Earlier this month, Rabbi Ari Berman, President of Yeshiva University, proudly announced the establishment of the new Senator Joseph Lieberman Center for Public Service and Advocacy, founded by The Ira Mitzner and Riva Collins Families, with a generous gift of $10 million. This new center will further Yeshiva University’s mission, developing the next generation of government leaders and advocates who are deeply rooted in Jewish values and tradition and deeply connected to Israel.
It’s yet another feather in his cap for Senator Lieberman, who served his Connecticut constituents with honor and integrity for several decades … and whose sense of moral clarity is sorely missed these days.
Senator Lieberman has been a hero of mine for a long time now, for two reasons:
First, he was a centrist and was fiercely independent, unafraid to cross party lines when he felt it was the right thing to do. In 1998, Lieberman was the first prominent Democrat to publicly challenge President Bill Clinton for the judgment exercised in his affair with Monica Lewinsky. He also broke with the Democratic party when he pledged his support for the Iraq War and urged action against Iran. He endorsed Republican John McCain for President in 2008. And when he lost the Democratic nomination for Senator in 2006, he decided to run as an independent – and won the election over his Democratic and Republican challengers.
Second, he was a model of how an observant Jew can climb the professional ranks and become a successful politician who is respected by his constituents and his peers. Who can forget how he walked to the Capitol building on Shabbat to cast an important vote. And how he was never ashamed of his Jewish observance and always wore it on his sleeve. He came within a hairbreadth of being elected the first Jewish Vice President of the United States – and an Orthodox Jewish one at that.
I was privileged to get to know Senator Lieberman personally while he lived in Stamford during his tenure as our Senator. We davened together at the same minyan on Shabbat, and I was often able to shmooze with him at kiddush. We rarely if ever spoke about politics. Instead, I was curious about his stories of growing up in Stamford in the 1950s as an Orthodox Jew and the challenges he faced with being observant in the political world. He was immensely proud of his daughter Hani, who studied in Israel at Nishmat and who is now living in Israel.
The story of how he became a United States Senator is a fascinating one. Lieberman graduated from Yale Law School in 1967 and was interested in pursuing a political career. For ten years he served in the Connecticut Senate, and for six years after that he served as Connecticut’s Attorney General, emphasizing consumer protection and environmental enforcement. He was wildly popular among Connecticut voters.
In 1988, Lowell Weicker – a very popular liberal Republican who became famous after the Watergate hearings – was running once again for the Senate seat, and the Democrats had to decide who they were going to have run against him. It was pretty much a given that Weicker was going to beat any challenger. The Democratic party convinced Lieberman to run against him, promising him that they would push him as a candidate for Governor when the time was right.
Lieberman received the endorsement of William F. Buckley, who he had met while he was at Yale, and was backed by a coalition of unaffiliated voters, Democrats, and conservative Republicans who did not like Weicker’s often liberal positions. Still, Weicker was expected to win the election handily.
However, the Lieberman campaign came up with a brilliant strategy. Weicker was notorious for skipping votes in the Senate. He often did not show up to cast a ballot when he felt that his vote did not matter – which added up to a very poor voting attendance record in the Senate. Lieberman was able to capitalize on this in a series of television commercials, in which he depicted Weicker as a bear who was hibernating and shirking his responsibility to his constituents. (Weicker was a burly man, so the bear image was not only appropriate for his voting record but for his physical appearance as well.) Lieberman also criticized Weicker for accepting private speaking fees while a member of the Senate.
Lieberman defeated Weicker by a slim margin of 10,000 votes, scoring the nation’s biggest political upset that year. He went on to serve as a Senator from Connecticut for the next 24 years. Lieberman was the first candidate to play up an opponent’s voting percentage and make private speaking fees an issue; since then, many senators have improved their voting attendance substantially and ceased accepting private speaking fees while serving in the Senate.
To Senator Lieberman … thank you for your friendship over the years, your support of Israel, and for always standing up for what you believe is right.