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The Joe That I Know

The Senator is a genuinely nice guy, but he must be careful about one thing

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Joe Lieberman is a good guy. how many times have you heard that this week? Even George Bush said so, adding that it made Lieberman just like him! Lieberman dispatched that one with the old chestnut about thinking the veterinarian and the taxidermist are alike since both give you back your dog. How like a good guy to tell such a lame joke with such obvious delight. Rubber-faced, slow-talking, yet irrepressibly exuberant, Lieberman at his introduction in Nashville, Tenn., was already rubbing off on the usually constrained Gore, who nearly scampered about the stage retrieving a camera left there by Tipper and handing Lieberman a handkerchief to wipe his sweating face. (Memo to Gore fashion consultant: Lieberman's white shirt stayed dry because he wore an undershirt.)

The good-guy part of Lieberman wouldn't be worth mentioning if Republicans weren't striving to be the Good Guy Party. The Bush campaign is premised almost exclusively on the strength of Bush's personality and the perceived weakness of Gore's and the character-free behavior of You-Know-Who. Now Gore has seen the Republicans' Barney-ness and raised them one.

I got to know Joe Lieberman through Bill Curry, who sat beside him in the Connecticut state legislature. Curry enlisted Lieberman in his fight against substandard nursing homes, which meant bucking the power of the popular Democratic Governor, Ella Grasso. "Once Joe saw it was the right thing to do, I never had to look over my shoulder to make sure he was still with me," Curry says. He has had only one bone to pick with Lieberman. Soon after Curry lost the '94 Governor's race and joined the Clinton White House, he got a complaining phone call from his mother, feeling neglected after reading an interview with Marcia Lieberman, who said her son called her every day. "Since I couldn't very well tell Mrs. Lieberman to keep quiet, I called Joe and told him to knock it off."

Lieberman's off-duty persona is much like his on-duty one, the same mixture of great calm and boundless energy, whether in black tie at the Kennedy Center, cheering at a Washington Mystics game or in his flannel shirt in line at the Safeway. Close readers of this column will remember when I was required by pesky editors to order dinner for 50 entirely off the Internet, including a person to help serve. When that person, like so much else, didn't show up, the Senator got his own drink, and Hadassah rolled up her silk sleeves to lug the ham and side dishes to the table, never mentioning that there was nothing she and Joe could eat. She keeps him from holding forth in the Great Man way, having told him one time long ago that "there was one less Great Man in the world than he might think." Hadassah was once a fast-track yuppie executive, but now raises their 12-year-old daughter while working part-time. She cheerfully blames her husband for "ruining my career." He calls her at every turn and brings her flowers every Friday. They have the marriage I would wish for my daughter.

Democrats say Lieberman's winning a Funniest Celebrity in Washington contest shows he's not as dull as he once seemed. I was a judge, and, yes, he brought a cynical crowd to peals of laughter, but that was because of a dry, droll, double-take delivery suited to a small room. Lieberman's self-deprecating wit is unlikely to turn the Cheney-Lieberman debate into must-see TV.

But it is his gentle humor, his sideways look at life that partly explains why, in a fiercely backstabbing world, it was hard to find material for a report on Lieberman: The Dark Side. I called Republicans. I called people who knew him back when. On the theory that no man is a hero to his valet, I called his driver. No luck. Jimmy O'Connell, an Irish cop in New Haven, Conn., drove Lieberman on weekends for a decade without getting paid. O'Connell explains that he "liked his company." And he tells how Lieberman dropped everything to fly up to O'Connell's bedside after the ex-cop suffered a heart attack, how Joe helped get him off booze, how he's become family. Lieberman called him last week to complain that "the Secret Service won't let me ride up front." Republican Senator Fred Thompson tells how, during campaign-finance hearings, the ranking Democrat, Lieberman, was "the one who stuck with me the whole time" because he was convinced the system was corrupt and was steadfast in resisting intense White House pressure. Republican Bill Bennett, who scolds Democrats for a living, once said that what the country needed in a President was "a good role model, like George Washington...or Joe Lieberman. I'd vote for Joe Lieberman." The two grew close while scolding Hollywood. At a recent event, Bennett recalled Lieberman's asking him to quit going around referring to himself as "Joe's rabbi." "Yeah," Bennett said, "I bet your Democrat friends don't like it." "No," Joe drawled, "it's my rabbi who doesn't like it."

Until this week, Lieberman was among the most religious people I know--and religiously subdued about it. His Judaism first became news when he lost the lieutenant governorship in 1978 after not showing up at a convention held on the Sabbath. Such selfless observance of faith is impressive, but what was background is now headline--with 13 mentions of God in one speech. Enough already. Lieberman's warm reception allowed Democrats to defuse the Republican's Good Guy strategy. But it's a risk to turn around and run on it. Moral piety is no more attractive in Democrats than it is in Republicans. Woe unto those seen to be on high. How tempting a target they make for those who would bring them down to earth.


Cover Date: August 21, 2000



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