leading scholar, has written.


Even as a youngster, Joe took this lesson to heart. He was president of his ninth- and 10th-grade classes but in 11th grade, he made a strategic decision not to run. “He told me he wanted to be president of the senior class,” said Carole Sabia, a friend. “He didn’t want people to get sick of him.”

He moved easily between groups. Blacks attended Stamford High. So did Italians, Jews, the Irish and members of other ethnic groups. Affability, humor and a sense of ease made Lieberman attractive--and have continued to serve him through life.

“Everybody knew him, and he knew what he wanted and how to get it,” Sabia said.

Lieberman says that growing up with such a wealth of friendships has caused him to seek out people of different backgrounds. “I enjoy the diversity and find it enriching,” he says.

Yale Offered Chance To Prove Himself Early

The 41 miles up the Connecticut coast to Yale University was a long distance for Lieberman. In 1960, Yale was still dominated by young men with prep school educations and Yale legacies going back generations. While Joe’s parents prided themselves on paying his way through college, he was no blueblood. He was a Jew, and Yale’s enrollment quotas did not allow for more than one in 10 students in each class to be Jewish.

Lieberman took pride in having earned his place at the elite school. Like his roommate, David Wyles, a tool salesman’s son from Pittsburgh, he was not there because of class, entitlement or money; he was there because he deserved to be.

Students searching for an identity were impressed to meet someone who already had one. Ethnic pride would not become popular until the late 1960s, but “Joe already exuded this,” classmate Gary Saxonhouse said.


Yet Lieberman managed to make his Jewishness incidental to his life at Yale. Many knew he was an observant Jew, but few noticed. The cafeteria workers gave him Kosher meals, and he often rose at dawn to pray.

“If you weren’t there in his room and saw him put on the yarmulke, you wouldn’t know,” Wyles said. But Joe has always honored his religion, he added, offering an answer to the Lieberman question that came early in his life and would later be echoed by others.

He earned a reporter’s spot on the Yale Daily News. He was neither the best writer nor the most gifted thinker. But after wooing his peers, he was elected chairman of the newspaper--the premier leadership role on campus.

“Joe’s style was to listen and hear where people were coming from,” Wyles said. “That didn’t necessarily mean he agreed with them, even if they may have thought he did.”

Lieberman’s ambition and his political gift were transparent. A campus joke was that he would be the country’s first Jewish president. More than 20 years later, Saxonhouse ran into another classmate’s parent, Mike Wallace of CBS, and Wallace’s first question was, “What ever became of that guy who was supposed to be the first Jewish president?”

The summer before his senior year, Lieberman worked in the Washington office of Democrat Abraham Ribicoff, the first Jewish U.S. senator from Connecticut. There, he fell in love with Betty Haas, a Smith College student from a wealthy Hartford family. She was outspoken like his mother, full of idealism like him, and inspired by John F. Kennedy like they all were.


During his senior year, Lieberman was tapped to join Skull and Bones, Yale’s ultimate WASP secret society. He turned down the offer. “It was too old Yalie,” Saxonhouse recalled Lieberman saying. Instead, he joined the Elihu Society, a more intellectual club.

That fall, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr., a prominent Yale chaplain, called Lieberman to his office to persuade him to lead a group of students to Mississippi to help register blacks to vote. Lieberman hesitated, said Saxonhouse, who was at the meeting. But Coffin pressed him not to remain above the fray, as Yale leaders often did. Coffin had Lieberman’s respect, and by meeting’s end, he also had his agreement to go south.

Writing about the decision in the News, Lieberman quoted Rabbi Hillel, a famous Jewish sage: “If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am for myself [alone], what am I? And if not now, when then?”

Lieberman spent two weeks in Mississippi, mostly writing press releases. Living with black families, some in houses with dirt floors, exposed him and other students to a depth of poverty that shocked them.

When he returned, William F. Buckley, a former News chairman and the quintessential Yale WASP, invited Lieberman to dinner. Buckley was astonished that a News chairman had “gotten involved” and wanted to hear about it, Saxonhouse recalled.

Doing Good for People; Doing Good for Joe

Lieberman had a way of forging relationships with older men, and some became mentors. By all accounts, it was because of his gravitas and self-assurance. At 20, friends said, he handled himself as if he were 40.


When Lieberman married Haas two years after graduation, Ribicoff and Yale President Kingman Brewster attended the wedding. Later, he attracted Buckley’s political support, and in the U.S. Senate he sought out Democrat Sam Nunn for advice on military issues.

Lieberman also was drawn to men of God, seeking their political advice and spiritual comfort. When Hartford’s Catholic Archbishop John Whealon died in 1991, Lieberman shocked rectors by showing up at the cathedral before the funeral. He raised his hands over his friend’s body and chanted the Jewish mourning prayer.

