The Magazine

Faith in Politics

Joseph Lieberman explains himself

Sep 11, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 48 • By HILLEL FRADKIN
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In Praise of Public Life

by Joseph Lieberman

Simon & Schuster, 174 pp., $ 21

Early this spring, Senator Joseph Lieberman -- now Democratic vice-presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman -- published In Praise of Public Life.

The title is something of a mis-nomer, for the book is in praise not so much of public life as of politics as a career and a profession. Addressed to widespread cynicism about politics (especially among young Americans), the book aims to encourage a more appreciative view of politics' potential "satisfaction," "excitement," and "honor" -- a potential he believes can be realized by carrying a strong personal religious faith into the public arena.

But Senator Lieberman's chief praise is reserved for one particular politician's career and religious faithfulness: Senator Joseph Lieberman's. In Praise of Public Life is, in short, a campaign autobiography, replete with the usual formal descriptions of its author's positions on various domestic and foreign issues.

And though the book appeared at a curious moment -- for the author wasn't, after all, running in the Democratic primaries for president -- it proved a successful salvo in the campaign we can now see Lieberman was actually waging: the campaign to become Al Gore's vice-presidential running mate.

This combination of motives -- generous and public-spirited on the one hand, ambitious and self-interested on the other -- does not embarrass Lieberman. One of his central points is that political ambition is natural, good, and healthy, at least under the right circumstances. With considerable candor, Lieberman reveals the powerful political ambition he found within himself from his earliest youth. It expressed itself through an absorption with impressive contemporary American politicians, beginning with a childhood admiration for Dwight Eisenhower. It was particularly inspired by the campaign of John F. Kennedy and the exciting rhetoric of Kennedy's inaugural address. But it also was, he says, refreshed by the presidency of Ronald Reagan and the "strength, comfort, optimism, and idealism" that Reagan "radiated."

Along the way, it was encouraged by other, less famous political men, such as John Bailey, chairman of both the national and Connecticut Democratic committees and a "consummate political deal-maker," whom Lieberman made the subject of his senior thesis at Yale. Contact with Bailey and other local politicians put Lieberman in touch with people important to launching his political career with a successful race for the Connecticut Senate in 1970, three years after finishing Yale Law School.

Lieberman is clearly a man who has what once was called a political nature and discovered this in himself early. According to Lieberman, this is a blessing not a curse, for both himself and his fellow citizens, since "ambition, when combined with principle, is one of the greatest sources of progress for a society" not only but especially in politics. But in politics, calculation must be joined to this combination -- "the challenge is to match your ambition, passion and talent with the right opportunity" -- and Lieberman has applied this requirement well. In 1988, when he was Connecticut attorney general, the right opportunity came along in the form of a long-shot race for a Senate seat against the maverick Republican incumbent Lowell Weicker.

This was a good opportunity for a variety of reasons. Weicker's presumed advantage meant that there was little competition for the Democratic nomination. For the same reason, a respectable loss would do him no damage and would, by increasing his name recognition, enhance his prospects to be elected governor of Connecticut, which prior to the Senate campaign had been his next ambition. A win, however implausible (Weicker was ahead by 25 points at the outset of the campaign), would permit Lieberman a leap in his political career and realize his "ultimate ambition," a seat in the United States Senate. In the end he won by a margin of less than 1 percent, aided by an unusual combination of factors: guidance from Stan Greenberg and Carter Eskew (Democratic political consultants later important to the Clinton-Gore campaign), the support of Republicans discontented with Weicker (including William Buckley, the father of modern conservatism and Lieberman's Republican "rabbi," as he puts it), and the votes of traditional Christian, especially Catholic, voters who were impressed by his religious observance of the Jewish Sabbath throughout the campaign.