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A moral drive for the presidency

This is the sixth in a series of profiles of leading candidates in the 2004 presidential election.

With lurid details about President Clinton's dalliances with White House intern Monica Lewinsky dominating the news in Washington, a prominent conservative confronted the one man he thought could bring an end to the national embarrassment: Joseph I. Lieberman.

It was late summer 1998. William Bennett had spent much of the year teaming with the Connecticut senator on a high-profile crusade against the entertainment industry, which both men thought shamelessly peddled sex and violence. Bennett heard that his good friend was preparing to speak out against Clinton, so he paid a visit.

"I asked Joe to call on the president to resign," Bennett said. "He was deeply disgusted with the president. He conceded my argument had merit . . . but he said to me: `[Clinton] won't listen to me.' "

Days later, on Sept. 3, in the well of the Senate, with networks broadcasting live, Lieberman finally delivered his speech: "Such behavior is not just inappropriate, it is immoral . . . it is embarrassing for all of us as Americans." Other Democrats, who had held their tongues for months, rushed to condemn the president after Lieberman finished.

But in his speech -- the most important of his career -- Lieberman argued against removing the president. He did not call on Clinton to step down. Instead, he advocated censure, the congressional slap on the wrist that Clinton eventually received. "I know from the Bible that only God can judge people," Lieberman said.

The Democratic party's most prominent moralist had enhanced his own public reputation while forcefully pushing to keep Clinton in office. It was the kind of careful balance of moral righteousness and political pragmatism, of condemnation and compromise, that has defined Lieberman's political career.

Lieberman's stern moral views solidified in his teen years, a time when the earnest young man, in stark contrast to his peers, was immersed in daily prayer and religious instruction. His life then was steeped in the lessons of Jewish history and nurtured by a family deeply concerned about events beyond the placid confines of suburban Connecticut.

"Among our Jewish circle of friends, he was the only one we knew who was truly religious," said childhood friend Michael J. Arons, now a psychiatrist based in Reston, Va. "He's the only one who was kosher outside his home. He was the only one who didn't drive on Saturdays. He didn't talk about it. He just did it."

Faith drives virutally every aspect of Lieberman's personal and public life. Aside from a brief abandonment of daily prayer during his years at Yale, he has maintained a rigorous schedule of worship since his youth, even when it meant interrupting his political life. His faith led him to take public stands in favor of the use of tax money for religious school vouchers and against gratuitous sex and violence in the entertainment industry.

In an election season shadowed by war and terrorism, Lieberman's aggressive support for military action has drawn attention that has won him followers among conservative Democrats, and enemies among more liberal ones. It is a position also rooted in his youth and developed throughout his career.

"We were Jews, and we were targeted . . . while others stood by," said Connecticut-based Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz, explaining a core lesson he taught Lieberman during three intense years of religious education in the 1950s.

The conclusion: Action in defense of security is a moral imperative.

In his college years, Lieberman chided "peace groups" in print for inadequate support of President Kennedy's dealings with the Soviet Union. He initially supported the Vietnam war, then changed his mind in late 1967, when he decided it was "the wrong place to be." He has firmly backed every military action since then: Grenada, Libya, Panama, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and both Gulf wars. He pushed legislation ordering efforts to oust Saddam Hussein three years before the Sept. 11 attacks.

Lieberman's stands on public morals and military affairs, more than those on any other position, animate his quest for the presidency. And his views were nurtured during childhood amid a family and milieu deeply concerned with right and wrong.

Crucible of youth

Joseph Isadore Lieberman was born to Marcia and Henry Lieberman on Feb. 24, 1942, the first of three children. His father ran Hamilton Liquors, building the business from scratch after mustering out of the US Army at the end of World War II. Henry, who died in 1986 at age 70, never attended college but had an insatiable intellectual curiosity, said his wife, Marcia, who recalled spirited family dinner-table discussions on politics, art, and philosophy. Henry took the children to the opera on Sundays, and to ballet at Carnegie Hall. And always he stressed education, not as a means to gain wealth, but for its own sake.

