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Lieberman’s Rebuke of Clinton Set a Tone

Times Staff Writer

A hush settled over the Senate chamber five years ago as Joe Lieberman rose to scold his party’s president, Bill Clinton, for moral lapses. The silence weighs on him still.

The room was nearly empty as the Connecticut Democrat began reading a speech he had honed for two weeks. Staring down at his lines, he was unaware that his colleagues were drifting back into the chamber to listen. “Such behavior is not just inappropriate,” Lieberman read in pained cadence, “it is immoral and it is harmful.”

When he finished, “the silence went on for minutes,” he recalled this week. “I didn’t know how people would react.”

It was the agonizing chasm between act and consequence, the instant of freefall after a politician takes a hard choice and then waits, hoping for acclaim, fearing disaster. For Lieberman, it ended well, as his Democratic colleagues rose, one after another, clapping his back and echoing his rebuke.

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Lieberman’s poignant speech in the well of the Senate on Sept. 3, 1998, was a watershed moment, imbuing him with a reputation as a fearless centrist willing to act on deeply felt moral beliefs. The speech was a factor in Lieberman’s favor when Vice President Al Gore chose him as his running mate in the 2000 campaign.

And it would appear to be a strong feature of Lieberman’s resume in this year’s race, bolstering his argument that he is best equipped among the Democratic contenders to challenge President Bush on moral issues.

Yet Lieberman never refers to the Clinton speech as he shuttles between the primary battlegrounds of New Hampshire and South Carolina, trying to stir his stalled campaign. He says nothing, Lieberman explains, out of modesty and his intent to focus on the “issues of 2004.”

But the same speech that made him such an attractive vice presidential candidate to Democrats in 2000 hasn’t helped him in 2004. President Clinton has become the party’s eminence grise. Facing strong competition from moderates such as retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, Lieberman is struggling to win over Clinton loyalists who still bristle at reminders of the impeachment crisis.

Lieberman’s emphasis on moral values, which led to his support for a V-chip for television sets and vouchers for religious schools, also has been out of step with the pressing concerns of Democratic primary voters.

“Joe’s position on Clinton got him noticed, but it hasn’t been doing him much good lately,” said former California Rep. Tony Coelho, who was Gore’s campaign chairman in the 2000 race. “Values haven’t lost their importance. But for most Democrats this year, there are more important things on the table -- the war, the economy, social issues.”

Earlier this month, Lieberman went to the Elks Club Lodge in Dover, N.H., where Clinton had declared himself “the Comeback Kid” after coming in a strong second during the 1992 primary. Lieberman was there to link himself directly to “Bill Clinton’s legacy,” reminding New Hampshire residents of the bonds the men shared.

Lieberman reeled back through the high notes of the Clinton era, recalling how both men had taken a key role in prodding the Democratic Party toward the center, pushing together for welfare cuts and high-tech advancement. But as always, Lieberman skipped over the impeachment crisis of 1998 as if it were an embarrassing page in a photo album.

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Over the course of his 34-year political career, Lieberman has endured only two electoral defeats. But he has displayed a capacity for swift recovery. That has buoyed him with a sense of perseverance that has kept him on an even keel during the early frustrations of this year’s primary campaign.

Moderate in all things, Lieberman is reticent where contemporaries go for the jugular, a consensus-seeker amid ideological combat, so decorous that his Senate staffers cannot recall him raising his voice. “If he is really steamed,” said one, “he sends you a memo.”

As a devout Orthodox Jew, Lieberman is also driven by deep convictions. His abiding belief in civil rights propelled him to Mississippi in the summer of 1963 to register black voters, awakening a fascination with the electoral process. At Yale, his senior thesis on Connecticut political boss John M. Bailey led to work with Bailey and Democratic Sen. Abraham A. Ribicoff, and then, in 1970, to his first political victory for a state Senate seat.

During that first race, Lieberman befriended a Yale law school student from Little Rock, Ark., who worked on his campaign. He stayed in touch with Bill Clinton. “I’m very devoted to him,” Lieberman says. “We go back such a long way.”

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Lieberman lost his bid for the U.S. House in 1980, then dusted himself off and won as state attorney general in 1982. Positioning himself as a crusader, he took on veteran Republican Sen. Lowell P. Weicker in 1988 and won in an uncharacteristic hard-edged campaign.

“He’s a happy warrior, but he’s not afraid to mix it up,” said Marty Dunleavy, a Lieberman acolyte who until recently worked as national political director for the American Federation of Government Employees. “He doesn’t read a bad poll and say: ‘It’s over.’ He digs in.”

In the Senate, Lieberman became an early Democratic critic of violence and promiscuity in the media. His tough words alienated Hollywood corporate titans who were longtime fundraisers. But along with his old friend Clinton, Lieberman persuaded the party to halt decades of drift to the left and tack adroitly to the center.

“Joe Lieberman deserves as much credit as anybody for bringing the party back to its core values,” said Al From, founder of the Democratic Leadership Council, the intellectual heart of the party’s moderate faction.

