The Soul And The Steel

I am going to Mississippi because there is much work to be done there and few men are doing it," wrote 21-year-old Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Yale Daily News, in his column on Oct. 28, 1963. Lieberman was headed south to help register black voters for a mock election, a prelude to the 1964 Mississippi Summer campaign. It wasn't the only cause he championed from his perch at the paper, and his positions weren't always predictable. That same fall he defended--unsuccessfully--Gov. George Wallace's right to speak to a campus group. But racial injustice in Mississippi struck the deepest chord. "It all becomes a personal matter to me," he wrote. "I am challenged personally." Friends from the Yale days say the Lieberman that Al Gore selected as his running mate last week is the one they knew: pious, earnest, driven but never doctrinaire. One classmate, attorney Angus Macbeth, remembers a favorite phrase Lieberman used to describe his objective in life: "to roll the great ball of truth and goodness forward an inch or two."

In 1992 Bill Clinton needed a running mate with stature to boost his struggling presidential candidacy and found Gore. Now, diminished by eight years in Clinton's shadow, Gore is hoping that Lieberman can do the same for him. Of the finalists in the vice presidential sweepstakes, he is probably closest to being Gore's political soulmate. He is a moderate man with a generally liberal record, yet willing to break with Democratic orthodoxy on issues like defense spending and media violence. And despite the virtuous manner, he is also a canny and tough-minded competitor with a history of knocking off heavily favored incumbents.

Lieberman understands the politics of faith. After winning statewide office in Connecticut four times since 1982, he told NEWSWEEK in an interview, he is confident that his religion will not be held against him. "It's not just a matter of theory; it grows out of my entire life," he said. "I've found people not only extremely tolerant and fair--judging me on my personal qualifications--but also extremely respectful. I've found that my religious observance has created a bond with people." Still, there remains The Question: are voters ready to accept a Jew--a Sabbath-observant Jew who retreats from the world every Friday at sundown for 24 hours--one step from the presidency? (Lieberman says he would break the Sabbath, as he has in the Senate, to conduct important business.) While the polls say yes, some strategists worry that anti-Semitism running under the radar of the surveys will cost Gore votes. "I've got six words for you," said one Democrat: "Tom Bradley, Harvey Gantt, David Dinkins," referring to black candidates misled by their polls.

Lieberman's early life was steeped in spirituality. Henry Lieberman, a Stamford, Conn., liquor-store owner, and his wife, Marcia, raised their son as an Orthodox Jew. But Lieberman says it was his grandmother Minnie, a deeply religious Central European emigrant--Baba, he called her in Yiddish--who was, as he said in his recent memoir, "my window to the Old World and my path to appreciating the New World." He entered Yale in 1960 and, as a sophomore, joined the Daily News, the heart of political life on campus. Friends said there was never any doubt that he was headed for a political career. "Joe was fully formed," said New York investment banker Alan McFarland, an undergraduate and law-school classmate at Yale. "It was just a question of his playing out his hand."

In New Haven Lieberman met the two mentors who embody the yin and yang of his politics. Sen. Abraham Ribicoff, who hired him as a summer intern in 1963, was a statesmanlike legislator whose bipartisan civility left a lasting impact on Lieberman. But the young man was also enamored of John Bailey, a classic, cigar-chomping backroom boss who ran the state Democratic Party with an iron fist. Lieberman found Bailey's rough-and-tumble, machine style of politics just as effective in its own way, and he made the boss the subject of his senior thesis.

Lieberman's own political career began six years later with a stunning upset. He was 27 and practicing law in New Haven when he targeted Ed Marcus, the powerful majority leader of the state Senate. It seemed like a long shot; Marcus was a liberal Democrat with views indistinguishable from Lieberman's. But that year Yale students were allowed to vote in local elections, and Lieberman mounted a relentless door-knocking campaign to organize them. He took Marcus down in the primary and went to the state Senate, eventually taking his opponent's job as majority leader.

Lieberman wasn't observant at Yale. But now, married and beginning a family, he wanted to set an example for his children by integrating spirituality with his political and professional life. Colleagues understood, but sometimes they slipped up. One Saturday a New Haven law partner, Jim Segaloff, received a major court decision in the mail and rushed to Lieberman's house to tell him. When Lieberman answered the door, an excited Segaloff brandished the opinion--and immediately realized his mistake. "It was almost as if I were Moses with the burning bush," Segaloff recalled. "He jumped back, and then I realized it was the Sabbath."

Lieberman took some hard falls as he struggled to keep his balance. In 1980 he thought he'd found his next political opportunity when the congressman from his district retired unexpectedly. Three weeks before Election Day his polling showed him 19 points ahead. But his Republican opponent, Larry DeNardis, launched a series of ads attacking him as a big-spending liberal. Lieberman lost the race, and a year later his marriage. He and Betty Haas had met as interns in Ribicoff's office, but she shared neither his political ambition nor his growing religious conservatism. They were in couples counseling during the campaign, but in 1981 they divorced. "Joe had a lot of interests--religion, politics and family, in no particular order," said a friend. "I'll leave it to your own conclusion, but Betty was a Reform Jew."