"Henry was sweet, loving, quiet, and measured," Marcia Lieberman said. "He never raised his voice."

Harmony prevailed in the 1950s in Stamford, a middle class suburb of New York City that boasted three synagogues. The Liebermans' orthodox synagogue often hosted raffles and dinner dances with St. Cecilia's Catholic Church across the street. Family members remember non-Jewish neighbors calling out "Happy Sabbath!" as they strolled home from Saturday services.

The Liebermans practiced orthodox Judaism, and that meant certain rules: three daily prayers, a kosher diet, and rest from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. During the Sabbath respite, the family would play board games, take naps, and talk. And talk often meant time with Baba.

Baba was the Yiddish nickname for Lieberman's maternal grandmother, Minnie Manger. After her husband died, she raised five children on her own, coming to the United States from rural Austria before World War I. Manger maintained a nearby house in Stamford but increasingly spent time with her daughter's family as she aged. In her thick Austrian accent, she would tell the family about the Old Country.

"She was my link to the past," Lieberman said. "She tied me to that with stories and also by her very person." Lieberman recalled Baba's insistence that faith was central to life. She once expressed incredulity when local activists protested the erection of a nativity scene in a public park. Faith, she said, was as natural as grass and trees.

When Lieberman was 13, he began the religious education expected of all orthodox teens. His class of 20 boys met weekly in the basement of the Agudath Shalom synagogue. His teacher, Rabbi Ehrenkranz, now an official at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., distinctly remembers that class: "He was very bright. And very sharp and engaged. But so was the rest of the class. . . . They would argue and question: Why is that good? How can that be right? Where do you get that from?"

Ehrenkranz reviewed specific Jewish laws, scripture, and ritual with the boys. Discussion, however, often centered on morality and politics. They talked about civil rights and communism. But often the discussion turned to the Jewish experience in World War II. Ehrenkranz, for instance, once delivered a pointed lecture on the plight of the SS St. Louis. The ship ferried 937 Jews away from Nazi violence in 1939, only to be turned back to Europe by the United States. "Even this country has a long way to go," the rabbi told his students.

In religion class Leiberman's congenial, almost grandfatherly, rhetorical style was apparent. "I never saw him angry," Ehrenkranz said. "I would lift my voice, and he wouldn't shout back."

The combination of the class, the tight Jewish community, and the times made a deep impression on the teens. "The merging of post-World War II pride in America and the post-1947 war for independence in Israel and the Holocaust was a strong background for our values," Arons recalled. "We really learned about individual responsiblity through those events."

Many class members went on to notable careers in medicine, law, and journalism. Lieberman recalls the class inspiring him to seek a career in politics -- he often sites tikkun olam, the Jewish doctine of bettering the world, in campaign speeches. And he recalls concluding, at that early age, that life must be governed by moral absolutes.

"When [God's] law was given on Mt. Sinai, it was an attempt to give people a system of right and wrong," he said. "We continue to work to do our human best, as imperfect as we are, to make life better . . . and evil continues to exist in the world, and it's our responsibility to deal with it, change it, and if necessary . . . defeat it."

Lieberman began taking his daily prayers more seriously, studying the Old Testament and the writings of the great rabbinical scholars who interpreted and advanced Jewish theology. Jewish ritual and study became the constant in his teenage life. And although he refuses to directly link his policy positions today with religious doctrine, he says, "If you believe as I do that there is a God that created us, then you try to be consistent with that view and try to treat people with respect and affection."

It was an outlook that helped Lieberman excel socially at Stamford's public high school.

"The one remarkable thing about Joe is that I don't think he had an enemy in high school," said William Truehart, one of Lieberman's close childhood friends, and one of Stamford High School's few black students. "Everyone seemed to love him."