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When Clinton was elected president in 1992, Lieberman’s centrist profile rose. Several of his pet projects became part of Clinton’s agenda -- high-tech development, welfare reform, free trade. The two conferred often by phone, said intimates, talking for hours late at night over politics and a wide range of domestic and foreign matters.

Those conversations began dwindling in the summer of 1998, as Clinton was isolated by the gathering fury over the Monica S. Lewinsky affair. In an earlier 1998 interview, Lieberman said he had been privately “skeptical” of Clinton’s insistence that he had no relationship with the White House intern. But for months after the allegations broke in January that year, Lieberman kept silent, taking his old friend at his word, hoping for the best.

He was reluctant, aides said, to break ranks with other Democrats and suspicious that the crisis was inflamed by Clinton’s Republican enemies.

Lieberman’s hesitance began to crumble Aug. 17. That day, Clinton testified grudgingly before a federal grand jury, then acknowledged publicly that he and Lewinsky did have a relationship “that was not appropriate,” signaling that his earlier denials were lies. His allies were slow to react. The Senate was in recess and dismayed Democrats, scattered on holiday, were in no hurry to face public upheaval.

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Vacation was no protection for Lieberman. Staying with his family at a rented house on the Atlantic shore in Madison, Conn., he was approached by angry constituents wherever he turned. A woman buttonholed him and his wife, Hadassah, on the beach. Shoppers cornered him at the supermarket. “They were buzzing about it,” Lieberman recalled, “and a lot of them wanted resignation.”

Lieberman said later he never seriously considered that option. But the wave of public anger left him uneasy. Arguments spilled out even inside his beach house. Lieberman’s mother, Marcia, a longtime Democrat, insisted the president deserved support. His older children, Matt and Rebecca, clamored for their father to take a public stand against Clinton’s behavior.

The tipping point came when his younger daughter Hana, then 10, blurted out her fear of returning to school. She and a classmate had argued about whether the president was lying. Now she worried that the boy would mock her for sticking up for Clinton.

“That little voice silenced everybody,” Lieberman recalled. “It was like, whoosh! You realize when it’s affecting the little kids, maybe it’s time to speak up.”

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He began jotting down his thoughts on a legal pad. He telephoned aides who were also off on vacation, priming them for his decision. “It wasn’t just his gut reaction,” said William Andresen, Lieberman’s chief of staff at the time and now a lobbyist. “He saw it as his obligation because of all the work he’d done on values issues. He felt he’d be a hypocrite if he let it go unremarked.”

By the time Lieberman returned to his office the last day of August, word was out. National Public Radio reported that he was planning to go public with his criticism. Reports speculated that he might call for Clinton’s resignation or suggest the president had committed impeachable crimes.

Lieberman had not reached either of those conclusions. Instead, he asked aides to research the possibility of censure. It was a stern, but slightly more palatable option that would allow Democrats to register their displeasure with Clinton’s moral turpitude without accusing him of an impeachable offense.

Inside the White House, where a grim siege mentality had taken root, presidential aides wanted to be certain no Democrat strayed off course. Clinton’s chief of staff, Erskine Bowles, phoned Lieberman to ask a favor. The president was departing that Monday for Russia to confer with President Boris N. Yeltsin. Bowles wanted Lieberman to hold off any statement until after their meeting.

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“He didn’t want the situation at home to interrupt,” Lieberman recalled. “I thought that was a reasonable request, so I said, ‘Of course.’ ” After talking to then-Senate leader Tom Daschle, (D-S.D.), who also urged caution, he agreed to wait until Friday of that week to speak.

But behind the scenes, Clinton’s lawyers were worried that a stinging rebuke from an old Clinton friend might start a tidal wave of congressional outrage. They wanted to know exactly how far Lieberman would go.

A series of delicate secret contacts ensued between Lieberman aides and the White House, according to former officials in both camps. Lieberman’s people said the senator was firm in his intention to criticize the president, but they privately assured Clinton’s legal staff that he would not press for impeachment or resignation. Among White House aides aware of the contacts, it softened the blow. But others seethed.

“There were some people in the White House who completely lost perspective,” said one aide. “If you weren’t 100% for [Clinton], you were a traitor.”

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Alarmed fundraisers and party loyalists deluged Lieberman’s office with warnings. He kept to an inner office, huddling with aides to craft his words. He wanted to vent his anger, but he didn’t want it to be about his own disappointment. He tried to couch his displeasure from the view of a wounded nation.

“He didn’t want it to sound like he was lashing out,” said Dan Gerstein, a former Senate aide who is Lieberman’s campaign communications deputy. “He wanted to confront the consequences for Clinton’s presidency and for the country.”

Then, on Thursday, Lieberman learned from Senate leaders that there would be no session Friday. It was either go for broke then or wait until the following week. Lieberman decided it was time: “I felt that unless somebody who was a supporter of his spoke out, things would just keep spiraling out of control.” He returned to his office to pick up the speech. On the way back to the Senate chamber on the underground tram, Gerstein noticed Lieberman swinging his arms, a telltale sign of nerves.

