Why We Need More Joe Liebermans (Hartford Courant)
By DAVID GERGEN | COMMENTARY
In his book of a quarter-century ago, “The Cycles of American History,” Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote that as scholars look back from a distance, the reputations of some presidents rise while others fall. In our own time, for example, Truman and Eisenhower shine more brightly while the glow of Jefferson and Kennedy has slightly dimmed.
How will it be for Sen. Joseph Lieberman after he retires from the U.S. Senate this year? His critics will be unmerciful for a while. They argue that after being rewarded with the vice presidential nomination of the Democratic party in 2000, he was soon an ingrate; that he helped to drive the nation into a senseless war in Iraq; and that he shows no remorse for his transgressions. Democrats in Connecticut tend to agree: in recent polls they turn thumbs down on him — 41percent approval, 46 percent disapproval.
Yet I would wager that in the rear view mirror of history, Lieberman will look much, much better. Washington is likely to become ever more dysfunctional in the years immediately ahead. Perhaps this presidential election will bring a honeymoon period, but it is likely we will soon return to a politics of red tooth and claw.
In their new book, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann observe that a central problem is the gradual disappearance of moderate, independent voices, giving way to people on both sides marching in lockstep. In effect, the Founders gave us a republic — which requires compromise — and we are now imposing upon it a parliamentary politics that demands conformity.
To break out, we need to restore a culture in which our leaders are smart enough to think for themselves, brave enough to stand up for their beliefs and tough enough to accept the consequences. What clearer example will we have than Joe Lieberman’s half-century in the public arena?
He has cut his own furrow all his life. Back in the early 1960s, we were on the Yale Daily News together. Joe caused a stir when he joined the civil rights fight and penned a piece, “Why I Go to Mississippi.” It was a testament to who he was then and now. “I am going to Mississippi because there is much work to be done there and few men are doing it … And I do not feel you are justified to speak snidely of me as an ‘outside agitator.’ I am an American. This is one nation or it is nothing.”
He grew up in a lower-middle-class Orthodox Jewish family in Stamford. There he lived with his grandmother, a Polish immigrant, for eight years until his dad’s liquor business did well enough that the family could buy a home.
Joe has remained devoutly religious ever since those early years. He cites the Hebrew phrase “tikkun olam” (“to repair the world”) as a guiding principle in his public life. It “presumes the inherent but unfulfilled goodness of people and requires action for the benefit of the community,” he writes in his memoir. “These beliefs were a powerful force in my upbringing and seem even more profound and true to me today …The ideal of service was fundamental to my religious faith.”
As the nation has learned, he faithfully observes Shabbat but when an important vote conflicts, he calls upon religious law allowing him to break the Sabbath for the welfare of his community. On 30 or so occasions, he has walked five miles from his home and synagogue to the Senate floor to cast his vote.
Ironically, when he was Connecticut’s attorney general in 1988, he won his first Senate race by defeating a Rockefeller Republican who had been largely abandoned by his own party for his moderate views. Joe ran to the right of Lowell Weicker Jr. on defense, school prayer and even abortion. William F. Buckley Jr. even endorsed him, saying that although Lieberman was a Democrat, “it is always possible that he will progress in the right direction.”
Buckley hoped that Democrats would drift right, but it is more accurate to say that they went left and Joe didn’t, especially on foreign policy. To those new to politics, he doesn’t seem to fit any model, but for those of us around a long time, he is very much in the tradition of the late Washington senator, Henry “Scoop” Jackson — a defense hawk and a socially liberal warrior. The late Jeane Kirkpatrick was a Scoop Jackson Democrat, as is Ben Wattenberg.
Thus Joe fought for school vouchers and endorsed Republican John McCain for president in 2008, but was also a leader in the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and was an aggressive supporter of carbon cap-and-trade.
With his retirement, we will be poorer as a nation. The coming years will require moderation, compromise and courage at a level we are rapidly losing. The day will come when we see that we need more Joe Liebermans in our public life, not fewer.
David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and was an adviser in the Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton administrations. He is a professor of public service and the director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School.