God and man at Yale

Put on the waiting list at Harvard, Lieberman opted to go to Yale. There he ate kosher food in a special dining room for observant Jews but stopped praying three times daily -- a staple of his life to that point. And the Sabbath was no longer sacred.

"When I look back, it was such a classic [college] pattern," he said. "I just stopped observing the Sabbath for a period of time."

Instead he busied himself with student activities: Yale Democratic Club; Capitol Hill internships; and, most important, chairmanship of the Yale Daily News, then a gathering place for the politically inclined. Some of his core political views first came into public light there, his childhood lessons in morality providing a tool to judge the world around him.

In an Oct. 30, 1962, column, he wrote of the Cuban Missle Crisis: "To have done nothing -- as peace groups have suggested --probably would have brought us more quickly to the nuclear holocaust which these groups so drastically fear." John F. Kennedy's actions, he wrote, had "vividly re-established [American] determination to insure the security of the West at any cost . . . we live in a world of unpleasant alternatives."

And in an editorial published Dec. 18, 1963, on Lydon Johnson's $1.2 billion aid package to schools, he wrote: "We are pleased to note that this new program offers aid to private and parochial schools as well as public schools . . . we see no good reason why the federal government should not help provide non-religious facilities to church-related schools."

But perhaps no words weighed more on him than those he quoted from the Talmud in a column he wrote in the summer of 1963: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, when then?" Lieberman was preparing to go to Mississippi with about 70 Yale students to conduct a mock election for blacks, an exercise designed to refute the widespread contention that blacks weren't responsible enough to vote. Some classmates were beaten and jailed; Lieberman handled publicity, mainly calling reporters and issuing press releases.

Returning to New Haven, Lieberman graduated, then went straight to Yale Law School. While there he married Elizabeth Haas, whom he had met during a Washington internship. The couple quickly started a family. But just two years out of law school, tikkun olam called, and the moral idealist turned his attention to messy real-world politics.

Political hardball

During his time at Yale, Lieberman had conducted a detailed study of John M. Bailey, a towering figure in Connecticut politics who presided over the state's Democratic electoral machine during three decades as the state party's chair. Lieberman had decided state politics would be his career, and studying Bailey would be ideal preparation. Lieberman's reporting, published in 1966 as "The Power Brokers," examined Bailey's deft balancing and manipulation of Connecticut's various political constituencies. After a childhood steeped in doctrine and philosophy, it was a lesson in street-level politicking.

In 1969, with two draft deferments -- the first for being a student, the second for being a father -- keeping him out of the Vietnam War, Lieberman turned his attention to the state Senate. He was living in New Haven and working for a law firm when the incumbent announced he would not seek reelection. Lieberman jumped in the race, brandishing the slogan, "A Strong New Voice for a Better New Haven."

He took Bailey's lessons to heart, squeaking out a 240-vote victory by mobilizing the constituency he knew best: Yale students, who had just been allowed to vote locally. A Yale law student named Bill Clinton helped in the campaign, though the gregarious Arkansas native didn't make an impression on Lieberman. Rather it was another Yale friend, Lanny Davis, later Clinton's White House lawyer, who played the crucial role in getting Yalies to the polls.

Lieberman served for 10 years in the Connecticut state Senate, the last six as majority leader. Over that period, he focused most of his efforts on education reform. But in an increasingly depressed New Haven, in which his house was twice broken into and in which several of his friends were mugged, he also began to adopt a tough-on-crime philosophy. So it was that after absorbing liberal crime theories in law school, he began to push for death penalty legislation in the real world.

At the same time, he gained currency in Connecticut as a religious politician after opting to skip the state's 1978 Democratic convention because it fell on the Sabbath.

"His faith went a long way in a state like Connecticut, with a heavy Italian-American and Irish-American Catholic population," said John F. Droney, a Farmington, Conn., lawyer and former chairman of the state Democratic Party. "He's had tremendous support in those communities."

