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Lieberman thinks hes kennedy { June 15 2003 }

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Centrist In Debt To JFK
Living Religion, Honing Ambition

By Edward Walsh
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 15, 2003; Page A01

Third in a series

In 1988, Joseph I. Lieberman took a calculated political risk. He was Connecticut's popular Democratic attorney general, but he decided to challenge the state's imperious U.S. senator, Republican Lowell P. Weicker Jr.

"Joe had been seen as retiring, a consensus-maker, an average public speaker, Lieberman Lite and so forth," recalled former Connecticut Democratic chairman John F. Droney Jr. "And Weicker was a large, physically imposing, bombastic, self-assured good speaker. Joe just tore him apart in this one big debate at the Old Statehouse, and Weicker was stunned. Joe would just not let up on him. He was like a terrier."

Aggressively attacking the liberal Weicker from the right and mocking him in humorous television commercials, Lieberman pulled off an upset victory.

Today that 1988 race is a distant memory. More vivid are images from the 2000 campaign, when Sen. Lieberman, his party's vice presidential candidate, engaged in a cordial debate with GOP nominee Richard B. Cheney. The election results left many Democrats embittered and with the sense that Lieberman and the party's candidate for president, Al Gore, should have been more aggressive in attacking their Republican rivals. That perception poses a substantial problem for Lieberman three years later. At a recent debate with his eight rivals for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, the moderator bluntly told Lieberman that he was seen as "too nice to be president" and not tough enough to run against President Bush.

Lieberman's courtesy and thoughtfulness, his self-mocking humor, his adherence to the tenets of his Orthodox Jewish faith, all have given him an enviable image throughout his political career. "Joe wanted to be all things to all people. He never wanted anybody to dislike him," recalls Lorraine Guilmartin, who once presented Lieberman with a T-shirt that said "Mr. Goody Two Shoes" when he was majority leader of the Connecticut state Senate.

But Lieberman and his allies believe it is a profound misreading of his personality to mistake geniality for an inability to know -- and get -- what he wants. Throughout his career Lieberman has displayed a keen instinct for what will work, and the central message of his campaign for president is that he not only knows how to beat Bush, but also is the only Democrat who can do it.

And the reason, he said recently to a group of Democrats in Ames, Iowa, is that his record makes him uniquely able to challenge Bush on the issues where Republicans are seen as having the advantage next year. "I believe very strongly that I am the Democrat who can stand toe-to-toe with the president in the areas where many think he's strong -- the questions of security and values -- and then defeat him where we know he's weak, on the economy and his divisive, right-wing social agenda," Lieberman said.

Later came the signature tag line, as Lieberman reminded listeners that he and Gore won the popular vote in the 2000 election.

"I know that I can beat George W. Bush in 2004. Why? Because Al Gore and I already did it."

Lieberman, now in his third Senate term, is essentially asking fellow Democrats to be pragmatic, as he is, to set aside their passionate internal differences in pursuit of a larger goal: winning. Yes, he seems to be saying, you may see me as the most conservative candidate in the Democratic field, but I am still a mainstream Democrat in the mold of John F. Kennedy with the kind of centrist message that will win in 2004, as it did in 1992 and 1996.

"Look, we may not agree on everything, but we agree on most things, I'll bet," he told the Iowa Democrats.

This is the Lieberman way of politics, and he comes to it by personal inclination and training. As a senior at Yale University, he was named a "Scholar of the House," an honor that allowed him to spend the year doing research and writing on a single topic. His topic was John M. Bailey, the legendary "boss" of Connecticut Democratic politics and chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

Beneath his crusty exterior, Bailey was a supreme pragmatist who distained ideology of any stripe. "My father was very clear about what he thought the endgame was, and that was winning," said Bailey's daughter, former representative Barbara B. Kennelly (D-Conn.). As young Lieberman listened, Bailey preached the necessity of compromise to achieve goals and the value of trying to make friends of your temporary enemies after every political battle.

"You gotta do what you gotta do," was a favorite Bailey saying that Lieberman likes to quote. He also frequently cites a line from Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "All the King's Men," in which the power-driven southern politician Willie Stark boasts, "I know how to make the mare go."