Only a few senators mingled about inside the cavernous chamber. Indiana Republican Dan Coats was presiding. Lieberman asked for the floor, then bore in on his speech.

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“I rise today to make the most difficult and distasteful statement, for me probably the most difficult statement I have made on this floor in the 10 years I have been a member of the U.S. Senate,” he began.

He told of his personal anger at Clinton’s “disgraceful behavior” and his dismay at the lies he had believed. He linked Clinton’s conduct with concerns that “our society’s standards are sinking; that our common moral code is deteriorating.” He cited the “unseemly” questions that his young daughter had asked about the affair and the “double standards” that arise when a president “evades” the truth.

But Lieberman cautioned against “unjust and unwise” calls for impeachment and resignation. He said he preferred a lesser “measure of public rebuke.”

Then he sat down, listening to the silence. It was broken by Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), who rose a seat behind him to condemn Clinton and “thank the senator from Connecticut.” The late New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan chimed in, openly grateful to Lieberman for “saying what was needed.”

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Lieberman’s words became grist for the nightly news. In the immediate aftermath, it appeared that he had a paid a steep price. His pollster, Stan Greenberg, arrived with the grim news that his approval rating in Connecticut had sunk 15 percentage points. “There were a lot of state Democrats who felt he betrayed the party,” one aide said.

But to Democratic centrists like From, Lieberman’s speech “saved the Clinton presidency. It lanced the boil by saying what he did was wrong without calling for him to resign.”

Lieberman’s newfound reputation as a politician willing to speak his mind at any price also had long-term rewards. Several campaign aides in Gore’s 2000 bid said the speech was a plus in Gore’s decision to choose Lieberman as his running mate -- allowing the vice president to separate himself from Clinton’s moral failings, while still praising his policy successes.

“Lieberman echoed moral outrage in a way that Gore himself couldn’t do,” said Elaine Kamarck, a former senior Gore aide who is a public policy lecturer at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. “It certainly helped increase his respect for Lieberman.”

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Now, mounting his own presidential bid, Lieberman looks back on his 1998 speech as a part of his resume that no longer requires reminders. If it was a defining moment in his career then, he no longer feels the need to define it for others. And anything that dredges up the queasiness and chaos of Clinton’s dark days is anathema to a party aching to return to the White House.

“I’m proud of it because it was the right thing to do,” Lieberman explained as he hurried to a speech in South Carolina this week. “But it just doesn’t come up that much and we’ve never really thought about bringing it up. If I may be so bold, it is part of my past, but that’s the past. Right now, I’m trying to concentrate on the future.”

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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Joe Lieberman

Personal

Born: Feb. 24, 1942, in Stamford, Conn.

Hometown: New Haven, Conn.

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Family: Married to Hadassah Lieberman. Four children: Matthew and Rebecca from first marriage, stepson Ethan and daughter Hana Rachel from second marriage. Three grandchildren: Tennessee, Willie and Eden

Education: Yale University, bachelor of arts, 1964; Yale Law School, 1967

Career: Lawyer, 1967-70, 1980-1982; Connecticut Senate, 1970-80 (majority leader, 1974-80); Connecticut attorney general, 1983-88; U.S. Senate, 1989 to present

By the numbers

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0% -- Share of the Iowa delegates awarded to Lieberman in the state’s caucuses this week. (He did not campaign in Iowa.)

6 -- Number of books Lieberman has written, including “The Power Broker,” a biography of party boss John M. Bailey, for whom he worked as an intern, and texts on atomic weapons and child support.

About 1% -- Lieberman’s margin of victory in his 1988 Senate run against incumbent Republican Lowell Weicker.

56% -- Share of the vote the Gore-Lieberman ticket carried in Connecticut in 2000.

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$2.7 million -- Amount Lieberman’s campaign has spent on TV advertising since June.

$1 million - Amount spent on TV ads in Boston alone.

A closer look

* Lieberman, an avid New York Yankees fan, was senior prom king and senior class president at Stamford High School.

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* Lieberman’s mother, Marcia, often campaigns for him, speaking to groups of seniors from her wheelchair.

* As a Yale Law School student, Bill Clinton volunteered for Lieberman’s successful 1970 bid for state Senate against Connecticut Senate Majority Leader Edward Marcus.

* As Al Gore’s running mate in 2000, Lieberman was the first Jewish candidate on a major-party ticket.

* Lieberman’s wife is Czech, the daughter of two Holocaust survivors.

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The lowdown

Lieberman delayed the start of his campaign out of deference to former Vice President Al Gore, who elevated Lieberman to national prominence by making him his running mate in 2000. By the time Gore opted out of the race in mid-December 2002, many of the Democratic Party’s leading donors and strategists were spoken for, and Lieberman has struggled to catch up ever since. His comparatively conservative positions -- including strong support for the invasion of Iraq -- are a tough sell in a Democratic primary process that tends to attract liberal activists. He hopes a strong showing in New Hampshire will make him a credible contender when the race shifts to the South and West, which could prove somewhat more fertile for his centrist message.

Analysis by Mark Z. Barabak

Sources: Almanac of American Politics, National Journal, Washington Post, www.joe2004.com

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