In 1980 Lieberman ran for the US House of Representatives. But Ronald Reagan's landslide presidential win had long coattails, and Lieberman's Republican opponent took the seat. Lieberman's busy political life had put strains on his marriage, and he and Haas soon divorced. He returned to private law practice, a time period he now places among his darkest hours.

Two years later, however, he rebounded, winning decisively in a race to become Connecticut's attorney general. In that position he focused on environmental issues. Nature was God's creation and thus deserved vigilant protection, he believed. Later in his career he would draft key portions of the federal Clean Air Act, devise stiff penalties for corporations involved in oil spills, and fervently oppose drilling in northern Alaska.

His personal life improved as well. In 1983 he married Hadassah Freilich Tucker, an orthodox Jew from Gardner, Mass. The two had been set up on a blind date, and had courted between Lieberman's political events.

"It was easy to talk to him," Hadassah recalled. "I found him simpatico. I found him understanding. We'd both been through a divorce, both had children. Our priorities were the same. We shared common values."

And they shared an upbringing steeped in Jewish history, though Hadassah's connections to the mid-century horrors were even more direct than Lieberman's.

"When you have parents who went through the Holocaust . . . concentration camps, slave labor camps . . ." she said, trailing off. "My early formation was to hear stories from another place, another world, another part of history, to hear what happens when people go against one another."

Lieberman's wife would become an essential adviser, and soon after their marriage he received an intriguing proposal from a man who, two decades later, would be his steadfast opponent. Halfway through his second term as attorney general, a Yale friend, US Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, began calling him regularly, urging him to challenge incumbent Republican US Senator Lowell Weicker, who had held his seat for all of Lieberman's adult life. Lieberman accepted.

He attacked Weicker, a moderate Republican, from the right, criticizing his failure to support Reagan's military actions in Libya and Grenada. Lieberman advocated a moment of silence in school, whereas Weicker stood against school prayer. But the incumbent held on in the polls, until Kerry again helped out. He sent Lieberman an extensive opposition research memo revealing that Weicker had missed several Senate votes because he was off speaking to lobbying groups. Using this research, the Lieberman campaign crafted attack television spots depicting Weicker as a sleeping bear, playing off his girth. The ads are still infamous in Connecticut political circles.

Lieberman won the closest Connecticut election in almost two decades -- by less than 1 percent of the vote. But his attention would quickly turn away from Connecticut, to a wider, more dangerous world.

A hawk takes flight

On Sept. 11, 1989, Lieberman gaveled open the first Senate hearing he ever chaired. Senator John Glenn, an Ohio Democrat, who headed the Governmental Affairs Committee, allowed Lieberman to set any agenda. He chose terrorism.

"We appear to be entering a new era in our foreign relations, an era in which the defense of our national security may have to be redefined," he said, with striking prescience. "In the years ahead, the threat of terrorism may become even greater, as terrorists gain access to more sophisticated technology. . . . Defending against terrorism is obviously no simple matter. Intelligence can be difficult to obtain because of the tight-knit nature of these groups. . . . Even if we learn about the leaders of terrorist organizations, we may not know where they are located at a given time."

A hawk had emerged. By his 1994 reelection race, Lieberman was the eighth-largest recipient of defense industry PAC contributions, netting $136,084, according federal data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group. For his 2000 Senate race, which he ran simultaneously with his vice presidential bid, he received $92,700 from the industry. Much of it was local, from Connecticut-based defense firms like Pratt & Whitney, United Technologies, and General Dynamics Electric Boat. The insurance and pharmaceutical industries, both with deep Connecticut ties, also contributed heavily to his campaigns.

"As state attorney general he was pushing consumerism . . . but as a senator, he took kind of a probusiness stance, much of it in support of defense contractors," said Howard Reiter, University of Connecticut political scientist and longtime Lieberman watcher.