Lieberman might be "Mr. Goody Two Shoes," but he also had a Bailey-like sense of how to achieve his goals. He was president of his high school sophomore class but sat out the junior year election, suggesting to a classmate, Carol Sabia, that what he really wanted was the senior class presidency and that he did not want to wear out his welcome with his classmates.

"He felt three years would be too much and that he could better serve the class as senior class president," Sabia said.

By the 1970s, Lieberman was in a position to make the mare go. He was the state Senate majority leader, but then, as now, he often worked closely with Republicans, among them the deputy GOP leader, Lawrence J. DeNardis.

One issue on which DeNardis, a Roman Catholic, and Lieberman, the Orthodox Jew, worked together was an attempt to temper the rampant commercialism in American life that in Connecticut took the form of a drive to repeal the state's "blue laws," which kept most businesses closed on Sundays.

They hoped to keep at least some aspects of the Sabbath holy, but looking back, DeNardis said, it is clear that Lieberman also sensed opportunity. "He also saw it as a way to gain the respect and admiration of the Roman Catholic clergy in Connecticut, which is a Catholic state, which would help him," DeNardis said. "He has cultivated the Catholic hierarchy, [and] it began with the blue laws. . . . He has a good eye for what may be advantageous."

All of this bespeaks a man of driving ambition, but it does not answer the question of what lies behind the ambition. What makes Joey run?

"Whether it's self-aggrandizement, selfish ambition or ambition to really do a good job, they all come out looking the same," said Peter Kelly, a Hartford lawyer and veteran of Connecticut and national Democratic politics. "It's really hard to picture Joe Lieberman as somebody who says I'm going to do this because it's going to get me something. That's just not the way the man thinks."

Lacking JFK's Charisma
Lieberman is 61 and, like so many others of his generation, he came of age politically with the 1960 election of Kennedy, the dashing Democrat from neighboring Massachusetts. Since Kennedy's assassination in 1963, all Democratic presidential hopefuls have paid homage to his memory, and none more so than Lieberman.

He describes himself as "still a Kennedy Democrat," almost suggesting that, if JFK were alive today, he, too, would be a member of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

Kennedy, Lieberman said in Ames, stood for "the Democratic Party tradition of social progress, equal opportunity, upward mobility." But Kennedy also stood for a strong military, said Lieberman, the strongest supporter of the war in Iraq in the Democratic presidential field. Like his rivals, he opposed Bush's tax cuts, but he is not against all tax cuts. Kennedy cut taxes, too.

What Lieberman lacks is Kennedy's innate charisma. He is neither tall nor short, and when he enters a room, he does not dominate it. He is a hugger of women and a kibitzer with all, with a quick, often self-deprecating wit that makes people laugh. They listen carefully to his modulated tones, but it is not clear that they are moved by the words.

"I wish he'd get excited," said Rabbi Joseph H. Ehrenkrantz, Lieberman's boyhood religious mentor. "There is a lack of emotion, a lack of passion. It's his stamp, his way."

Ehrenkrantz schooled Lieberman in the tenets of Orthodox Judaism back in Stamford, where Lieberman and his two younger sisters grew up. Their father owned a liquor store, and their mother was a homemaker. It was a sheltered, loving childhood. Lieberman sometimes quotes a college classmate who, after a visit to the home, said he got the impression that Lieberman received a "standing ovation" from his parents every morning at the breakfast table.

It was from Ehrenkrantz and his parents that Lieberman learned about the concept of tikkun olam, a Hebrew term that means "to improve the world" or "to repair the world."

"It sums up what we're supposed to do, to serve the Lord with gladness," Lieberman said. "It sets a standard for me which I try to achieve. . . . Then Kennedy came along and helped to express that, gave me a channel to express that through public service."

Much of this might be discounted as the pious posturing of a politician, except that no one who knows Lieberman doubts the depth of his religious faith or its influence on his public career. His friend Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) recalled flying to a defense conference in Europe with Lieberman and other lawmakers.