Lieberman’s most important mentor was John Bailey, a powerhouse in Connecticut and national Democratic politics. He ran the state party for almost 30 years and chaired the Democratic National Committee when Kennedy was president. Lieberman spent his senior year shadowing the Irish ward-heeler and wrote his senior essay on him. Lieberman later turned the essay into two admiring books.

Bailey took Lieberman under his wing because he liked him and saw his smarts, said Bailey’s daughter, Barbara Kennelly, who served in Congress for 17 years.

One of Bailey’s important lessons was that to make government function, a leader had to work across party lines. When the Democrats ruled state government, Bailey handed entire agencies over to GOP control. He sometimes directed outsiders to GOP lobbying firms.

Lieberman admired how the political boss operated in an ethnically diverse and politically independent state. Indeed, Connecticut voters--more than one-third claim no major party affiliation--have long accepted mavericks and moderates, and they taught Lieberman to be both.


After Yale Law School, he joined a law firm in New Haven, but his heart was never in it. Even before Yale he had decided to pursue a career in public service; in his memoir he listed what kept him on course: “The ideal of service was fundamental to my religious faith, the sense of community and connection I felt in the time and the place where I grew up, my belief in and the respect I had for figures of authority, the desire to make my own mark, and the hope and promise of a boundless future that lie ahead for the nation. . . .”

By 1970, when young Al Gore was waiting for his Army orders to ship to Vietnam, Lieberman was preparing for his first political campaign. He had received two deferments; one for school, the other for being a parent.

At 27, Lieberman took on Ed Marcus, a powerful Democratic leader in the state Senate. With political connections provided by Bailey and fund-raising by Ribicoff, he won.

During Lieberman’s 10 years in the state Senate, he represented a New Haven district that was equal parts Jewish, African American and Yalie. His initiatives reflected his liberal constituents and showed he was beginning to understand political reality.

The Democrats held a 19-17 majority, too slim to risk alienating Republicans. So Lieberman mastered the art of splitting the difference. Hartford’s press sometimes cast him as a weather vane, going with the prevailing winds.

“I don’t remember Joe getting into trouble by standing on principle,” said Jim Mutrie, a longtime political writer. “He liked doing good for people and at the same time for Joe.”


By 1974, Lieberman was itching to move ahead. The morning after his reelection, he scoured a list of new Democratic senators and solicited their support to become majority leader. He got it. In this role, he worked well with Ella Grasso, Connecticut’s first female governor. She promoted business and growth, and he brokered her budgets with both parties.

“Believe me, Joe Lieberman didn’t become Mr. Bipartisan in Washington,” said Lawrence DeNardis, Lieberman’s GOP counterpart in the state Senate. “There was always that side to him.”

Together, the two successfully co-sponsored dozens of “good government” bills. DeNardis, a devout Catholic, and Lieberman also tackled matters of church and state. They tried but failed to create a moment of silence in public schools and to retain “blue laws” that prohibited mass retailing on Sundays. “We had our conscience and the archdiocese to answer to,” DeNardis said, noting that more than half the state’s voters were Catholic.

Yet it was DeNardis who handed Lieberman his first and--thus far--only electoral defeat, in a 1980 race for Congress that was marred by Lieberman’s mistakes of timing and tactics.

Ronald Reagan led a Republican landslide that year that washed many Democrats from office. Also, Lieberman declined to fight DeNardis’ portrayal of him as a “tax-and-spend liberal.” His district had been represented by a Democrat for 18 years, and he ran like an incumbent with the slogan: “A proven leader you can count on.”

Toby Moffett, then a congressman from Connecticut, had breakfast with Lieberman a few days after his defeat. “He was a mess,” Moffett said. “He was trying to figure out what happened and what to do next.”


The most comforting message he received, according to Lieberman, came from the Rev. Joseph Dilion, whose Catholic church was in his district. “Don’t let this stop you, Joe,” Dilion told him. “God is saving you for something better.”

But first, he would be tested. His marriage fell apart.

Another Test: A Failed Marriage

Lieberman had spent the 1970s commuting between his home in New Haven and the Senate in Hartford, rushing to be with his family on the Sabbath and out again to resume politicking. His wife, a psychiatric social worker, cared for their children, Matt and Rebecca, and worked in a public hospital.

Although the couple had shared the excitement of politics early on, friends say Betty Haas grew weary of its intrusions--constituents who wanted attention even when the couple was at the theater, or reporters who called constantly. And although she kept a Kosher home and sent the children to Jewish schools, she grew tired of the strictures of their faith.

“My mother really wanted to be No. 1,” said Matt Lieberman, now 32. “There would always be enough events in my dad’s life that wouldn’t make her that.”

The couple tried counseling but failed to patch their differences. In early 1981, shortly after he lost his bid for Congress, Lieberman moved to an apartment nearby. The children spent half of each week with him, taking over the bedrooms while he slept on the couch.