Lieberman would go on to support the Reagan-era missle defense system, as well as tax cuts on profits from investments, mostly benefiting the wealthy. He favored limiting consumer lawsuits against corporations. He was in favor of capital punishment. And he backed government aid to religious schools. Those positions put him at odds with most Democrats. But he could not be pigeonholed. He also supported lifting the ban on gays in the military, helped champion civil rights legislation, sought aggressive environmental protections, opposed Clarence Thomas's Supreme Court nomination, supported gun control, and on the abortion issue favored a woman's right to choose.

But it was in late 1990, after Iraq invaded Kuwait, that the young senator, just two years removed from local politics, would truly emerge on the national scene as a leading American hawk. Nearly 400,000 US soldiers were massed in Saudi Arabia, awaiting orders to dislodge Sadam Hussein's army from Kuwait. In Washington, Senate Democrats held closed-door meetings to plot strategy aimed at countering President Bush's mounting war effort. But Lieberman defiantly told them he would support the president's war effort, drawing on the lessons of his orthodox youth.

"I had this view, which was shaped over my lifetime . . . that there are times when you come up against aggression or evil when there is no substitute for force, that the aggressor or evil-doer just won't respond to anything else," he said, recalling the decision.

Lieberman did more than just vote for Bush's war resolution. He helped shepherd it through Congress.

America's moralist

By the 1990s William Bennett had become one of the best-known public moralists in America. His books decrying rampant sex and violence in popular culture made best-seller lists. His campaign against crude lyrics in rap music garnered national headlines. Bennett had admired Lieberman from afar, ever since the Connecticut politician earned his Senate seat by running to the right of his GOP opponent.

The two men talked at length after taking part in a seminar sponsored by the conservative Heritage Foundation that explored potential compromises on cultural issues between Democrats and Republicans. Deeply Catholic Bennett and Lieberman found much common ground on their disgust with pop culture. Their staffs began collaborating. And their friendship took off.

"He used to joke that I was his rabbi," Bennett said. "We also joked about a Lieberman-Bennett ticket."

The two established the Silver Sewer award. The first one, in 1998, went to Edgar Bronfman, CEO of Seagram Co., which owned Jerry Springer's crass TV talk show and a record company that released music by androgynous shock rocker Marilyn Manson. Later that year, the two handed out another award, this time to the CBS news show "60 Minutes" for airing a videotape of man committing suicide with the assistance of Jack Kevorkian.

Lieberman became nationally known for his cultural stands, a reputation that lent gravitas to his denunciation of Clinton in 1998. During regular meetings with Christian evangelical groups, Bennett found deep admiration for Lieberman among even steadfast conservatives, admiration that continues to this day, he said.

But soon, in the heat of a national election, Lieberman's conservative views would present him with troubles.

The national stage

In the summer of 2000, presidential candidate Al Gore picked Lieberman as his running mate, passing over John Kerry and several others. On the morning of Aug. 7, 2000, Lieberman awoke at 7 a.m., flipped on the TV news, and heard the reports that Gore was likely to choose him, making him the first Jew to run for the nation's second-highest office. He hugged his wife. He offered thanks to God. Gore called and formally offered him the position, and the two men prayed together on the phone.

It appeared to be an inspired choice. Even Republicans praised Lieberman's selection. Gore received an immediate bump in the polls. The Gore-Lieberman ticket had momentum.

Lieberman took to the campaign trail with relish, criss-crossing the country, often with Hadassah by his side. He faced some heat from black Democratic groups, who questioned his commitment to affirmative action. He had once openly questioned it but followed Gore's lead in supporting it during the campaign.

His friend Bennett thought he "hedged" his criticism of the entertainment industry, seeking to secure big money contributions from the Hollywood elite, a charge Lieberman denied.

But more of concern to many Democrats was Lieberman's religious devotion. Would he respect the church-state divide? In an October speech at Notre Dame mentioning the Bible, Koran, and Torah, Lieberman fired back: "[The Founding Fathers] knew that our experience in self-government was contingent on our faith and trust in the creator, who endowed us with the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Far from downplaying his faith, as some Democratic operatives advised, Lieberman virtually wore it on his sleeve, mentioning it in almost every speech, often peppering his remarks with Yiddish sayings and biblical anecdotes. When combined with his calm demeanor and self-effacing humor, the tack seemed to work.