Lieberman, depressed and uncertain about the future, limped back to his law practice. He considered getting out of politics but decided to take one more shot. He won the Democratic nomination for state attorney general in 1982, and went on to win the general election. He staged a personal comeback as well. During the campaign a mutual friend introduced him to Hadassah Freilich Tucker, the daughter of Holocaust survivors and a New York divorcee with a 6-year-old son. On his first visit it was "chemistry at first conversation and, later that day, love at first sight," Lieberman wrote. They married in 1983.

When Lieberman became attorney general, he took over what had been a moribund, part-time office. He turned it into a showcase for high-profile prosecutions and investigations, going after lead-paint manufacturers, crooked car dealers and corporate polluters. After re-election in 1986, Lieberman had his eye on a 1990 gubernatorial run. But Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, a friend from Yale, encouraged him to take a look at Lowell Weicker, Connecticut's maverick Republican senator, who was up for re-election in 1988. Lieberman assumed Weicker was unbeatable until Kerry, head of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, sent him a thick book detailing Weicker's poor voting record on issues like environmental protection. Weicker had also missed a significant number of votes, in some cases because he was off delivering buck-raking speeches to private groups. Lieberman decided to make the race.

This time Lieberman ran to Weicker's right, assailing him as a wealthy, out-of-touch liberal. Lieberman trailed badly for most of the campaign, and stumbled into a fund-raising controversy reminiscent of Al Gore's troubles. In September he attended a $500-a-head fund-raiser at Gahan's Saloon, a gritty Irish bar in Waterbury. The next morning's local paper carried a picture of him shaking hands with a well-known local gambler. It also turned out that the bar's owner had recently pleaded guilty to campaign-finance violations. Weicker's campaign pounced on the story, saying Lieberman had no business visiting the saloon. Lieberman said he simply wasn't aware of the details.A decade later, as a member of the U.S. Senate committee investigating 1996 campaign-finance practices, he accepted a similar explanation from Gore for his visit to the Hsi Lai Buddhist temple.

The 1988 race turned when Lieberman's adman Carter Eskew, now Gore's message guru, created a legendary attack ad that likened Weicker to a sleeping bear. The cartoon shows a bear cave with "Zzzzzs" floating from the entrance. "On things that matter to him personally, he will always growl," said the narrator. "But sometimes when it matters, he is sleeping." Lieberman won--by only 10,000 votes.

In the Senate, Lieberman built a reputation as a bipartisan compromiser with a special interest in issues with a moral or cultural dimension, like media violence. Moderate to conservative on military matters (for a Democrat), he has also become a respected voice on defense issues. From his seat on the Armed Services Committee, he has pushed the military to rethink its mission in the post-cold-war world. "He's widely regarded as the lineal successor to Scoop Jackson and Sam Nunn," said Andrew Krepinevich of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. But Lieberman's overall record is not as centrist as is generally assumed. He has adhered to the Democratic Party line on issues like abortion, gun control and the environment. After a brief flirtation with partial privatization of Social Security--favored by George W. Bush--he rejected it (well before joining the ticket)as unworkable.

Still, Lieberman will be a tough sell to some of the party's most powerful interest groups, and some strategists worry that it will complicate Gore's efforts to secure a still-rickety Democratic base. Lieberman's outspoken criticism of excessive sex and violence in films has left many major Hollywood figures uneasy about his spot on the ticket. Teachers unions haven't forgotten his early advocacy of school vouchers--which Gore opposes. Lieberman also supported limits on damages in civil lawsuits, making him an enemy of the biggest party interest group of all: trial lawyers. Connecticut Democrats who remember Lieberman as a liberal state senator and crusading attor-ney general complain privately about his tack to the center in recent years.

His selection may also complicate Gore's efforts to depict Bush as a patsy for big business. Since 1995 Lieberman has chaired the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), the centrist think tank that eschews liberal dogma and promotes market-oriented approaches to policy. Like many similar groups, the DLC (of which Gore is a founding member) has never disclosed its funding sources. But last week, in response to requests from NEWSWEEK, it turned over a list of top donors. If Gore still hopes to score populist points by bashing Big Oil and pharmaceutical companies that oppose his plan to add a prescription-drug entitlement to Medicare, he may have some explaining to do. Among the DLC's biggest benefactors last year (contributions of between $50,000 and $100,000) were ARCO, Chevron and the drug giant Merck. Other big underwriters include Du Pont, Microsoft and Philip Morris (which has kicked in $500,000 since Lieberman became DLC chairman). There is no evidence that the DLC has trimmed policies to accommodate its patrons, but some contributors say the money has helped ensure an open door to Lieberman. "We've been able to have a dialogue with the senator and his staff," said Jay Rosser, spokesman for another DLC benefactor, Koch Industries, an oil-pipeline firm that is also a big GOP donor.

History strongly suggests that voters don't pay much attention to the bottom of the ticket when making their choice. Shortly before Gore chose Lieberman, one senior campaign aide said he usually applied a 72-hour rule of thumb for running mates: if they are still on the front page three days after their nomination, it means there's a problem. Lieberman has already rewritten that rule after his gleeful leap into the presidential campaign last week. But will Liebermania do much to actually change the unwritten laws of national elections? Joe Lieberman, venturing into unknown political territory, is about to find out.