“My parents worked so hard at the marriage, but it was uneasy for years,” said Matt Lieberman, a teacher who is now a father himself. “When they finally split, it was a relief.”


Haas, who has an amicable relationship with her ex-husband, did not respond to a request for an interview.

By summer, Lieberman was running for state attorney general, a position often filled by the Democratic machine to satisfy an ethnic or geographic group. “Usually it was some lawyer [who would win] and go to sleep for four years, collect $50,000 for part-time work and not get in anyone’s way,” said Bill Carroll, a close Lieberman friend.

Lieberman changed all that.

He won his party’s nomination at a convention he didn’t attend because it was held on the Sabbath. After his nomination was announced, aides blared the music from “Chariots of Fire,” the movie about two Olympic runners, a Christian who wouldn’t race on the Sabbath and a Jew who was obsessed with overcoming anti-Semitism. The music became Lieberman’s theme song.

In the spring of 1982, two months before his divorce became final, Lieberman met Hadassah Freilich Tucker of Riverdale, N.Y. She also was divorced and had a young son. Lieberman did not have much time for dating, but he was infatuated, according to friends. The pair married less than a year later.

“My dad needed a spouse who understood his work, that it was a priority, and accepted him even in the face of a very, very busy schedule,” Matt Lieberman said.

Hadassah met that requirement and many others. She was as religious as he was and attractive, strong-minded and politically savvy. She helped meld their families, and they had a daughter, Hani, in 1988. She also reinforced Lieberman’s connection to the struggles of Jewish immigrants. Born in a resettlement camp after World War II, she and her religious parents found their way in a small Massachusetts town.


Attack Ad Helps Senate Victory

From 1982 to 1988, Lieberman created a modern attorney general’s office. He added 60 lawyers and filed class-action lawsuits on behalf of consumers. He sued Realtors, polluters and the insurance industry. Also, the self-described “people’s lawyer” ran regular public service announcements: Bought a car that’s a lemon? Call Joe Lieberman. Can’t collect from a dead-beat dad? Call Joe Lieberman.

The Democratic establishment began to fear his popularity--and independence. When ethical accusations were leveled against John Groppo, the politically popular and well-connected state tax commissioner, Lieberman investigated. His probe propelled Groppo out of office. Many Democrats interpreted Lieberman’s role as a grab for publicity.

Clarine Nardi Riddle, his second in command, disagreed: “The attitude was ‘Joe should figure out a way not to go after the governor’s friend,’ or ‘Joe should figure out a way not to go after the insurance agencies.’ Well, Joe had responsibilities . . . he couldn’t turn away.”

By the late 1980s, when Lieberman decided to run against Lowell Weicker for the U.S. Senate, the state’s leading Democrats were glad to back him. “They were terrified he’d run for governor and wanted him out of the state,” said John Droney, then state party chairman.

But not all Democrats supported Lieberman’s candidacy. Many admired Weicker, a three-term senator who had stood up to President Nixon and staked out positions unpopular in his party.

Lieberman could not convince labor or pro-Israel groups to cut their ties to Weicker, who had stuck with them against his own party. And so once again, Lieberman had to win support from Republicans. He did it by being more conservative on foreign policy and more liberal on the environment and consumer issues. And when that wasn’t enough, Lieberman ran several nasty attack ads that portrayed Weicker as a cartoon bear dozing through important debates but “waking loud and ornery when personally piqued.”


The ads stunned many people who had thought Lieberman was a “nice guy.”

Thomas D’Amore, a close Weicker aide, does not credit Lieberman with the victory: “Lowell lost because he wouldn’t punch back right away.” D’Amore was left with a view of Lieberman as a hypocrite who would do anything to win.

A few days after the election, D’Amore was getting his shoes shined at the Hartford airport when Lieberman and Barbara Kennelly, Bailey’s daughter, stopped by on their way to catch a plane. Lieberman shrugged as if to say, “What happened?” according to D’Amore.

“At first I thought it was endearing,” D’Amore said. “Then I realized: He knows what happened. He ripped our guy apart.

“Happy, innocent Joe,” D’Amore added. “He always wants it both ways.”

His Flirtations With Republicans

Before Lieberman arrived in Washington, he was introduced to the Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist group started in 1985. In the DLC, he found a national validity to what he had become in Connecticut. And if he still had doubts about his moderating politics, ugly partisanship in the nation’s capital confirmed his wisdom.

Within months of his arrival, he saw Congress torn to shreds over GOP Rep. Newt Gingrich’s successful drive to topple Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright. Then, in a remarkable rejection of one of its own, the Senate was split apart over Republican John Tower’s nomination as Defense secretary.

“The DLC was comfortable,” Lieberman recalls, “not only because it was a source of new ideas about a lot of issues I really cared about, but [also] because it was less reflexively partisan.”


