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Road to the White House: '80 defeat put Lieberman on winning path

Sunday, December 21, 2003

By Dennis B. Roddy, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Joe Lieberman's middle passage began on a November night 23 years ago. He lost a congressional election everybody thought was his.

Larry DeNardis, his Republican rival, climbed over Lieberman's 19-point lead by branding him a tax-and-spend liberal.

Ron Edmonds, Associated Press/font>

Joseph I. Lieberman

Childhood: born and raised in Stamford, Conn., son of a liquor store owner.

Political experience: Connecticut state senator, 1970-1980; unsuccessful Democratic candidate for U.S. House, 1980; Connecticut attorney general 1983-1988; U.S. Senator, 1988-present.

Education: Bachelor's degree, Yale University; J.D., Yale Law School.

Marital status: married to Hadassah Freilich Lieberman, 1983.

Children: Matthew, Rebecca, Ethan, and Hana.

Money raised: $11,779,353 (Sept. 30 report).

Rank in fund raising: 5th of 9 Democrats.

Signature issues: strong national defense, free trade, and freemarket solution toward national health care. Supports Iraq war.

Quote: "Defeat is a great teacher. It may be an orphan but it's also a great teacher"


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Even DeNardis knew it wasn't true, but the two men were so similar he had to draw some kind of distinction.

"He represented an urban district and he took on the coloration of that district," said DeNardis, who is now president of the University of New Haven. "I was always slightly amused that he was seen in the suburbs as an urban liberal. I think he has always been, at heart, a centrist."

"Defeat is a great teacher. It may be an orphan, but it's also a great teacher," Lieberman said.

He was learning a lot.

Lieberman had left the Connecticut State Senate to run for Congress, and his first marriage was dissolving. The year Ronald Reagan was taking the country on a two-decade veer to the right, Joseph I. Lieberman was hit by the crossfire aimed at liberalism, and he was certain the only political category he fit was innocent bystander.

Barbara Kennelly, whose father, John M. Bailey, had taught Lieberman practical politics, contemplated the returns.

"I think he was surprised, no doubt about it," said Kennelly, now head of a Social Security advocacy group. "But he wasn't stunned, because he almost immediately began his move toward attorney general."

Lieberman simply got up and started running again, this time for the low-profile job of top prosecutor. Lieberman turned it into a bully pulpit, attacking consumer fraud, seizing high-profile cases and dishing out legal opinions on just about everything.

Lieberman also moved more deeply into the Orthodox Judaism in which he had been raised. He met and then married Hadassah Freilich Tucker, the daughter of a rabbi and, like Lieberman, recently divorced. In 1988, he ran for the U.S. Senate against a presumably unbeatable 20-year incumbent, Lowell Weicker. Lieberman's acceptance speech at the state nominating convention would come via videotape because it was scheduled on a Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath.

In a most intriguing political convergence, the move toward religious conservatism, with its public acknowledgment of pieties that make many on the left uncomfortable, reconnected Lieberman with a longstanding Democratic constituency that had abandoned the party in 1980 as it tipped leftward.

Joseph Isadore Lieberman became the darling of the Democratic social conservatives.

JFK opened doors
Lieberman started life in Stamford, a bedroom community for people priced out of New York City's rental market. The town is tied to the rest of the state by the Merritt Parkway, a white-knuckle autobahn constructed in the late 1930s.

The Liebermans were new Americans. Joseph's grandparents had emigrated from Europe. The family lived at first in a cold-water flat, then bought a house. Joe was born in 1942, and lived a fairly typical 1950s childhood.

"I think I was more Richie Cunningham than the Fonz. You get the picture," he said.

The Liebermans were observant Jews, but in a multi-ethnic city of 100,000 in the orbit of New York, he remembers classmates as "very diverse and tolerant and relaxed."

Lieberman's father ran a liquor store. Joe was admitted to Yale where he surprised classmates by turning down an invitation to join Skull and Bones, the cultishly secretive club that has been the fraternity of the nation's power elite, ranging from Averill Harriman to both presidents Bush.

Instead, Lieberman focused his ambitions on the Yale Daily News, the school newspaper. He became its president. He also became a favorite of Yale President Kingman Brewster. And in a foreshadowing of a public speech bitterly excoriating his old Yale friend Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Lieberman published an editorial bitterly criticizing Brewster for canceling a Yale speech by Alabama segregationist George Wallace. Lieberman thought the cancellation betrayed the principle of free speech.

Two things happened in Lieberman's Yale years that would shape his world view. The first was the election of John F. Kennedy, a New England Catholic who, much like Lieberman years later, was a religious outsider whose public persona was often more liberal than reality.

As a Jew, Lieberman sensed a door opening, one he decided had swung off its hinges 40 years later when, as the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, he saw a woman at a Latino rally hoisting a sign that read, "Viva Chutzpah!"

"That was exactly what I'd felt as a result of Kennedy's election," Lieberman said. "No question, I had a sense in myself that if Kennedy got elected, doors would open somehow, somewhere for me as a Jewish American."

