The Boston Phoenix
August 10 - 17, 2000

[Don't Quote Me]

Saint Joseph

Some tough questions might dent Lieberman's halo. Plus, the latest on Mike Barnicle and Jeff Jacoby, and the veepstakes claim a victim: the Herald.

by Dan Kennedy

Senator Joseph Lieberman seems like a decent, honest sort, if a bit sanctimonious. And there's little doubt that his reputation as a straight arrow, combined with his strong denunciation of Bill Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky affair, gives Al Gore a powerful clove of garlic with which to ward off the Republicans. "Some people have suggested that Gore went with Lieberman because Ken Starr wasn't available," the Washington Post's Bob Woodward quipped Monday on CNN's Larry King Live.

But the media commentary that greeted Lieberman's nomination as the Democratic vice-presidential candidate has been cloying and condescending. It's fine to focus on the fact that Lieberman is the first Jew to be nominated for national office by one of the two major parties. What's not fine is to obsess over it, and to act as if he's above criticism because of his identity.

"Mr. Gore hopes to protect himself from scandals of Mr. Clinton by tethering himself to a politician who is above reproach," wrote Richard Berke in the New York Times on Tuesday. The Washington Post's David Broder asserted that "Lieberman's real strength is the moral character he adds to the Democratic ticket." The increasingly bizarre Peggy Noonan had this to say in the Wall Street Journal: "What is most wonderful is that he is an Orthodox Jew. What does this mean? It means a lot of people who love America more than they love parties or politics are happy that a big and great breakthrough has occurred." And the Boston Globe's David Shribman led with: "And so it came to pass that one of the last stained-glass ceilings in American life was shattered."

Playing the faith card
and Joseph Lieberman is no friend to advocates of free speech

Well, fine. This is Lieberman's week, so let the media fawn over him. But when and if their critical faculties kick back in, here are a few questions for them to consider:

Why is Lieberman an exception to the media skepticism about politicians who hold deep religious views? Both Gore and George W. Bush are evangelical Christians, which is unprecedented for the two major-party candidates. Yet Gore's spirituality rarely rates a mention, and Bush's is viewed either skeptically or, to some extent, humorously, as in ha, ha, he turned 40, stopped drinking, and found Jesus. And if anyone has even mentioned Dick Cheney's religious views, I'm not aware of it. This is not to say there's anything wrong with Lieberman's religiosity; there isn't, and I actually agree with the fawners that it's a positive good. By extension, though, Bush's and Gore's Christianity must be good, too, yet it's never treated as such by the mainstream national media. Perhaps Orthodox Judaism seems exotic enough not to be perceived as a threat. But the double standard shows how difficult it is for the culture, and the media in particular, to have a mature discussion about the role of religion in public life.

Why are the Republicans saying such nice things about a senator with a liberal voting record? To be sure, Lieberman holds moderate to conservative views on some issues -- military spending, capital-gains taxes, and sexist and violent entertainment, to name a few. Yet, according to Project Vote Smart, in 1999 he voted with the liberal Americans for Democratic Action 95 percent of the time and with the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League 100 percent of the time. In 1997-'98 he voted with the right-wing Christian Coalition only nine percent of the time. In other words, Lieberman's record is almost identical to that of Connecticut's other senator, liberal warrior Christopher Dodd. One suspects that the Republicans' enthusiasm stems mainly from Lieberman's denunciation of Clinton on the floor of the Senate. As several commentators have already noted, you can be sure the Republicans will roll out an attack ad sometime this fall contrasting Lieberman with Gore's blurting out at the post-impeachment pep rally that Clinton would be remembered as "one of our greatest presidents." When that happens, Lieberman is going to look more like an albatross than an asset.

Okay, so Lieberman is the conscience of the Senate, whatever that means. But does he really have what it takes to lead? Let's look again at Lieberman's actions in the Lewinsky affair. By now, the video of Lieberman intoning, "Such behavior is not just inappropriate, it is immoral," has been repeated over and over, almost always in a context that is flattering to Lieberman. Yet, as Timothy Noah pointed out in Slate, Lieberman did not call for Clinton to resign; if he had, Noah says, it might have created a stampede that would have put Gore in the White House and greatly increased the chances for Democratic victory this fall. And in an unusually critical assessment, Salon's Jake Tapper wrote that Lieberman would rather flaunt his New Democrat credentials and make a show out of working with Republicans than actually get legislation through the Senate. "As the Senate's house moralist, he is valued for his `integrity, candor and bipartisanship' -- and little else," Tapper wrote.

It's exciting anytime a barrier is broken, and Gore, by picking a Jew as his running mate, did just that. But enough already. As Jonah Goldberg wrote in National Review Online, "it appears that the big-head journalists are going to spend the day on their fainting couches panting about Lieberman's moral authority and Gore's `boldness' for picking such an outstanding member of the Hebrew tribe."

Now get over it. There are far more important questions to ask Lieberman than whether he can campaign on Saturdays.

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