Audiences responded enthusiastically, he recalls.

But his approach was less convincing during his only debate with Bush's running mate, Dick Cheney.

"I'm going to be positive tonight," Lieberman started, bantering with Cheney about his singing voice and engaging him in several other good-natured exchanges. On paper the debate revealed substantive differences betweem the two. But many Democrats thought Lieberman appeared overly kind, a charge leveled against him to this day. However, Gore approved the approach, Lieberman aides said. Gore had appeared heavy-handed in his own debates, they said, and his staff members asked Lieberman to counter this impression.

The presidential race ended in the bitter dispute over Florida's election results, with hundreds of lawyers jockeying in dozens of courts. Lieberman adopted a low profile during the episode. However, many Democrats were dismayed by his suggestion, on national television, to count thousands of questionable overseas absentee ballots, many from military personel, who tend to vote Republican. Many of these ballots lacked proper postmarks. Others were unsigned. But Lieberman said votes from US troops abroad should be given special patriotic consideration. Gore operatives were actively seeking to disqualify the ballots, and Lieberman had publicly undercut their position.

In the end, under enormous pressure, local Florida election boards approved 680 flawed absentee ballots, four of every five of them in GOP-leaning counties, a New York Times analysis would later find. There is no evidence Lieberman's comments in particular swayed any local election boards, but they were part of a considerably loud chorus urging them to count the ballots, which clearly made a difference in the outcome.

With the overseas absentee ballots tallied, Florida's secretary of state certified Bush's slender 537-vote lead, which was upheld by a divided US Supreme Court.

On Dec. 10, the day of the high court's decision, a deflated Lieberman walked into his mother's hotel room in Tennessee. She could see the sadness on his face. He was preparing to deliver his concession speech. He wanted his mother there. But Marcia Lieberman was exhausted. Events had drained her, too. Still, they had been through far sadder times: the loss of her husband and her mother. Her son, she thought, needed some perspective.

"Joseph," she said, "we lost a campaign, not a life. Now you just get up and go and give that speech."

Days later, Lieberman was back at work in the Senate.

The road ahead

It is a brisk autumn day in Keene, N.H. Dry yellow leaves pile on the sidewalk, and the crimson-and-orange hills in the distance stand out against the pale-blue sky. A small crowd mills in front of Timoleon's Family Diner: journalists, a World War II veteran holding an indecipherable sign, a few curious locals, some Lieberman campaign volunteers.

A Winnebago pulls up, and Lieberman bounds out, smiling broadly, pointing to random people in the crowd. He goes into the diner. An elderly man inquires about his mother, a frequent New Hampshire visitor.

"You got a crush on my mom?" laughs the candidate.

He hears that two men, one Democratic, one Republican, have both agreed to support him. He jumps into their booth, grinning: "I'm glad I could create peace at the table!"

Lieberman emerges from the diner, into the fall day, proclaiming to the crowd: "The coffee was good!"

But back in the Winnebago, he grows serious. He's headed for an crucial speech in Manchester to relaunch his struggling campaign.

He has been sinking in polls. Former Vermont governor Howard Dean has pulled ahead. Fund-raising has become strained. It's now or never for Joe Lieberman. His campaign team has determined that his message must have more punch. His moralistic image isn't enough; it's time for hardball.

Lieberman looks at a draft copy of his speech, an attack on Bush's personal integrity. The policy positions are overwhlemingly familiar, the same ones he's championed his whole adult life. But with an edge. He spends just a few minutes marking it up with a blue felt-tip pen. Not many changes needed here. A lifetime of moral certainty supports this rhetoric. He looks up. The fall New Hampshire scenery rolls by.

"How much farther to go?" he asks, grinning at no one in particular.

Raja Mishra can be reached at

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