The Boston Phoenix
August 10 - 17, 2000


Playing the faith card

Al Gore's pick of Senator Joseph Lieberman as his running mate has profound implications for American political life -- and for America's Jewish community

by Seth Gitell

A friend of mine used to joke that the first Jewish president would have to be an incredibly "un-Jewish Jew." When told that the writer Harry Golden, on learning that Barry Goldwater's grandfather was Jewish, had said that the first Jewish president would be Episcopalian, my friend countered that the first Jewish president would be someone like William Shatner (who comes across as a very all-American Midwestern kind of Jew -- for a Canadian).

Al Gore's pick of Connecticut senator Joseph Lieberman to serve as his vice-presidential candidate turns those ideas on their head. Lieberman, who is Orthodox, is anything but un-Jewish, Episcopalian, or Midwestern. He is what other Jews refer to as "Shomer Shabbos." This means that Lieberman not only refrains from work from sundown Friday through sundown Saturday, but also observes the full array of Jewish religious holidays. October alone brings Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shmini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah. All told (including Sabbaths), the Democratic vice-presidential candidate will be out of commission eight days in the month before November's general election.

Conventional punditry has focused on whether Gore's pick will drive all the closeted anti-Semites to Bush (it won't -- the anti-Semites, closeted or not, were with Buchanan to begin with), but most politicos have missed the larger point: Gore now offers a choice to deeply religious voters. In a perverse way, Gore's selection of a non-Christian "person of faith" allows him to grab some of the religious voters who are fed up with President Bill Clinton's sexual shenanigans -- voters believed to have been a lock for Bush. And Gore can do so without alienating those Democratic voters who would have been turned off if he had tapped a conservative Christian as his running mate. A Seventh Day Adventist told me Monday that Gore's choice of Lieberman meant she would vote for the Democrats over Bush and Cheney.

"I see a real role reversal here," says David Luchins, an Orthodox Jew and a senior adviser to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York. "The Republicans have always been the party of faith. You didn't see any talk of faith or religion at the Republican convention. Watch for the Democrats in LA to play the religion card, the faith card."

Joseph Lieberman is no friend to advocates of free speech
and Some tough questions might dent Lieberman's halo

It's widely believed that bush's need to pick a candidate with a background like that of former defense secretary dick cheney surfaced when the texan flunked news reporter andy hiller's foreign-policy pop quiz. Similarly, pundits say gore was forced to choose someone with an unassailable moral background to separate himself from his boss's affair with Monica Lewinsky. Accordingly, the New York Republican pollster John McLaughlin, speaking to the New York Post, described the Lieberman pick as a "defensive choice." (Surprisingly, no one has pointed out the irony in this: the first Jewish vice-presidential candidate was selected as a result of a dalliance between the president and a thoroughly assimilated Beverly Hills Jew. Credit Lewinsky, then, with this milestone in American political and Jewish history.)

But the Gore-Lieberman relationship had begun to gel soon after Lewinsky had her bat mitzvah. Lieberman joined the Senate in 1988. His candidacy was supported by National Review founder William F. Buckley and opposed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which backed the Republican incumbent, Lowell Weicker. With his election, Lieberman joined the moderate wing of the Democratic Party. This faction -- which prefigured the 1992 "New Democrats" -- emphasized innovative solutions to social and economic problems, and was not afraid to break with the liberal old-liners. Members included Nebraska's Robert Kerrey, New Jersey's Frank Lautenberg, New York's Daniel Patrick Moynihan -- and Tennessee's Al Gore. They rallied under the banner of Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson of Washington, who was progressive on domestic policy and staunchly anticommunist in foreign policy. Lieberman and Gore were two of the 10 Senate Democrats who voted in favor of the resolution authorizing the use of force before the Gulf War.

If the Gore-Lieberman ticket wins, it will accelerate the polarization of the Senate, especially because both Kerrey and Moynihan have plans to step down. Such a victory would also herald a lurch to the right for a Democratic White House -- even more so than the Clinton-Gore ticket did.

On foreign policy, for example, Lieberman is staunchly pro-Israel, so much so that he once told me that Clinton's refusal to move America's embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was "very frustrating, even infuriating." He also bitterly opposes the Clinton administration's policies toward Iraq. Lieberman was an early sponsor of the Iraq Liberation Act, which calls on the United States to aid the Iraqi opposition to Saddam Hussein. The Republican presidential ticket, by contrast, features a vice-presidential candidate who served in the administration that chose to keep Hussein in power. It'll be interesting to see how this plays next week during the Democratic National Convention, which is expected to draw thousands of grassroots protesters -- many of whom call for an end to American sanctions against Iraq.

These Middle East stances won't be the only Lieberman opinions that could give Gore headaches in California next week. Lieberman, after all, crossed the aisle to work with conservative thinker Bill Bennet in criticizing the entertainment industry and promoting the "V-chip," which makes it possible to block violent TV programs. This might not matter if Hollywood powerbrokers weren't already suspicious of Gore because his wife, Tipper, headed the Parents Music Resource Center, a group of politically connected parents concerned with racy lyrics in pop music. Although such issues are unlikely to drive liberals to Bush and Cheney, they might affect fundraising. Gore has scheduled a few events in Hollywood in the coming weeks; unfortunately for him, they come just days after Bill and Hillary roll into town to raise money. Look for the glitterati to give Gore and Lieberman the cold shoulder in LA.

Page 1 | 2 | Next

Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]

The Talking Politics archive