As the dim orange and purple glow of dawn began to seep into the military aircraft high above the Atlantic, a groggy McCain awoke to the sight of Lieberman, standing garbed in a skullcap and traditional Jewish prayer shawl as he recited his morning prayers in Hebrew.

"I see this guy with funny-looking clothes on, mumbling," McCain said. "I thought, my God, what's going on here? It was Joe, practicing his religion."

Lieberman, McCain said, "is one of the few men I've met in my life who lives his religion."

The 'People's Lawyer'
The making of Joseph I. Lieberman, presidential contender, began in 1980, a low point in his life. He ran for an open House seat and, for the first time in his life, lost. His Republican opponent was his old friend from the legislature, Lawrence DeNardis, who attacked him as a typical "tax and spend" liberal Democrat. Relying on the advice of a consultant, Lieberman sat on his lead in the polls and did not fight back.

It was also around this time that Lieberman's marriage to his first wife, Elizabeth, disintegrated. They had two children. In 1983, Lieberman married his current wife, Hadassah, with whom he has a daughter as well as a stepson by her previous marriage.

Lieberman was stunned by the political loss, but not for long. In 1982, he was elected Connecticut attorney general, a sleepy corner of state government that was not even considered a full-time job.

It is no exaggeration to say that Lieberman revolutionized the office. He became Populist Joe, "the people's lawyer," relentlessly pursing wrongdoing on the environment, consumer protection and other popular causes. Lieberman filed environmental lawsuits against so many corporate clients of Peter Kelly's law firm that Kelly informally named a section of his handsome office complex "the Lieberman wing."

Then in 1988 Lieberman reached for what at the time were the outer limits of his ambition.

Lieberman recently told a largely Jewish audience in Hartford that as far back as 1960, he sensed that the election of the country's first Catholic president, Kennedy, might someday open doors for him, a young Jewish American who was intensely interested in the political life. But that did not mean he harbored some pipe dream about being the first Jewish president. His political role model and mentor was Abraham A. Ribicoff, Connecticut's first Jewish governor who later served in the Kennedy Cabinet and the U.S. Senate. He dreamed of following in Ribicoff's path.

But to do that, Lieberman had to defeat Weicker, a maverick Republican who was not much loved in his own party but appeared invincible. In that campaign, "what was mind-blowing was how far right they were willing to go," said Thomas J. D'Amore Jr., a former Weicker chief of staff who described Lieberman as "a nice guy" but also "tough, maybe bordering on ruthless."

Kelly said that Ribicoff "had an incredible sense of measured risk," an ability to recognize those key moments "that divide you from the rest of the world, that make you different, make you special. . . . I think Lieberman has done the same."

For Lieberman, such a moment came on Sept. 3, 1998, as the flames from the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal threatened to engulf the presidency of his friend Bill Clinton. Lieberman rose on the Senate floor to decry Clinton's "immoral [and] harmful" conduct and to suggest that a resolution of censure, not impeachment, was the appropriate response.

Probably more than any other single factor, that moment, which encapsulated Lieberman's conviction about the importance of moral values in public life, led Gore two years later to make him the first Jewish nominee for national office on a major party ticket.

So a barrier in American politics was breached, and now Lieberman has set out to obliterate it. Carter Eskew, one of his political consultants in the 1988 contest against Weicker, said Lieberman is "a happy warrior" on the campaign trail. He is also something of a fatalist, a not uncommon tendency among the deeply religious who do not pretend to be the master of any universe.

In "The Power Broker: A Biography of John M. Bailey, Modern Political Boss," an admiring book that he wrote in 1966, Lieberman mused that in politics "so much depends on where a man is and at what time." When the time comes for the politician to decide about his own future, he continued, "some leap forward as rapidly as they can in a headlong drive for success and so must follow wherever they are taken."

"I feel as if I gotta do this," Lieberman said recently of his decision to run for president. "I would feel terrible if I didn't try this. . . . I'm very grateful that I had this opportunity, way beyond anything I dreamed of. I feel ready for it, and I'm going to feel very good about having done it in my way, no matter how it ends."

2003 The Washington Post Company

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