Mourning Joe: Losing Lieberman, We Lose a Principled Independent

In the summer of 1997, the Republican-controlled Senate Governmental Affairs Committee was investigating whether the Clinton-Gore White House and the Democratic National Committee had engaged in improper, or even illegal, fundraising practices during President Bill Clinton’s 1996 reelection campaign. Acrimony was high, and partisan divides were sharp. The storylines were front-page news as the nationally televised hearings began: Had fundraising events at the White House violated the Hatch Act? Had special favors been dispensed to Democratic donors? Had overnights in the Lincoln Bedroom been used to stroke bundlers?
The bottom line was apparent from the outset. Whichever party controls the White House has used comparable money-raising gambits, which only means that there has been enough conduct that is depressing to go around. But there certainly was evidence aplenty that the Clinton campaign had engaged in fundraising that was smarmy, even if the smarm had a long bipartisan heritage.
One could regard the hearings as mere political theater, and it was in the Democrats’ interest to look at it just that way — and to urge America to do the same. One Democratic senator on the committee did not. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., was neither a political novice nor a naif, but he took the evidence presented by the Republicans of machinations that ranged between unsavory and shady very seriously. A loyal Democrat who did not place himself on a pedestal, Lieberman nevertheless regarded some of what came before the committee as a moral affront. He declined to whitewash the malodorous facts or to pretend they didn’t exist.
One day, the committee’s Republican majority subpoenaed a businessman who, ever-so-coincidentally, had received administration approval for a lucrative energy contract contemporaneously with his massive contribution to the Democratic Party. During their questioning, the Democratic senators took turns evading the obvious issue: Everything about the matter screamed three Latin words — quid pro quo.
All except one. When it was his turn to examine the witness, Lieberman walked the unhappy businessman through the timing of Democratic fundraisers’ solicitation of his contribution, the contribution, his company’s request for agency approval and the approval.
Lieberman, who had once been Connecticut’s attorney general, was soft-spoken about it, but unrelenting.
On the dais where the committee sat, just inches from where Lieberman was conducting his cross-examination, a Democratic senator leaned over to the Democrats’ Counsel and whispered, with irritation, “What the hell is Joe doing?”
What the hell Joe was doing, of course, was the job of a public-spirited public servant who took his public service seriously. It was what earned him so much respect from Democrats and Republicans alike. Four hours before Lieberman died, a student at a school in Maine asked Republican Sen. Susan Collins, herself the object of plenty of poison arrows from multiple directions, who she enjoyed working with the most during her career. It was Lieberman, she replied.
Lieberman was famously a man of faith, and he bonded quickly with others of faith, whatever that faith happened to be. Terry Segal, a close friend of Lieberman since their days together at Yale University, remembers that Lieberman wouldn’t go the Connecticut Democratic Party convention whose nomination for attorney general he was seeking because it fell on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. “We said to him ‘You could lose!'” Segal recalls. “He said ‘Well, so what?'”
The recollections of a good, decent and unpretentious man flooded in after Lieberman’s death, and they were of a single piece. “He was always so gracious,” said Boston lawyer Keith Carroll, who was among Lieberman’s first interns when he was elected to the Senate in 1988. “All of his success never changed who he was.”
There were some, to be sure, who despised Lieberman because he rejected their policy prescriptions. “Joe Lieberman never got the war with Iran that he so desperately wanted,” posted Matt Duss, Bernie Sanders’ former foreign policy adviser, just hours after Lieberman’s death. Joe Lieberman would have just shaken his head at the lack of class. A pity that some people couldn’t be more like him.
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