By the mid-1990s, Republicans were running Congress, and Lieberman had become DLC chairman, a position he still holds. In the Senate, he sometimes teamed up with unlikely partners--Republicans Bob Dole, Dan Coats and John McCain, and John B. Breaux, a conservative Southern Democrat. He joined GOP conservative William J. Bennett to rail against Hollywood smut and violence.

Lieberman evolved into a pro-business Democrat with a populist streak and acquired power by remaining open to both sides. He developed a habit of marching right up to the edge with Republicans--then pulling back. At the same time, his voting record remained Democratic. But these flirtations, and the occasional vote with Republicans, received a lot of attention.

In 1991, for example, Lieberman considered endorsing Clarence Thomas’ nomination for the Supreme Court until shortly before the contentious Senate vote. But he didn’t.

Critics saw him as an equivocator who sought attention by employing sanctimony. He made enemies in the labor unions and among trial lawyers for wavering from Democratic orthodoxy.

Still, Lieberman’s aides insist that he engages in open-minded analysis, not grandstanding.

In 1993, for example, he voted against the Democratic favorite, Sheldon Hackney, for chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. As president of the University of Pennsylvania, Hackney had enforced “speech codes” to prevent hateful speech on campus. Lieberman feared the codes violated the 1st Amendment.


If the vote had been close, Lieberman aides insist, he would have gone with the Democratic choice. But since Hackney had the votes, Lieberman used his vote to make a point.

“His first impulse is to look at the merits of an issue, not the politics,” said Nina Bang Jensen, who served on his legislative staff. “But that’s not to say he’s not a practical politician. He is.”

Came 1998 and Lieberman found himself surrounded by Democratic senators who did not want him to ask Bill Clinton to step down for misleading the public about his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky. Lieberman decided to give a harsh speech--but one that didn’t go to the limit. He criticized Clinton without asking him to leave office.

Once again, he took to the middle. He made Republicans look like zealots and created a place for warrior Democrats to defend their president but please an offended public.

“I had a lot of internal unease about it,” Lieberman says of the speech. “I didn’t know what the reaction would be.”

He took a risk, he insists, for a principle; doing the right thing when nobody else would. His wife feared it would cost him his career.


“I feel this very strongly,” he said he told her, “and unless somebody who is [Clinton’s] friend and supporter says this publicly, it’s never going to get better.”

It was the kind of outcome his early mentor Bailey, who died in 1975, would have encouraged. But would Bailey, the loyalist, have approved of a speech betraying a Democratic president?

“My guess is he’d have been upset when I made it,” Lieberman said. “But I don’t think he’d have written me off.”


The Lieberman File

Joseph I. Lieberman

Born: Feb. 24, 1942, in Stamford, Conn., son of Henry and Marcia Lieberman.

Education: Bachelor’s and law degrees from Yale University, 1964 and 1967, respectively.

Experience: Connecticut state senator, 1971-81; private attorney, 1972-83; Connecticut attorney general, 1983-89; U.S. senator from Connecticut, 1989-present; author of five books.

Family: Lieberman and his wife of 17 years, the former Hadassah Freilich Tucker, have one daughter together, 12-year-old Hani. He has a 33-year-old son, Matt, and a 31-year-old daughter, Rebecca, from a previous marriage, which ended in divorce in 1982. She has a 24-year-old son, Ethan, from a previous marriage.


Religion: Jewish

Residences: New Haven, Conn.; Washington, D.C.

Voting Record

A look at Lieberman’s voting record as a U.S. senator:


Voted against banning procedure known by its opponents as partial-birth abortion. Abortion rights advocates say he voted their preferred position every time in 1999.




Was among the congressional leaders supporting the Gulf War in 1991. Favored putting ground troops in Bosnia.



Voted in 1993 for the Brady Act to establish a waiting period on handgun purchases and last year for a measure, since stalled, to crack down on unchecked sales of firearms at gun shows.



Voted to allow federal funds for disadvantaged students to be spent on school vouchers and for the creation of tax-deferred savings accounts for educational costs--even at private schools.

Social Security

Spoke in favor of partially privatizing Social Security. Told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 1998: “I think in the end that individual control of part of the retirement Social Security funds has to happen.”



Backed capital gains tax cuts for small businesses. Supported President Clinton’s 1993 tax increase, which largely affected corporations and the wealthy.



Voted for the North American Free Trade Agreement and backs normalized trade relations with China.



Violence on TV

Co-sponsored legislation requiring television sets to include a “V-chip” to block out objectionable programs.

Source: Times staff and wire reports


Times staff writer Elizabeth Mehren contributed to this story.

On Saturday, the Times will detail how Dick Cheney and Joseph I. Lieberman aim to expand the role of the vice president.

Visit The Times’ Web site for previously published profiles of presidential candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush: and; and for Thursday’s profile of Dick Cheney: