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Joe Lieberman sticks his toe in (continued)

BY SETH GITELL

THE AFTEREFFECTS of the September 11 attacks are the first thing on the agenda when Lieberman meets with the Manchester firefighters. A few minutes before the Connecticut senatorís arrival, a small group of firefighters sit in the stationís kitchen. A television airing MSNBC provides the latest news of the War on Terror. Soon Lieberman enters the station house and walks into a small office hung with large color photos of firefighters at Ground Zero, including the one of a flag-raising reminiscent of the famous shot of six Marines pitching the American flag at Iwo Jima. "We all have to move on, but we canít forget," says Lieberman. Lieutenant Richard McGahey tells Lieberman how some members of the engine company made it down to Ground Zero after September 11. Then he refers to the soldiers currently fighting in Afghanistan. "We have a lot of guys over there," says McGahey. "We have to remember why theyíre there."

The conversation turns to what the local fire department needs to prepare for terrorist attacks. They all sit down in the kitchen, where the firefighters earlier watched the news. Manchester fire chief Joseph Kane makes his case for remembering local departments down on Capitol Hill. Lieberman asks a few more policy questions, which he follows with an inquiry about the economy. McGahey briefs him on the economic resurgence of downtown Manchester. The senator then shifts the conversation to Enron, the now-defunct energy-trading firm. "Has your confidence in the market been shaken by the Enron stuff?" he asks. "Iíve got some hearings. Weíre trying to find out exactly what happened. Why didnít the watchdogs bark?" Although Liebermanís topic is far afield from the usual firehouse talk, the men eagerly offer up details of their investment plans and express unease over the Enron scandal. "Iím shocked and surprised the auditors turned out to be the bad guys here," says Chief Kane.

Later, during his interview with the Phoenix, Lieberman is quick to link the financial prospects of the middle class to his national-security concerns. "The first responsibility of government is to provide security, and the Constitution says we have an obligation to provide for the common defense," he says. "If a political party or individuals running for higher office in a country donít have the confidence of the people on fundamental questions of national security, then itís understandably hard to get people to listen to your other ideas about anything else. Weíve been at our best as a party when weíve not only had a heart and cared about ... freedom [and] growth and betterment for education, health care, and social security, environmental protection, but [also] when weíve supported and carried out a muscular, values-based foreign policy."

When the Enron scandal first broke, Lieberman seemed perfectly poised to exploit the Achilles heel of the Bush White House. That was, until Lieberman learned that many on the Democratic side of the aisle had links to Enron ó including himself. A former Lieberman staffer worked for Enron, and the senator has accepted more than $100,000 in donations from Citicorp, a major Enron creditor, according to the New York Times. This revelation prompted some on the left to question how deep Liebermanís commitment to investigate Enron really is. "Liebermanís been reluctant to go after people that heís protected for a long time," says Bob Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for Americaís Future, a self-described "populist" group. "What he does with the Enron hearings will have a lot to say about whether he can clean his tawdry past. With an aggressive investigation of Enron and its ties to the Bush administration, he could turn himself into a populist figure. Thus far, heís run some somnolent hearings that have booted the opportunity." Borosage made these comments before the issuance of another 29 subpoenas relating to Enronís collapse by the Governmental Affairs Committee, which Lieberman chairs. (The committee has already subpoenaed more than 50 Enron and Arthur Andersen officials.)

For his part, Lieberman maintains heís determined to get to the bottom of the Enron debacle. "You need to have rules, and the government has to be prepared to step in and provide the case for more accurate information to investors," he says, emphasizing that the government bore that responsibility in the case of Enron. Itís the governmentís obligation, says Lieberman, "to protect average people, or else average people will get cheated." Speaking generally, he adds that government is an important balance to business. "Experience shows that if you just let them [businesses] go without any rules or any action against bad actors, the air will be polluted, workers will be cheated, investors may be defrauded," he says. "You need to have rules."

Critics on the left say Lieberman is an unlikely spokesman for working people. They note, for example, that he is among those who have received the largest donations from the pharmaceutical industry ó a charge that Lieberman doesnít refute. The senator, who describes himself as a "pro-business Democrat," stresses the contributions the pharmaceutical industry has made in improving peopleís health. "Pharmaceutical companies have transformed our lives, and weíre all living longer and better because of the drugs theyíve created," he says. "On the other hand, when they overprice drugs, we in government have to stand up and say, ĎHey thatís wrong. Thatís unfair.í Thatís the balance Iíd strike, and thatís the balance thatís best for the country."

Can a pro-business Democrat capture the heart of the labor movement? Bill Clinton did, and labor helped Al Gore win the popular vote in the 2000 election. Martin Dunleavy, the political-affairs director of the American Federation of Government Employees and a neighbor of Liebermanís in New Haven, Connecticut, says that while Lieberman differs with the labor movement on trade and other issues, the senator generally has had "an extremely pro-labor, pro-union voting record." "Heís always good on prevailing wage/minimum wage," says Dunleavy, who accompanied Lieberman on his trip to New Hampshire and the Manchester firehouse. "Heís always been good on protecting Social Security and OSHA. The kind of stuff that the steel worker or dock worker cares about." Dunleavy recalls an episode from Liebermanís days in the Connecticut state senate that exemplified his commitment to working people. When state employees were fighting for a new contract ó one the Democratic governor, Ella Grasso, said she would sign ó state Republicans filibustered on the last day of the legislative session. Lieberman ordered a page to unplug the legislatureís clock to hinder the Republican effort. "He said, ĎIím not going to let you filibuster,í " Dunleavy remembers. "Those are the types of things heís stood up for."

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Issue Date: March 28 - April 4, 2002
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