Lieberman felt a bond with Kennedy whom he saw as a progressive in the sense of a new order sweeping away the cobwebs of the old politics. But it was in the old politics that Lieberman developed his approach to making the political changes Kennedy inspired.

In his senior year, Lieberman was named "house scholar," an honor that allowed him to forgo classes and do a major research project.

He set out to study John M. Bailey, the undisputed Democratic boss of Connecticut.

Weeks before he was chosen as Al Gore's running mate in the 2000 presidential election, Lieberman released a book defending politics as the way people govern in a democracy. The book, "In Praise of Public Service," offered a brief autobiography, but it is on page 119 that the hand of Bailey seems to reach out from the grave and channel practical politics of a half century ago.

"When it comes to votes in the Senate, I first consider the merits of the issue," Lieberman writes. "If I have a strong opinion about the issue, I am going to vote that way regardless of the preferences of any interest group or even of the general public ... If I do not have a strong opinion one way or the other on a particular issue -- if I don't see a clear right and wrong way to go -- then I'll probably go ahead and try to help out a group that has supported me ... If I conclude that a majority of my constituents have a strong opinion on an issue, and I do not, then I will vote my constituents' opinion regardless of what the special interests want."

The bloodless calculation of those words can seem jarring, even to its author.

"It's funny to hear that read back to me. I did something for the young readers -- to try to describe, probably with more neatness than is the reality, how a legislator makes decisions," he said.

But, save for the importance Lieberman places on ideology, the reasoning is vintage Bailey. Lieberman got to know Bailey as he wrote his first book, "The Power Broker." Bailey had no ideology, only membership in the Democratic party of Connecticut.

Bailey was a friend and contemporary of Pittsburgh boss David L. Lawrence. What caught Lieberman's eye was the way that Bailey employed old-style ward politics, balancing slates with various nationalities and selecting candidates not on ideology but on the basis of who could win. Bailey fought against the primary election system and kept it out of Connecticut well after other states had handed nominations to their voters. He also kept his machine almost entirely out of legal trouble. He was a ward heeler with clean heels.

"There's no question that Bailey taught me a lot about politics," Lieberman said. "I was fascinated by Bailey. He was part of what drew me to politics in a very different way."

Crossing political divides
As state Senate leader and attorney general, Lieberman's relationship with Jimmy O'Connell, a New Haven police lieutenant who worked primarily as Lieberman's driver and unofficial adviser, became the window through which a man once dismissed as an urban liberal reached across the divide into the camp of the Reagan Democrats.

O'Connell became Lieberman's driver and bodyguard, and stayed on as a self-described "special plenipotentiary" as Lieberman moved into the Senate and national politics. He was, in many ways, a member of the family, even walking Joe and Hadassah to and from their home to a Yale reunion held on a Friday night, well after the onset of the Sabbath.

"Jimmy would instruct Joe on Catholic organizational politics or structure," said Jose Cabranes, a U.S. Circuit Court judge and longtime friend of Lieberman. "Jimmy always, without question, helped introduce or identified who among Catholic clergy and hierarchy Lieberman should know."

That connection, coupled with Lieberman's increasing conservatism on all social issues save one -- abortion -- has kept him in good standing with both ethnic Catholics and their hierarchy.

One example was the state's blue laws. In the late 1970s, Connecticut still had laws on the books restricting business openings on Sundays. As reformers demanded their abolition, Lieberman reached across the political aisle to his Republican counterpart, DeNardis. They teamed up to oppose any repeal.

"We were among the last holdout for some version of a family day of rest and relaxation, free from the attractions of the retailers," DeNardis said. "I think it was Joe's standing up for that that endeared him to the Catholic hierarchy."

On another issue, abortion, Lieberman has endured less criticism for his pro-choice position from the bishops than has his Senate colleague, Christopher Dodd, a Catholic.

Lieberman has consistently trailed in the polls for the Jan. 27 New Hampshire primary behind front-runner Howard B. Dean, the former governor of Vermont whose independence and demeanor sometimes evoke memories of Lowell Weicker, the man Lieberman climbed over to reach the Senate.

Lieberman has all but foregone the Iowa caucuses, but a couple months ago, he opened a new front in Oklahoma -- a state where a conservative Democrat might yet have a chance within his own party.

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, has made no choice in the primaries, primarily because Pennsylvania's comes so late, an endorsement would be of doubtful value.

But he clearly approves of Lieberman."Of all our candidates, he would be the person most qualified to be president," Rendell said.

What Lieberman, and his closest allies, admit he needs is the right audience. Al From, director of the Democratic Leadership Council, the centrist Democratic group in which Lieberman has been a leader, says the second round of primaries in February will decide.

"I think Feb. 3 will be a key day for Lieberman," From said. "I think he has got to have the ability to survive through the first two contests and then I think he can get traction."

Dennis Roddy can be reached at or 412-263-1965.

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